Time's Arrow: The Chesa Boudin Recall
I’m in San Francisco, reporting on the recall effort of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. A former SF deputy public defender, Boudin rode to something of a surprise victory in November 2019, when the appetite for criminal justice reform, at least in blue cities, appeared to be sharp.
Whether it was sharp or whether people were confusing a general agitation with a hunger for justice, was not something much debated at the time. Trump’s existence was continuing to give people conniptions and they would take any opportunity to oppose his policies, including voting into office a group of progressive DAs in places like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and Portland, Oregon.
Boudin came by his progressive ideals honestly, in that each of his four parents were members of the radical militant group the Weather Underground. He is the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who went to prison in 1981 after they drove the getaway car for hold-up of a Brink’s truck in Nyack, New York, a botched robbery that left two police officers and one security guard dead. Chesa was 14 months old at the time. He was adopted by Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground's telegenic leaders, and grew up visiting his biological parents in prison. I don't know if you'd call this a romantic story but it's one with some resonance in the Bay Area, where the Weather Underground was long based, where Dorhn and Ayers raised their children and where they reside still, eminence grise of what remains of 1970's homegrown terrorists.
The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, and the months-long protests that followed, seemed to signal that the policies Boudin campaigned on — increased police accountability, restorative-justice programs as alternatives to incarceration — were both overdue and the remedy to a half-millennium of racial and carceral injustice.
For the new policies to work one needed to concede certain points. One needed to concede that under Trump, time's arrow had flown backwards. One needed to concede that the deck had to be reshuffled and that the good people would do so enthusiastically, both acknowledging past failings and working to safeguard the previously marginalized or brutalized.
"The cops are murdering all our black friends in the streets!" the twenty-something blonde girl shouted at me in summer 2020. Before I could assure her that Portland police had killed two people that year, both white men, she disappeared into the crowd of young people outside the federal courthouse, hurling insults and rocks and a flaming barbecue grill at the federal forces inside, including members of BORTAC, who on May 24 of this year broke down a schoolroom door in Uvalde and killed a mass murderer of children.
Part of me would like to find the blonde girl, to ask whether vantage point and the timeline have changed her perception of BORTAC. Maybe I would be afraid of her answer.
Another point on the timeline: While reporting on the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, I was driven through a Minneapolis neighborhood where nearly every million-dollar home sported a BLACK LIVES MATTER lawn sign. D., a firearms enthusiast who asked to be identified by his first initial only, told me he used to live in this neighborhood, that he was still invited to the parties, and that while the cocktail chatter was all about social justice, at some point the host or hostess would pull him aside and ask if he knew where they could buy a gun. The temperature in the city, they told him, had grown too hot, the rioting and destruction, some of which D. photographed, too unpredictable and frightening. People were feeling their resolve - to hold the line, to live the progressive principles they either believed or were too sheepish to admit they did not believe or agree with or even understand - give way.
The identity that had seemed essential in summer 2020, it turned out, was transferrable, was flexible, was able to shift not as an abandonment of principles but a reallocation of resources, there only being so many hours in the day.
“[In] a world dominated by performative activism, where causes are less about principles than they are about keeping current, this is all but inevitable,” Kat Rosenfield recently wrote. “How long will it be before the conflict in Ukraine is eclipsed, too, by some shiny new tragedy?”
While the mechanism to recall an elected official has been part of the California Constitution since 1911, San Franciscans were not ready in summer 2020 to consider recalling Boudin. They were not ready in January 2021, when an initial recall effort fell short of gathering the 51,325 signatures needed. The country was still in the grip of COVID, and there were more dire things to worry about than whether someone caught selling meth amphetamine was sentenced to jail time or community service.
Maybe it was the sense that COVID was on the wane. Maybe it was the viral videos of people riding out of drug stores with $950 worth of goods. Maybe it was the series of video interviews made by Michael Shellenberger - author of the 2021 book San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities and himself running for governor of California - with drug addicts and the mentally ill living on the streets.
Maybe it was the kids being kept out of school for nearly two years as board members for the San Francisco Unified School District dithered. Maybe it was these board members becoming a national joke for trying to push through the renaming of public schools bearing the names of "racists" such as Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein. Maybe it was a resurfaced tweet of one of the board membrs accusing Asian-American parents of using “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’” Maybe it was all these things, but when voters had a chance this past February to recall three of the school board members, they did, and decisively.
For all the damage COVID did, it also provided a moment for people to reassess, to weigh whether the things they'd been made to believe about their neighbors and maybe themselves were true, and if they were not true, if they were not, for instance, irredeemably racist, had they perhaps overcorrected? Had they elected people committed to fighting problems that might not be as bad as represented two years earlier and what, if any, were the unintended consequences of fighting what might be the wrong fights?
It was at the school board recall watch party that I first heard talk of Boudin being the wrong man for the job. He kept repeat offenders on the streets and cared more for criminals than for victims, people said. He was too anti-cop. The open-air drug markets were a disgrace, as was the DA’s office securing only three convictions for “possession with intent to sell” drugs in all of 2021. Car break-ins and an epidemic of human feces on the street were dispiriting but livable. But letting people get away with actual murder? Who exactly was Boudin keeping the city safe for?
By last October, a second petition to recall Boudin received 83,487 signatures. The recall measure reads in part, "We all agree that we need real criminal justice reform and police accountability now. Chesa Boudin isn't delivering either priority."
I'm not sure Boudin delivering or not delivering is the issue. With the exception of a rise in theft, crime in San Francisco has not risen much since 2021 and in some areas, including murder, has fallen. Still, perception trumps reality, people are impatient, and time's arrow flies in the only direction it ever flies. And while there has been some incivility between the pro- and anti-Boudin factions, it is no longer 2020, when reflexive overheating was sometimes rewarded, it is 2022, and we are inclined, maybe, to run our differences through the legal framework rather than burn the whole thing down.
San Francisco Police Department Patrol Sergeant Adam Plantinga works Mission Station, which has some of the highest rates of violent crime any area in the city, with felonies up 20% over last year. I asked Plantinga by email what he thought of Boudin and whether he should stay or go.
“I do think Boudin should be recalled. Here's some of my reasoning,” he wrote back, in answers so granular and interesting I include them in their entirely below.
Let me front-load that I'm not a political animal and I'm not an SF voter, so what I say doesn't matter as much as folks who live in the city or who are more plugged in to such matters. But as a San Francisco cop, I am, of course, invested in the outcome.
1. He implemented a policy prohibiting his office (with very few exceptions) from charging cases where the police find contraband during pretextual stops. His reasoning for this was to reduce racial disparities. I believe, as do most working cops, that pretextual stops, when done right (you don't have to treat everyone like John Dillinger), are essential to smart proactive policing and get a lot of bad actors off the street. Criminals don't tend to turn themselves in to you. You have to go find them. And pretextual stops are one of the very best ways to do that. I believe his policy is harmful to public safety.
2. He campaigned on not charging quality-of-life crimes and as far as I know, has been true to his word. I'm not for nickel-and-diming every hobo, for Illegal Lodging, who sets up camp on a public sidewalk, but if there are no teeth to the law, it eliminates an important tool from the cop's tool belt. Wondering if Boudin would feel differently if a transient set up camp in front of Boudin's garage, blocking him from driving to work every day. Maybe he'd just shrug and take the bus. At least then, he'd have the courage of his convictions.
3. His refusal to charge gang enhancements and three strikes. It's no secret that street gangs are behind much of the violent crime in the city and repeat violent felons have proven, time and time again, that they should not be among people. They should be spending their criminally productive years in jail. So let's put them there. An old-fashioned view, to be sure, but I work one of the most violent sections of the city and you see enough blood and brains on the sidewalk, it can get a fella to thinking this way.
4. He has made some highly questionable decisions in charging officers on Use of Force cases (to be fair, he's made some other decisions in charging cops that I don't find unreasonable). On a related note, I am an officer who has over two decades of experience, doesn't rattle much under pressure, and tends to make good decisions in the field, but I have little hope that I would receive a fair shake from Chesa Boudin's office if I were to be involved in a serious Use of Force that resulted in serious injury or death to a suspect. Maybe that's not fair--maybe my case would have a just outcome. But that's how I feel and that's a pretty shitty feeling to be walking around with at work with a gun on your hip and continually having to enter volatile situations to take on people with weapons. I'm not alone in feeling that way.
5. He is a former Public Defender and still clearly has a Public Defender mentality (examples of this abound, including a recent interview where he talked about how a high percentage of drug dealers in SF are being trafficked from Honduras). This makes him the classic fox in the henhouse. What if we flipped things around? I don't imagine the Public Defender's office would be overjoyed in having a former DA head up their office who still had a tough-on-crime DA's attitude. It's a lousy fit in our adversarial criminal justice system.
6. I don't claim to have the insider's view on the DA's office. I know they are understaffed and overworked and plea bargains are essential to making the system go. Cops will probably always feel like the DA's office isn't doing enough and tends to be soft on crime. Many of us felt that way about the last few DAs. But ADAs under Boudin have been leaving in droves, which I find telling, and folks who do have an insider's view, Assistant District Attorneys that I've worked on cases with and respect, including Brooke Jenkins*, Thomas Ostly*, and Shirin Oloumi, have strongly spoken out against Boudin. Their words carry a lot of weight with me.
7. I have yet to meet another police officer who thinks Boudin is the right person for DA. Maybe we're all wrong and Boudin alone is right, the lone prophet in the wilderness, whose genius will not be known in our time. But maybe not.
* I will be speaking with both Jenkins and Ostly in the course of reporting the Chesa Boudin recall. Check back for further dispatches.
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