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Capitol attack fuels concern over safety of Kamala Harris

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks at a January 8 news conference in Wilmington, Delaware. Picture: Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks at a January 8 news conference in Wilmington, Delaware. Picture: Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post

Published Jan 14, 2021


By Chelsea Janes

Washington - Fourteen days after a horde of rioters wielding Confederate flags bullied their way up the steps of the Capitol calling for a lynching, a Black woman will stand atop those same steps to be sworn in as vice president.

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For those who have watched Kamala Harris rise, fear will mix with celebration at Wednesday's outdoor ceremony.

"I am very afraid for her," said Lateefah Simon, a prominent civil rights and criminal justice reform advocate whom Harris has mentored since Simon worked for the then-San Francisco district attorney in the mid-2000s.

For Simon, it has conjured the weeks after Barack Obama won the presidency, when her aunts and uncles would worry aloud: "They're going to kill him."

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"I'm petrified," said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who was in the Capitol during last week's siege and is a longtime supporter of Harris.

"Her big day, the big day for the nation, a crowning moment for America as she breaks through thousands of glass ceilings, glass should be on every street throughout this nation," Wilson said. "And that's going to be shrouded by fear of a White mob of insurgents who are racist and hate-filled. That's the sad part about all this."

The glass Wilson suggested was a metaphor, a symbol of barriers broken. But what she and others fear now is something more literal.

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On January 6, hordes who had attended a pro-Trump rally near the White House marched to the Capitol, pushed aside barriers, then broke through windows and doors to make their way inside the building, where lawmakers had gathered to affirm Joe Biden's electoral college win. A Capitol Police officer shot and killed one woman, and authorities said three others in the crowd died of medical emergencies. A Capitol Police officer died of injuries suffered in the melee.

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The Justice Department said Tuesday that it has created a sedition and conspiracy task force to investigate the incident, and that more than 70 people had been charged so far. As the number of arrests continued to grow, House Democrats were briefed on threats to next week's inauguration as varied as planned protests and executions.

White supremacists are among Trump's most animated backers, and they emerged as a more vocal and visible presence after the president railed against Black Lives Matter protests this summer. That Harris is not only Black, but also a woman and a daughter of immigrants, combine to make her a unique focus of racist and misogynistic animus - a symbol of a changing America that white supremacists loath to see.

"It reminds me of the saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same," the Rev. Al Sharpton said. "I feel that she is doing it at the risk of her own life, to put her hand on the Bible and become the first Black woman and first woman to be vice president of the United States. I feel a mixture of joy and fear - which have been the two strands of thought that Black Americans have had to pass since we've been brought here."

The day of the mob attack on the Capitol, Harris had received an intelligence briefing in the morning and had not returned to the Senate before rioters broke in. She was kept away from the Capitol until the facility was secured.

At the time, aides would say only that Harris was "safe," a reflection of their reluctance to discuss security issues in a volatile environment.

"We still have to face the danger or the real danger of what breaking through may mean," Sharpton said, "because you never become one that is outside of the claws of those that want to kill you."

Aides to Harris declined to comment further.

If fears among Harris's friends and supporters have risen since the Capitol attack, concerns about her safety predate the inauguration period. Harris has never acknowledged those concerns publicly, but she and her staff have had to plan for them behind closed doors.

During much of her presidential campaign, private security was hired, and armed members of that team would accompany Harris to airport gates and elsewhere. The campaign maintained a full security presence in her Baltimore headquarters because of a number of threats her team deemed credible, according to a person who worked there, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security issues. Many of her fellow candidates travelled with far less visible protection - or the seeming need for it.

Once, during a long-planned bus trip through Iowa in August 2019, Harris was scheduled to hold an outdoor event in a town square where protesters were circling in trucks bearing Confederate flags, waiting for her arrival. When asked to leave, they refused. Instead they promised to come back armed, according to two former campaign aides, who were not sanctioned to speak publicly. Harris's staff quietly moved the event inside.

Harris's husband, Doug Emhoff, spent countless campaign events scanning crowded rooms for danger, a habit that continued even after the campaign hired full-time security.

Emhoff leaped onstage at a 2019 forum in Oakland when a protester interrupted Harris and took the microphone out of her hands. The forum's moderator, Karine Jean-Pierre, who will be a deputy White House press secretary, put herself between the protester and Harris, who walked safely offstage.

Later that summer, in August, Harris attended St. Joseph AME church in Durham, N.C. The night before, the Ku Klux Klan had rallied just a dozen miles away in Hillsborough, something a few parishioners mentioned quietly but no one in Harris's circle raised as a public concern. When Harris left the church for her car, aides huddled around her in a tight circle, the candidate hidden.

Jean-Pierre said the Biden transition team member understood what choosing a woman - and particularly a woman of colour - would mean, in part because they saw the vitriol that followed Hillary Clinton in 2016.

"We knew we potentially needed not necessarily to protect her, but just to be ready," Jean-Pierre said. "We tried to do everything we could as a campaign to make sure whoever Biden chose had a fortress of support."

Jean-Pierre, who travelled with the vice president-elect in the run-up to Election Day, added that she never sensed any concern in Harris herself.

Sharpton, who in the early 1970s worked for Shirley Chisholm, the first Black major-party candidate for president, believes what Harris and others face now is different.

"The thing that makes it more frightening is that even when Shirley Chisholm faced it, we never had the president of the United States to be the cheerleader and the keynote speaker for what is going on in all of these people," Sharpton said, referring to radicalized supporters of President Donald Trump.

"It gives them the feeling that they have the imprimatur from the head of state to do openly what they want to do. Even in the height of whatever we have fought in the last half-century, we never thought the head of state would lead the charge against us."

Harris's family, outspoken about many things on social media, has not made a public issue of her safety. Her sister and former campaign manager, Maya Harris, brother-in-law and former deputy attorney general Tony West and niece Meena Harris have all expressed their desire to see Trump and others be held accountable for the violence at the Capitol, but not concerns about what is to come. But friends and allies worry all the same.

"The trauma of racialized terror is so close to Black people in this country," said Simon, the civil rights advocate. "I believe Kamala will be absolutely protected. But as a Black woman, I fear for her heart. Even though she's tough as nails, she's now facing the racism and misogyny that's no longer closeted. All the things she carries, I hope and know she will stay centered and remember how much she means to us as these messages of hate and misogyny continue to broil."

Donna Brazile, who became the first Black woman to run a major presidential campaign when she managed Al Gore's bid in 2000, bemoaned the notion that fear and vitriol would be allowed to overshadow Harris's achievement, too. She also was adamant that the escalating threat of violence may not be going away but that it is not Harris's to fix.

"This is not on Kamala or Joe to solve or resolve. It's not on the Democrats to solve or resolve," Brazile said. "It's going to be a challenge that not only the vice president-elect, the president-elect, but also members of Congress, every elected official, every aspect of our society will have to help tackle what we are seeing now, which is a level of intolerance that we've never experienced before."

Even though some of that intolerance was seen in rioters' calls for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence and the murder of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Wilson, the Florida congresswoman, worries that the animating force behind insurrectionists is still, in large part, racism.

"Make America Great Again really means Make America White Again," Wilson said. "For this nation to have elected a Black woman the vice president of the United States, that's what's shrouded in this whole scenario. That has a lot to do with this anger. I believe it."

In an interview with Univision that aired Tuesday night, in response to a question about her mother, Harris did not air any concerns as she shared her vision of what she will experience on the steps of the Capitol on Inauguration Day.

"It'll be a very special day," Harris said. "I will have my hand on the Bible, thinking of my mother as I take the oath to be vice president of the United States."