It’s only appropriate for a decade defined by the steady mainstreaming of internet memes to end with one so powerful it may have changed a presidential campaign. In the last couple of years, the political rise of Kamala Harris, from California Senator to presidential hopeful, has been met with a terse but effective meme: “Kamala Is a Cop.” Rooted in Kamala Harris’s tenure as San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General, the refrain started as a disdainful sneer from those disillusioned with her one-time “tough on crime” stance, blossoming into a full-blown meme that leftists, opportunistic right-wingers, Black Twitter, and bots wielded with gusto to represent everything and anything that was wrong with Harris’s desire for more political power. Now that Harris has announced that she’s ending her presidential campaign, the meme’s impact is worth a deeper examination.
“Kamala Is a Cop” has no set format or singular image: It’s a philosophy translated into meme form. There are photoshopped images of Harris wearing police gear and arresting black children. People manifested the meme in joking tweets about Harris arresting them for minor infractions, like wearing white after Labor Day. A brief clip of Harris waving at undocumented children in a detention center was stripped of context and turned into miscellaneous meme fodder, spurring another opportunity to play at her carceral wrath.
The refrain was particularly evocative as Harris struggled to lure black voters away from Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, despite being one of the few black candidates running in the primary. Last week, the New York Times spoke with a number of the black voters who weren’t backing black candidates Harris or Cory Booker for president—including a 20-year-old black woman, who had just attended a “Black Woman’s Breakfast” featuring Senator Harris. The woman expressed skepticism toward Harris’s campaign, citing a mortification that grew, in part, from memes (emphasis ours):
Ms. Hester made a sheepish admission: Ms. Harris was not her preferred choice. There were policy reasons — Ms. Harris has not rolled out a proposal on student debt cancellation, which is Ms. Hester’s top issue. But there was also something else. Even at the historically black all-women’s college that Ms. Hester attends, supporting Ms. Harris was a particularly uncool thing to do.
“It’s hard, you know. On social media, there’s a different meme about her every day,” Ms. Hester said. “A lot of young people don’t support her.”
Shockingly, it’s a faux pas to support the candidate your classmates sneeringly refer to as a cop! How, I wondered, how does Harris feel about reaching pariah status within online circles of young, politically astute black women?
I contacted the Harris campaign last week to find out: What does Harris think of the “Kamala Is a Cop” meme, and is she worried that it has stifled youth support? The response I received was somewhat brusque: A link to a Blavity round table with Harris, in which she briefly acknowledged the memes after a long defense of her record, and a quote from the aforementioned Black Women’s Breakfast, in which Harris said that she’s “fully aware” of the cop memes and that they break her heart. “Are we saying that we don’t want the people making these decisions to be someone who goes to the same church, has children in the same community?” she added. “No. We need to be everywhere.”
The next day, I received another email from the Harris camp suggesting my article about the “Kamala Is a Cop” memes “include evidence of disinformation online.” This was accompanied by a list of six articles that the Harris camp believed I would find helpful.
Five of the links focused primarily on Harris as the victim of online attacks about her race and ethnicity. It’s true: There are those representing the ADOS (African Descendents of Slaves) movement have expressed skepticism towards Harris’s dedication to black Americans, given her lack of American slave ancestry, and they’ve gone to great lengths to deny Harris’s blackness, as a biracial woman. (Harris’s father is Jamaican; her mother is Indian.) Right-wing trolls from Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere have been more than happy to latch on to this birther-lite, race-math bullshit, and proliferate the conspiracies.
But only one link focused on the meme, even indirectly: A Vox article explored a social media frenzy following the senator’s onstage clash with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard during the second Democratic Debate. At the debate, Gabbard tore into Harris’s record, accusing her of putting 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, blocking evidence that would have freed a man on death row, keeping incarcerated people in the employ of the state of California to perform cheap labor, and fighting to preserve a predatory bail system.
Gabbard’s wording was somewhat sloppy and sourcing dubious—those marijuana arrests numbers, which were incorrect, came from the conservative site Free Beacon—she wasn’t entirely off. During Harris’s tenure as attorney general, 1,883 people went to state prison for marijuana possession; Harris did, in fact, deny Kevin Cooper’s death row request for advanced DNA testing. Incarcerated people eligible for parole were used to fight California wildfires and as San Francisco DA, Harris fought to increase cash bail.
Drudging up Harris’s punitive history was effective: following the confrontation, the hashtag #KamalaHarrisDestroyed spread and Gabbard became Google’s top search overnight. Some pundits questioned whether the effect came from bots, and Gabbard’s relative leniency toward Russia certainly didn’t quell the conspiracy nuts. Twitter denied an uptick in bot activity, but given Twitter’s response to, well, anything, it’s reasonable to take that with a grain of salt.
Still, no evidence suggests bot-driven disinformation campaigns initially latched onto Harris’s prosecutorial record, and that’s what the “Kamala Is a Cop” meme is all about. If bots are attempting to spread outright lies about California’s former self-proclaimed “Top Cop” to turn young voters off, they’re not doing a very good job: Skeptical law professors, weary activists, and journalists have shared plenty of accurate information about Harris’s record that would make any 20-something social justice advocate skeptical of Harris as a candidate, despite her modest attempts at reform. The meme merely took publicly accessible information and translated it into an easily disseminated catchphrase. “You voting for Kamala? No way, she’s a cop.” For a generation that came of digital age watching movements grow in real-time around police accountability, that’s enough to leave them wondering who their other options are.
Regardless of its origin, the popularity of the meme speaks to a cynicism that some young voters have regarding Senator Harris’s record: Someone who talks about reforming unjust systems but is reluctant to acknowledge their own complicity to those systems. I asked the campaign if Harris had a plan to gain trust from young voters, like the Spelman student quoted in the New York Times, who are susceptible to the messaging behind those memes.
This was the response:
The memes and most importantly, their origin, at best are a manipulation of facts and at worst lies and designed to disuade voters or likely voter and stoke hate and skepticism based on race. If Tulsi Gabbards debate moment was any indication the claims she threw at my boss and her record were straight from those memes and immediately following were proven false. So to cover the memes, their popularity without consideration of their origin, validity or whether their based in truth misses what I think is the better story. Especially after 2016.
In this, the Harris camp conflated several things at once. Memes, by their very nature, are prone to facetiousness. And while variations of the “Kamala Is a Cop” meme are no exception, the heart of the meme is the same: Harris has a troubling record on criminal justice reform, which plays awkwardly against her campaign’s insistence on avoiding the grittier discussions of her work history.
Is a photo of Kamala Harris happily greeting a sea of young black school children with the pithy caption, “Kamala Harris getting ready to fill up another prison” necessarily “based in truth”? Well, that depends on who you ask. Ask the black mothers of the Bay Area who were disproportionately threatened by Harris’s anti-truancy proposals. Ask the disproportionately black and brown families of those punished under California’s draconian three-strikes law (as California Attorney General, Harris did not support a ballot initiative to reform it). Maybe, just maybe, the campaign could understand what that meme is getting at, even if Senator Harris has never and would never personally lock up a black child.
There’s good in Harris’s record. As attorney general, she tackled a backlog of rape kits, instituted implicit-bias training for police officers, and Harris’s uncanny ability to make Trump appointees squirm during confirmation hearings is pull-up-a-seat-with-popcorn worthy. But this doesn’t negate the less savory elements of Harris’s past, one that she was frustratingly unwilling to critique throughout her presidential run. And it’s that past, and the facts attached to it, that has helped the “Kamala Is a Cop” meme thrive.
Unfortunately, the campaign won’t get another chance to back away from the hypothetical Russian agents and reckon with the genuine critique underlying the meme, since Harris announced she was suspending her campaign as I was reporting this story. Ultimately, the Harris camp’s avoidance of young Democrats retweeting “Kamala Is a Cop” memes is indicative of larger issues within her campaign. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Harris’s team imploded. The New York Times reported that Harris’s state operations director, Kelly Mehlenbacher, resigned, citing dysfunction, layoffs, and no “real plan to win” Iowa. The Harris campaign has been in dire straits for months, due to messy messaging, inconsistent campaign locations, and poor management. But the Times also revealed another element of the discord: Harris’s advisers, “point to that [Gabbard] debate moment as accelerating Ms. Harris’s decline.”
But Gabbard simply poked the elephant in the room—the one narrative that’s taken hold online, spanning both the left and right. It was time for Harris to own up to her history with the criminal justice system, to acknowledge her missteps, to plot a future forward, and she fumbled. If this moment was the beginning of the end, it was set up years earlier, when some frustrated leftist somewhere thought of a quick way to summarize their discontent with a rising star in the Democratic party: “Kamala Is a Cop.”