James Faulkner, a homeless man, plays his guitar in the Mission district (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

June 4, 2021   6 mins

In April, Synciere Williams, a baby of just nine months, was declared dead in a San Francisco emergency room with signs of trauma on his body. In January, newlywed 26-year-old Sheria Musyoka was killed on his morning jog when a drunk career criminal in a stolen 4×4 ran a red light and struck him. A few weeks before, in the middle of the day, Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt were killed in a hit-and-run by another criminal with a long rap sheet, also driving a stolen car and high on crystal meth.

In each of these cases, the perpetrator had been recently released by police, either on parole or because of a failure to bring charges. Police had already detained the man suspected of murdering Williams twice this year after domestic violence incidents. The man who killed Abe and Platt had been arrested for 73 felonies and 32 misdemeanours in San Francisco alone.

Such avoidable tragedies keep happening in San Francisco, a city where petty crime rates have exploded, where an already chronic homelessness problem has become even worse, where there were twice as many drug overdose deaths as Covid-19 fatalities last year and where America’s largest and oldest Chinese-American community is battling a spike in violent hate crimes. Anger is growing, and its target is the chief prosecutor notionally responsible for putting criminals away, but who a growing number of San Franciscans say cannot be trusted to keep their city safe. 

Chesa Boudin was elected District Attorney in November 2019 to much fanfare. Never mind that he had never prosecuted a case before; his unabashedly progressive platform — which promised to end cash bail, reduce the size of the city’s prison population, “reimagine” criminal justice and stop enforcing so-called “quality-of-life” crimes such as prostitution — garnered international praise. According to the Guardian, his victory was a welcome shift from the tough on crime’ norms to bold positions that veer radically to the left”. The Nation described Boudins election as confirmation that political revolutions are possible”. In a video message at his swearing in ceremony last January, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Boudin that “the hope you reflect is a great beacon to many”.

Not even 18 months into the job, Boudin has inspired more despair than hope — so much so that he now faces a recall petition from San Franciscans unhappy with his radical approach to criminal justice. And if he has become a “beacon”, it is as a cautionary tale of what happens when voguish ideas of radical reform are put into action.

Boudin, to his credit, has only done what he promised to do. Two days into the job, he fired seven top prosecutors, replacing them with lawyers who had previously worked as public defenders. Within a few months, he had released almost 40% of the city’s prison population. The pandemic further provided Boudin with a public health rationale for his programme of decarceration. The consequences speak for themselves: homicides are up, as are burglaries and carjackings. Arson attacks have also increased by almost 50%.

And yet prosecutions are down. Between January 2020, when he took office, and March this year, Boudin has tried just 23 cases. During an equivalent time period, his (already quite liberal) predecessor brought more than ten times as many cases to trial. In 2020, prosecutors in neighbouring Alameda county dismissed only 11% of felonies brought to them by the police. In San Francisco, that figure stood at 40%.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that San Franciscans have started to turn on Boudin. Of the 131 arrests made for domestic violence felonies in the last three months of 2020, Boudin dismissed 113, prompting anger from campaigners and volunteers at the city’s women’s shelters. Meanwhile, police in the Tenderloin district, ground zero for the city’s homelessness and drug abuse crises, are outspoken in their frustration at Boudin’s refusal to prosecute the dealers behind the surge in fentanyl overdose deaths in the city.

The growing sense of disorder in San Francisco has forced some to take matters into their own hands. Leanna Louie is a lifelong San Franciscan and, like most people in the city, a lifelong Democrat. Disturbed by a rise in anti-Asian attacks, which she attributes to the racially charged language deployed by Donald Trump during the pandemic, she has spent nearly every evening of the past year patrolling San Francisco’s Chinatown with a group of other volunteers. Exasperated with Boudin’s apparent inability to put away the kind of violent criminals she spends her evenings protecting shop-owners and elderly Chinese-American residents from, she is also now campaigning for his recall.

Boudin’s social media is full of concern over the rise in crime targeted at Asians, but Louie says it is very hard for her or the victims to take him seriously. “These attacks are happening over and over again because he releases criminals,” she says. “It’s so insulting to hear him claim he cares about us. If you care about us, why don’t you join us on patrol?”

Andrea Shorter, also part of the recall campaign, says that “the inconvenient truth for Boudin is that it’s not just a small group of conservatives that are out to recall Democratic politicians… We are interested in and support criminal justice reform. We understand its implications in terms of racial justice. I myself am African-American and also LGBTQ. I have supported criminal justice reform for nearly three decades, but not at the expense of public safety.”

Yet San Francisco’s lax attitude to crime does not start and end with Chesa Boudin. Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot measure that reclassified a range of felonies — including theft of anything worth less than $950 and most drug possession and drug use offences — as “misdemeanours”, is also part of the problem; shoplifting is now so rife in the city that Walgreens, a national pharmacy chain, has closed 17 locations in San Francisco. Meanwhile, like other liberal city leaders, San Francisco’s mayor London Breed has pulled $120 million from the city’s law enforcement budget to reinvest elsewhere.

But even if Boudin is only one in a cast of characters responsible for the decay of San Francisco, the 40-year-old perfectly personifies the hypocrisies of American progressivism behind that decline. Read any of the fawning profiles in America’s liberal press and the first thing you’ll learn is his first-hand experience of America’s judicial system. He is often described as “the son of jailed radicals” or the son of “imprisoned leftists” and frequently touts his parents as the inspiration for his decarceration agenda.

This is a heavily spun version of the truth. Boudin’s mother and father were members of the Weather Underground, a far-left terrorist organisation that spent the 1970s bombing banks and government buildings (including the US Capitol). They went on to form a splinter group called the May 19th Communist Organisation and, in 1981, took part in the armed robbery of a bank truck in Nyack, New York.

They botched the heist and the Boudins’ accomplices shot and killed a security guard and two policemen. Chesa’s parents were convicted of felony murder. In their trial, the defendents said the stolen $1.5m was “expropriation” needed to fund the creation of a black nation-state in the American south. For the progressive goals of the Boudins (both of whom are white), Officer Waverly Brown, the first African-American police officer in Nyack, paid with his life.

It would, of course, be unfair to tar Boudin with his parents’ extremism. But he shows no embarrassment over his lineage. “My parents were all dedicated to fighting US imperialism around the world,” the radical princeling told the New York Times in 2002. “I’m dedicated to the same thing.” In his cringeworthy memoir about his travels in Latin America — during which he worked as a translator in the Hugo Chavez’s Presidential Palace as a translator author of  pro-regime pamphlets aimed at a gullible US audience — he condescends the poor and shows a painful lack of self-awareness. “Why weren’t they as eager as I to criticise imperialism,” he asks of working-class South Americans.

Boudin has never renounced any part of his past: his parents, in his eyes, are brave radicals and blameless victims of America’s industrial-prison complex. His radicalism is of a piece with theirs. And just as he appears impervious to the consequences of his parents’ actions, he seems blind to the results of the experiment he is running in San Francisco.

The failure of that radical experiment — and the desperation of the San Franciscans who want to put a stop to it — is, in many ways, a parable of the American Left: the ultra-liberal metropolis being mugged by reality. The Boudin recall effort is a test of the limits of San Francisco’s commitment to radical ideas. Campaigners must gather more than 51,000 signatures to trigger a recall election. Indeed, if its residents do manage to do so, it would be a chastening moment for progressives across the country who have spent the last year calling for more of the sort of radicalism embodied in San Francisco’s DA. 

And if they don’t, it will suggest liberal America is oblivious to the consequences of “reimagining” policing and criminal justice: a spike in violence and disorder that ultimately hits the country’s most vulnerable the hardest. 

Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow