Another Step Backward: The Chesa Boudin Recall
After a Sunday morning spent in a cold rain with supporters of YES ON H, the petition to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, I head to UN Plaza. It's now 70 degrees under clear skies (because San Francisco). The sunlight is not kind to the habitués, including a man in a full-on nod on the corner of Market and 8th, a man whose pants may be slumped around his knees but whose instinct for self-preservation is such that he jolts upright each time the light changes and in two minutes, maybe three, has made it across Market without getting hit by a streetcar.
""San Francisco is a wild city right now," local reporter Erica Sandberg had messaged me the week before.
I'd not seen much of this wildness since touching down four days earlier. The area where I was staying, a few blocks from the Painted Ladies, seemed in full bloom, the city prettier than I'd ever seen it.
"That's because during the pandemic, when people couldn't go out other places, they took care of the parks," said a friend, as we walked through Alamo Square, smash-packed on a Saturday with kids and picnickers and tables holding voting materials, and while there were eight local measures on the ballot, the only one I'd seen evidence of urged voters to keep Boudin, including on the door-hangers distributed by a guy on a skateboard. When I asked if he were pro-Boudin, he shrugged.
"They just pay really well," he said, “well” as in $30 an hour, according to one source.
Boudin supporters claim the opposition is backed by Republican donors (which, fair, but with less than 7% of the city’s voters registered Republican, one wonders how much influence that money buys). Also, that Boudin faces "a massively funded propaganda campaign," as someone tweeted at me, when I suggested the anti-Boudin lobby wanted to know what he's done to make life better for the average San Franciscan.
This was one of the questions I'd wanted to ask Boudin himself last Friday, at a “Stand with Boudin” event, but the DA seemed not amenable, telling me, "It's not the time" before passing me along to a comms person, who also put me off for another time.
Which, fine. It's their party. But it also played into what I'd heard from those campaigning to oust Boudin, that he speaks only to outlets he knows to be allies; that he has others debate for him; that despite having marquee names on his side, including the city's major newspapers, Democratic players, and (because San Francisco) a well-known radical or two ("What a world," a friend texted, "when a woman involved in the murder of a judge is publicly advocating for a sitting DA"), Boudin was down in the polls and would not take a chance on bad press.
I am neither a San Francisco voter nor, contrary to what Boudin may have assumed, do I take issue with the his stated objective, that citizens "do not have to choose between ending mass incarceration and protecting public safety. We can do both." A laudable goal and, depending on which end of the tube you're looking through, one that's being achieved: With the exception of theft, crime in San Francisco has for the most part remained static.
I can understand, after the seemingly endless years of political squabbling under Trump, and the protests/riots of 2020, and the culture war issues that jump daily to any available lily pad, why outlets across the country have focused on whether this progressive DA is on his way out. And yet these issues do not explain why the city is so "wild" right now. They do not explain why four of five friends who've lived here for decades this year packed it in. Yes, parts of San Francisco are dirty, and yes, when you take your kid to the park you might find a dude sleeping under the climbing gym. But the idea that the policies Boudin has put in place were somehow responsible for the perceived degradation of the city -- which was not in evidence in most parts of the city — did not quite make sense to me. Hadn't Market Street always been skanky?
But then I meet Sandberg at UN Plaza, in the full sunshine of a Sunday afternoon, and start to understand, to recognize the city has at least one worm eating it from the inside, one that Boudin is intentionally or unintentionally feeding, one that has the capacity to do immense damage and, in this part of San Francisco, already has.
“You’re not allowed to look in there,” says a security guy, when I peep through a hole in the matting surrounding Tenderloin Center, which opened in January with the intention of providing medical care and mental health services to the homeless and indigent.
“Of course you’re allowed to look,” says Sandberg, as she and I sit on a ledge facing UN Plaza. Immediately a kid tries to sell us a pair of sunglasses, almost everyone who is ambulatory is selling things in very small quantities: three energy bars, two boxes of Transformer-like toys, canned corn.
"You want scented lotion?" a girl on a scooter asks, as forty feet beyond her, I watch a guy stick a needle in a young woman's haunch. A moment later, she returns the favor.
Sandberg, a journalist who writes about personal finance, has no sooner told me she's "really focused a lot lately on my city, which has fallen into complete chaos and disarray" before another guard tells us to move along; he does not want us sitting here, does not want us loitering, does not apparently want us to be part of a tableaux that includes a man naked from the waist down, three people crashed out on the sidewalk, and several dozen other people dealing and buying what Sandberg assumes is fentanyl.
"We'll only be ten minutes," she tells the guard, pointing to my recording device.
"Ten minutes," he says.
"Anyway," says Sandberg.
The Tenderloin Center was created in response to San Francisco registering 1792 accidental overdose deaths from 2019-2021. In December, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin District.
"She said, 'What we need to do is to have a place where people can go and access services right away,'" says Sandberg, of Breed's decision to open the Tenderloin Center this past January. "It was a great concept. People would come in and they would be able to access housing, mental health care, recovery services. As soon as they went in, they would do kind of a one, two, three quick assessment and then get them the help they need. It was a brilliant concept. Most of us in San Francisco were thrilled, were like, "Yay! This could actually happen.'"
It didn’t happen. The center immediately devolved, or more exactly, seemed to Sandberg set up to devolve. Touring the center (originally called Linkage Center) on launch day, Sandberg was told, "the center has a drug-consumption site. Anyone could come in and use any substance they want, including methamphetamine, crack, heroin, or fentanyl."
"This grand idea, this grand purpose, very, very quickly turned into, ‘You know what? While you're here, if you want to light up, or if you want to inject or you want to do whatever, you can and it's a safe place for you," says Sandberg. "That word got out. Now [the center] has a couple of different nicknames: Fenty Lounge, Smoke Lounge, Dope Hall.”
"You can't put a safe consumption site in San Francisco, in UN Plaza, in the heart of the city, where there are thirty drug dealers across the street selling fentanyl. It just doesn't work. It will never work," Tom Wolf, a recovery advocate and former addict had told me that morning. "And quite frankly, what San Francisco's doing is not a safe consumption site at the Tenderloin Center. For lack of a better term, it's an opium den, where people can sit in Adirondack chairs and shoot dope all day. They're monitored by a nonprofit worker that was given ten minutes of training on how to administer Narcan."
As for whether addicts are availing themselves of services at Tenderloin Center, Wolf said, they are not.
"Forty thousand people have gone to that Tenderloin Center in the last month, and they linked less than half a percent of those people to treatment," he said. "I don't know what kind of weird experiment San Francisco is doing right now, but I promise you that that's not helping anybody find recovery."
Instead of fostering wellness, the center seems to be metastasizing the problem, the addiction spilling into the streets. I am going to do my best to not put too fine a point on this, to not illustrate what is happening within a few feet of Sandberg and me in a way that makes you think I am trying to win you to one side or another, but if you will, here is the scene: A young man stands in front of us babbling for ten minutes, wanting us to buy a vape pen or to have sex, it’s unclear which. A toothless woman screams. A legless man lights a pipe. Tourists photograph each other with City Hall in the middle distance, and a woman with a leg cast encrusted in grime rolls past. It's not possible to tell how old she is: thirty? Fifty? She has no possessions that I can see, and no destination, rolling in a desultory manner toward and then away from several men also in wheelchairs, one whose foot is so badly infected my groin contracts and feels flash-burned.
“Does this look sanitary?" asks Sandberg. "It's like the antithesis of a clean, well-orchestrated, well-organized place. Again, when this was opened, people celebrated, it was a great idea. Then it descended and people started to get angry. The community started to uprise."
And this, I understand, is where Boudin comes in, why he's earned people's opprobrium, why they blame him for the devastation. As I wrote in a previous piece, his office secured only three convictions for “possession with intent to sell” drugs in all of 2021. Again, not to put too fine a point on it, but I could’ve reached out my hand from where I sat and touched three people doing drugs. Not that I support throwing people in jail for doing drugs. But to make it a policy, as Boudin's office apparently has, to sentence essentially no one to any time at all; to instead shuttle them to programs that are doing evidentially little to curtail what is happening at UN Plaza, well, one would be angry. What logic says the city must facilitate this? What profit in fostering misery? And if the DA is unwilling to initiate policies that help, why do we want him in office?
“Chesa Boudin will not support the breaking up of the open-air drug scene. He has made it very clear that this to him is acceptable; that this is low-level stuff," says Sandberg. "I could walk over and get $15 worth of fentanyl in five seconds right now. When that's allowed to continue, this continues. That's why people are so irate when it comes to Chesa Boudin, because you're looking at deaths, at real lives being lost.”
The guard finally shuffles Sandberg and me off. We walk through the knot of dealers, past forty people sitting on a low wall in various states of using or about to use, and I think, making it easy for people to do hard drugs is consigning them to a kind of prison. Proponents of harm reduction centers will say, well, would you rather have people dying in an alley? JC, of course not. But how are these people not dying? How are you, by giving them additional places to shoot up, not merely extending their dying? How is this kind?
"You look at this and you have to say, it is so completely wrong. It's immoral," says Sandberg. "These people are dying. Think about that. We are watching people perish, suffer, and die before our very eyes. And we turn a blind eye to it. We say, 'Okay, we're just going to do more harm reduction. And we're going to open up a safe consumption site.' This is so infuriating to me."
Ducking into a cafe, I ask Sandberg if Boudin can keep his job by making the case that he has made things better for the city, or if it's more that he needs to convince people he is doing the job they elected him to do.
“That would be option B,” she says. “Has he done something so egregious that he should be recalled? That's the issue that a lot of people are saying, that he's doing what he said he was going to do. But that's not true. He promised he would make San Francisco safer. Has he made San Francisco safer? No. Property theft is off the chain. You want to be in Walgreens or in a Macy's or any small business and somebody walks in and they're clearing the shelves? It's scary. And that circle is concentric because it affects the individual, it affects the family, it starts affecting small businesses. When they close, you get blight. When you get blight, larger businesses don't want to be here. The ripple effect is intense. I could show you areas where it looks like downtown Detroit, 1989. Do we want that? That's what we have."
As to whether Sandberg thinks Boudin will be recalled, she does. She further hopes that whomever London Breed appoints to take Boudin's place will break-up the open-air drug scene at UN Plaza; that she, Sandberg, does not see an appreciable difference with the overdose rate in the city and stationing someone with a gun on the corner of Market and 8th and having them shoot two people a day.
"Would we put up with that?" she asks. "Two-plus people a day dying here in San Francisco. How dare you? How dare you continue to let this go on?"
We head back outside, to UN Plaza. It's very sunny now, and a boy of maybe eighteen in ratty sweatpants and no shoes is taking short spasmodic steps backward, a sort of stilted moonwalk. It looks painful and also, as though he cannot control what his body is doing. Are you okay? Sandberg asks. Can I call someone for you? He hears her, he turns his face to her, he is so young. Around him the scene continues, a man pulls down his pants, a girl on the wall takes a shot, the boy takes another step backward.
Please considering supporting my work with a paid subscription, and thank you xx
I’m amazed and appalled? How does this happen? Full disclosure: I’ve been in recovery for 31 years; it’ll 32 this August, God willing.
For a long time I considered full legalization/decriminalization and government control and sales of illicit drugs might be a way to slow this epidemic and take back the power from the dealers and ultimately the cartels that control them. After reading this and reporting from other cities, I’m not so sure what can be done. God bless you, Nancy.
I live in San Francisco, and am very aware of this whole controversy. Chesa Boudin was elected district attorney in November 2019 and took office in 2020. Homelessness however has been rampant in the mid-Market Street area that includes UN Plaza for decades. This is largely the result of the city government's anti-housing policies. It is very difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to get approval to build anything, due to all the bureaucracy, hearing requirements, permit fees, and on and on. While the problem has noticeably grown over the past decade, not helped by the damage done by misguided government lockdowns, which caused many local businesses to close, some permanently, and cost many people their jobs and livelihoods, none of that is the DA's fault.
It's true that many homeless people have mental health issues or use drugs (often both). This too has been going on for decades. The same applies to many people who are housed, but living on the streets tends to exacerbate such problems, as well as making them more visible. You're less likely to see housed people using drugs unless you're part of that scene, because they can do it inside their homes.
"Possession with intent to sell" is also a bogus rap, and if it's true there were only three convictions for this in 2021, that's a *good* thing. Criminalizing "intent" to do something without evidence of it actually having been done is essentially creating a thought crime. Not that consensual drug sales are a real crime in any case. Some percentage of the public, some percentage of the time, are going to do things that are bad for them, whether it's using fentanyl, tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, lack of exercise, lack of healthy eating, or whatever. This has been going on for basically all of human history, and trying to outlaw it is futile. Haven't we learned anything from the failed "War on Drugs"? (Sadly, where the San Francisco electorate is concerned, I can tell you that the answer is mostly "no", as the year before Boudin was elected, voters approved a citywide ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes and many vaping products.)
In any event, Boudin understands that drug use and mental health are issues which criminalizing and arresting people will not make better or solve. For this, and for wanting to end unfair policies like cash bail that discriminates against the poor, and hold police officers accountable for their misconduct when they shoot and kill people or otherwise violate their rights, he has been made the poster boy and scapegoat for social dysfunction caused by decades of failed statist policies. He has in fact had success in going after things like organized crime – his office recently scored a major bust against a theft ring.
Recognizing these things, I walked precincts for the campaign *against* the recall, doing exactly the kind of work mentioned in the article – distributing door hangers and literature. But I was a volunteer, not paid $30 an hour or anything at all for the many hours I put in. The recall effort, which was indeed funded by one wealthy Republican donor in particular, outspent those defending Boudin by a margin of around 2-1. Indeed if you look closely at the photo of the guy on the skateboard, you'll see that the flier he's holding is actually *opposing* Boudin and supporting the recall, not defending the DA as the article claims. I recognized it immediately, having often seen those recall fliers when out distributing lit for the other side.
The officially-permitted encampment by UN Plaza is, ironically, surrounded by covered fencing precisely because of the irrational fears and prejudices of many residents. Retail theft is bad, but it is not dangerous to ordinary shoppers, any more than public nudity is dangerous, or shooting up drugs is (to anyone except the user). They simply offend certain sensibilities. You can tell this is so from the frequency with which you hear the phrase "open-air" in reference to the drug sales and use being complained about – as if selling fentanyl is fundamentally any different, or shooting it up any safer, when done indoors. A similar attitude is evident in the author's description of the scene where she describes people with disabilities, using drugs, etc., while insisting she isn't trying to write a biased piece, or her going out of her way to say she doesn't support throwing people in jail for drugs – and then proceeding to make it all but explicit that this is exactly what she wants to happen.
Then there is her protagonist and fellow journalist Erica Sandberg, who doesn't see the difference between government thugs standing on a corner shooting and murdering people in cold blood, and people dying of overdoses from taking consensually purchased and voluntarily used drugs!
If I sensed that more of those complaining about homelessness, drug use, public urination/defecation and so on – which are real enough, even if you mostly see them only in a few areas of the city, and they are greatly exaggerated by conservatives for political purposes – actually cared about the lives of people on the streets, I might have more sympathy for their gripes. But listening to these complaints, the hostility and contempt for the homeless rings through again and again. They are blamed for crime and dirty streets in general, even though those same streets that aren't kept clean are also clearly not kept properly paved by a city government with a $13 billion-plus annual budget (larger than that of many entire states), and the petty theft, auto break-ins and other crimes aren't properly investigated by police who like to use a DA they don't like as an excuse for not doing their jobs.
The whole recall depressingly illustrates how many people have failed to recognize the real, systemic causes of what they see, and just look for convenient scapegoats in the poor and marginalized and in one honest, compassionate public servant who was trying to achieve real criminal justice reform and better results in the face of a difficult situation.
The author writes about the Civic Center de facto safe use are "metastasizing", when actually the homeless gathered there would otherwise likely be out on the streets. Where is the outrage at the metastasizing City Hall workforce, the thousands of bureaucrats leeching off the public and being paid 6-figure salaries while thousands of homeless people sleep on the streets, some dying of exposure every winter? (Yes, it does get quite cold in San Francisco, with the wind chill in particular, even if it rarely snows.)
On the bright side, let it be noted for the record that the outcome of the recall election was actually much closer than initially reported. As the mail-in ballots were counted, the margin by which it passed dropped from around 60-40% to about 55-45%. When whoever the mayor appoints as the next DA has been in office for a couple years and the various problems for which Boudin was unfairly blamed are still with us, maybe enough of the folks who voted for the recall will realize they were sold a bill of goods to make a difference in keeping the door open to the kind of meaningful reforms to a broken criminal justice system for which Chesa Boudin has been working.