One thing that’s become tiresome, when it comes to 2022 progressive politics, is being told that what you’re seeing with your own eyes is not happening: That’s not a fire. That’s not a crisis. And even if it was a crisis, that’s on you; you and your privilege birthed this mess so just pipe down and let the new regime take care of it.
San Francisco voters, by a roughly 60–40 margin, on Tuesday rejected that approach. They passed Yes on H, the measure to recall progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who initially squeaked out a ranked-choice victory in November 2019. Mayor London Breed will appoint a new DA to serve until the next general election in 2023.
“The thing about it is, they are always so smug about it,” says Tom Wolf, a recovery advocate and former addict, of Boudin and his people’sence that the police were the problem, that the city should not arrest its way to order , and that voters of good conscience must allow Boudin more time to work on various restorative justice policies—for example, declining to prosecute people dealing fentanyl on United Nations Plaza, in case their immigration status would have them deported to a country where drug cartels would murder them and their mothers.
The above scenario was diagrammed for me several times by Boudin detractors, fed up with the DA’s office securing only three drug-dealing convictions in 2021. These people saw Boudin and his supporters as willing to sacrifice San Francisco to ideals that did not make things better for the average person. Boudin’s ilk seem to whistle past the uptick in retail theft, the 1,792 accidental overdose deaths from 2019–2021and the black market drug issues at UN Plaza, which I can report is an absolute hell on earth.
Boudin supporters blame the festering at UN Plaza on the failure of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to make arrests. “The police are so incompetent and scandal-ridden. They clear less than 9 percent of their cases,” Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and a Boudin supporter, told me last week. “If you commit a crime in the city, you have a 91 percent chance of just walking away. I feel like the conversation should be over right there.”
That was the conversation for a while, with the public supporting Boudin’s willingness to root out corruption within the SFPD, efforts to hold officers accountable (including for manslaughter)and the SFPD’s slow-rolling of arrests that was causing problems at UN Plaza and elsewhere. But by last October, when the petition to recall Boudin received 83,487 signatures (32,162 more than were needed to get it on the ballot), the conversation had changed.
“I feel like we’re all part of an experiment and halfway through the experiment, it’s not working. I don’t want to be part of the experiment anymore,” says Josh Steel, one of maybe 100 supporters of Yes on H who crammed into a Tiki bar in the Marina District to watch election returns.
The most intractable problems, to be fair, are not of Boudin’s making.
“You can’t blame homelessness on him, you can’t really blame all of the drug overdoses, but he’s complicit,” Steel says. “And I just don’t think he loves the city like I do and like the people in this room do. Why continue down this path?”
“I’ve watched an open-air drug market go on where I live and where I work for the past two years, 24 hours a day,” says a librarian who declined to give her name. “I’ve watched people deteriorate. I’ve had dead bodies picked up off my block. The only thing that’s going to change this is that we have a district attorney that starts prosecuting drug dealers and holding them accountable. That is the reason why San Francisco is filthy and that’s why there’s crime and that’s why there are tents everywhere.
Marie Huriabell, who was instrumental in the campaign to recall three progressive San Francisco school board members in February, concurred. “People so fed up and so angry and they see that he’s so incompetent,” she says, while admitting voters deserved some blame. “He’d never run for anything before, and we put him in as top cop.”
It may have been Boudin’s origin story that was so tantalizing for voters—each of his biological and adoptive parents was a member of the radical militant group the Weather Underground. It may have been an appetite for progressivism, whipped up by anti-Trump sentiment and nationwide police misconduct, that had people willing to take a chance. When people are unsatisfied with the status quo, they’re willing to take risks on something new. What they don’t like is being told that what they want—security, clean streets, a place where their kids can play without stumbling over someone sleeping under the jungle gym—must be sacrificed for a fading utopian ideal.
“In the next two and a half years, you’re going to see a massive change in the way San Francisco operates. It’s going to become far more sane and far more rational,” Hurabiell hopes. She named a shortlist of people she’d like to see in the DA’s job, including Brooke Jenkins (who left the DA’s office in 2021 and who spent part of Tuesday night telling a phalanx of media that it was not her intention to seek the position ) and Thomas Ostly, a mountain of a dude who at 9 pm was leaning against the bar. Would Ostly, whom Boudin fired immediately upon taking office, be the city’s next DA?
“I can’t answer that,” says Ostly, explaining that “during the seven years I was a prosecutor, I never had a case fall apart.” He claimed Boudin’s contention that “for the past few years that SFPD is somehow dropping the ball, that’s simply not true.” Contrary to the idea that Boudin was showing kindness to those whose life circumstances led them to get caught up in crime, “[Boudin’s] progressivism was cruel,” says Ostly. “The city should be helping defendants live their best lives. Boudin was not doing that and that’s why he was recalled.”
The answer, of course, is not a crackdown on low-level, victimless crimes or a carte blanche for cops. Nor can a DA fix the economic or regulatory circumstances that lead to people living on the streets. But people want to live with the basic expectation that if they are robbed or assaulted, competent authorities will make an effort to bring the criminal to justice. Fair or not, San Franciscans were no longer living under that expectation, and hope the incoming regime will bring it back.
For the sake of progress, people will live with their cars being broken into again, with a double-digit rise in property crimes, with people literally dying on their streets. But at a certain point, and if given the chance, they will call a fire a fire, and will put it out.