Chesa Boudin Should Not Have Been Recalled: Guest Post
A reader writes in that my coverage of Boudin was wrong, and explains why
Comments sections on most media sites are digital lint-balls, gathering porn and “MAKE $35,000 A WEEK” ads within minutes of posting. By contrast, the comments from Substack readers are near unfailingly courteous, interesting, and informed. Such was one of the comments on the second of my posts from last week about former San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, “Another Step Backward.” (The first was “Time’s Arrow”.) I asked comment’s author, who posts as Starchild, if I might print it; Starchild agreed. While we don’t see the core issues in the same way, I found Starchild’s comments to be superbly written, and offering, perhaps, a clear insight as to why 45% of SF voters voted to keep Boudin. I thank Starchild for letting me print our dialogue here.
But first! A quick video I did with Reason that gives you my insights on why Boudin was recalled, and will save you the time of reading my pieces above - NR
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 discriminate 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. (Starchild is correct. I have made and noted the correction on the post, and regret the error. - NR)
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 as "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.
NR: While I disagree with your characterization that I "make it all but explicit" that I want drug users thrown in jail - which I adamantly do not; those who illegally deal drugs (my preference is to legalize drugs) and suffer no consequence ever I have a different feeling about, so perhaps it's to that you were referring - your points are interesting.
What I said about you sounding like you want to jail people for drugs could have been worded better – I meant drug *sellers*, not users, as that's who I thought you were discussing. It sounded to me like you were complaining about sellers of (unconstitutionally*) banned substances facing "no consequences", and wanting Boudin to prosecute them. If you had consequences other than jail time (the usual result of a successful criminal prosecution) in mind, I'm not sure what those would be. Boudin supports restorative justice, a practice focused on making victims whole, but except in cases of fraud there are no victims in a consensual drug sale transaction, so I'm not sure how that could apply. (Which of course relates to why drugs should be legalized as you say – or better yet in my opinion decriminalized, given all the taxes and regulation that tend to come with legalization, e.g. of cannabis in California, for which there remains a thriving black market as a result of all that – no victim, no crime.)
*Enacting alcohol prohibition (in effect from 1919 to 1933) required a constitutional amendment, later repealed, because the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to outlaw any substance. Since there has been no similar constitutional amendment outlawing fentanyl or any other drug, they are ALL LEGAL under federal law, and arguably under the 9th and 10th amendments the rights to engage in consensual commerce and to choose what to put into your own body are among those retained by the people, rendering state anti-drug laws likewise null and void. Sadly, government in this country routinely violates the Constitution and ignores our legal and human rights.