When Chesa Boudin campaigned for San Francisco District Attorney in 2019, the story he told was one of experience: He grew up visiting his imprisoned parents – convicted former Weather Underground members. for their roles in a Brink’s truck robbery that turned fatal – and had worked as a court-appointed attorney in San Francisco. He had studied the criminal justice system all his life. The problem was that he had the face of an innocent: a slightly stilted voice, pale skin, a dreamy first-year-abroad affect. Once in office, he spoke to surf reporters. But her election campaign took place during a Joan of Arc phase of American progressivism, when it looked like the kids — Greta Thunberg, David Hogg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — could save us all. Maybe that leftist Rhodes Scholar was the man who pushed back against the prison state.
Last summer, I traveled to San Francisco to interview Boudin and write about his project. Public safety in the city was caught in a paradox. Having taken office just before the pandemic, Boudin had implemented immediate progressive reforms: liberalizing bail, charging a police officer with murder for the first time in city history, enacting diversion programs to reduce the prison population and emptying prisons during the pandemic as a public health measure. The scenario that might have worried Boudin’s allies — a spike in violence, which can doom even the toughest prosecutors — has not happened. There has not been an outsized increase in murders. But even a few months after Boudin took office, it became apparent that San Francisco was experiencing an epidemic of disorder. Burglaries and motor vehicle thefts have increased, although levels of theft have fallen. Homeless people were everywhere, camped out or not. Drug addicts were overdosing almost daily on the streets of the city’s Tenderloin district. There was – it was hard to ignore – a huge amount of human shit everywhere. The paradox was that, in many ways, the city was still as safe as it had been. But it was also getting a lot more chaotic and a bit crude.
Here is what I remember from my conversations with Boudin: explain, explain, explain. A natural student, Boudin had accumulated an admirable amount of knowledge about crime in San Francisco, its details and its cadences. People had started breaking into businesses and homes, he said, after they could no longer break into passenger cars at the water’s edge because the pandemic had killed the tourism. Some viral videos of young people emerging from department stores with armfuls of stolen goods were not scenes of chaos but actually organization, he said; heist rings with foreign ties organized the raids and gave instructions on what to steal. To support these assertions, the prosecutor had maps, statistics, indictments, receipts. Even so, it seemed the news continued to urge him to do an ordinary political thing – evolve, in order to address voter concerns – and he continued to refuse. Six months ago, San Francisco’s more centrist Mayor London Breed announced she was deploying more cops to deal with drugs in the Tenderloin. Boudin said at a press conference, “We cannot arrest and sue to solve the problems plaguing the Tenderloin.” Fair enough. But if not, what? Was Boudin’s academic approach – seeing crime as a product of structural contingency, rather than villains acting malevolently – wrong?
On Tuesday, Boudin faced a recall from voters in San Francisco. That morning, Vladimir Kogan, a political scientist at Ohio State University, argued on Twitter that some of the favorite interventions of progressive prosecutors (bail reform, reclassifying more felonies as misdemeanors) have been studied primarily as pilot programs, and that their effects when implemented at scale may not be so clear. (“If people saw offenders getting away with a slap on the wrist, would that really have a deterrent effect?” he tweeted.) The real lesson from San Francisco is perhaps narrower: given that enthusiasm for progressive policies has yet to be proven, and that public resistance to them is reflexive and rigid, it will take a savvy enough politician to successfully implement them. Notably, the nation’s most prominent progressive prosecutor, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner – a somewhat grumpy longtime public defender now in his 60s – won re-election last year, despite a rise in homicides in that city. When I visited Boudin’s office in 2021, video had just surfaced of a group of ten thieves exiting the city’s Neiman Marcus department store dragging huge purses. Boudin’s staff were asked to come up with an answer to reassure the audience, but I sensed a low-voiced disbelief among them. It was like asking Allen Iverson to practice. Incarceration rates and murders were down. We are talking about hand bags?
San Francisco was talking about handbags. He was talking about car windows, cell phones and everything that seemed so attractive to thieves. He was talking about needles and fecal swabs. Soon, those complaints turned into a recall campaign that on Tuesday removed Boudin from the district attorney position, with about sixty percent of the vote. A year ago, I met an agent from a recall campaign. He told me he sets up a table every weekend at a farmers’ market in the Richmond District of San Francisco to collect signatures for a paper petition under a sign that reads “Recall Chesa Boudin.” The people who came to him, he said, didn’t need convincing: “They say, ‘Give me that goddamn pen.’ ”
The politics of crime is not just about justice. They are also about cities and whether middle class people feel safe, comfortable and able to thrive. All the way, Boudin argued that the recall campaign asked voters to blame him for things he couldn’t really control as district attorney: homelessness, drug addiction, state of the city. He blamed the billionaires who helped fund the recall effort, telling his supporters, “Voters were not asked to choose between criminal justice reform and something else. They had the opportunity to express their frustration and outrage, and they took that opportunity. Maybe so, but this is the new pattern of urban politics – we are no longer in the time of Joan of Arc – and the liberal politicians who run the cities must react. The same night Boudin was recalled, a conservative real estate developer took the lead on the first ballot for mayor of Los Angeles; last fall, Gracie Mansion went to Eric Adams, a longtime cop whose campaign message focused on stopping crime.
Most American cities are among the wealthiest places in the wealthiest country in the world, yet there is too much trash and not enough housing, public transportation is a mess, stores and garages are broken into, and public schools, during the pandemic, were often closed. The message from Democratic voters to the politicians running these cities is quite simple and political: these places need to be fixed. Boudin began his tenure as the protagonist of a story about the criminal justice system. He ended it as a character in a story about cities. ♦