Here’s what Chesa Boudin’s detractors get wrong about crime

Justin Phillips

Nov. 12, 2021

San Francisco goes viral often these days, but not for the right reasons.

Videos of property crime and retail theft — including the summer’s Twitter post of a man stealing from a Walgreens — regularly set social media ablaze. The same goes for footage of streets lined with homeless encampments, or photos of people struggling with substance abuse. There’s an ugly glee in how these videos are shared by folks looking to rail against criminal justice reform.

Here’s what the videos actually show: Poverty. An ever-widening gap between San Francisco’s haves and have-nots.

The local economic divide falls along distinct color lines. More than 50% of Black and Latino residents in San Francisco are in very-low-income families, according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas, a progressive data analysis group. Boys born into these families are 20 times more likely to wind up in prison as adults, according to a 2018 study by the the Brookings Institution, a policy research center in Washington, D.C.

We know staggering income inequality is the root of crime. Yet the people doing the painstaking work of addressing it are often scapegoated for enabling it.

Chesa Boudin has become a prime target. Two years ago he squeaked out a victory in the city’s tightly contested district attorney’s race. Support for him was never overwhelming, but the promises he made during his campaign — not criminalizing poverty, focusing on economic advancement for the marginalized — were enough to win him the election.

His short tenure has, at times, felt a bit disorganized and chaotic, but his record is pretty much as advertised. The Chronicle did a deep dive into Boudin’s work and found that his rape and narcotics charging rates are higher than his predecessor’s. He has also co-sponsored state bills supporting forms of universal basic income.

Then there was the pandemic.

The economy cratered, and there was a national spike in violent crime. Feelings held more sway than facts in 2020. And it was in this fog of fear and paranoia that Boudin’s critics attacked.

San Francisco had become a lawless place, they said. Sure, there was a bump in San Francisco’s homicides, 41 to 48 from 2019 to 2020, with 46 so far this year — but overall violent crime is far lower than what city residents endured from 1970 to 1990.

Videos showing Black and brown shoplifters were used to paint the city as a liberal hellscape of its own making. A similar narrative took shape in Los Angeles, where Boudin’s predecessor, George Gascón, was elected D.A. Republican interests zeroed in on both progressive prosecutors, despite California’s crime trends being worse in Republican-voting counties than Democratic-leaning ones, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice of San Francisco.

The effort to recall Gascón failed. On Tuesday, the Department of Elections confirmed the effort against Boudin had more than enough signatures, about 83,000, to be on next summer’s statewide primary ballot. Boudin needed roughly 85,000 votes to get elected in the first place.

San Francisco may not appreciate that addressing crime means healing old, festering wounds of inequity. But others do.

Sheryl Davis, the executive director of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, creates programs to combat social and economic inequality in the city. It’s work that requires empathy, she told me, which seems to be lacking in residents’ calls for harsher policing.

“As people develop and talk about strategies that fill the gaps where they think criminal justice reform fails, I’m concerned they’re doing more to ostracize and criticize people who need help the most,” Davis said. “America has decades and centuries of locking people up. We know what doesn’t work.”

So does Frankie Ramos. The longtime Bay Area community organizer told me it’s programs that prioritize financial incentives to keep low-income youth out of the criminal justice system that show long-term benefits. But they also take time to work.

“For some reason we’re really wedded to the idea that it’s OK for wealth to be hoarded in the hands of a very, very few, and for the vast majority to be struggling,” Ramos said. “That way of structuring our society is inherently unsafe. You have too many people that have nothing to lose.”

San Francisco has always had a conservative streak, noted Brittni Chicuata, a city native and advocate for equitable housing opportunities through the Human Rights Commission. It just feels more out in the open now.

“There’s just this absence of humanity and love in the way a lot of people see those that are struggling,” she said. “You just can’t let people that are both wrong and loud overshadow the work being done to address important issues.”

And herein lies the danger.

Unless you want to live in a police state, truly addressing crime is about uplifting historically disadvantaged communities, or what Chicuata described as “long-haul work.”

However you feel about Boudin, the fact that a recall election is even happening is reason to fear San Francisco becoming what many Black and brown community leaders hoped it wouldn’t after 2020’s racial reckoning: a place where the affluent care more about the preservation of inequality than following through on the painful work to end it.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Justin Phillips appears Sundays. Email: Twitter: @JustMrPhillips  

Justin Phillips joined The San Francisco Chronicle in November 2016 as a food writer. He previously served as the City, Industry, and Gaming reporter for the American Press in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In 2019, Justin also began writing a weekly column for The Chronicle’s Datebook section that focused on Black culture in the Bay Area. In 2020, Justin helped launch Extra Spicy, a food and culture podcast he co-hosts with restaurant critic Soleil Ho. Following its first season, the podcast was named one of the best podcasts in America by the Atlantic. In February, Justin left the food team to become a full-time columnist for The Chronicle. His columns focus on race and inequality in the Bay Area, while also placing a spotlight on the experiences of marginalized communities in the region.

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