Scapegoating of Chesa Boudin Reflects Ugly Attitudes to Unhoused People

    A few years back, an article describing Fayetteville made the small North Carolina city look like a hotbed of hatred for homeless people. The police chief said panhandling would never stop so long as there are “bleeding hearts rolling their windows down after feeling guilty at church,” and that, for unhoused people, “A ticket and a day in jail is the cost of doing business.”

    City Councilman Chalmers McDougald, who was also a pastor, said the city’s panhandlers “seem to be more professional” and were “just taking advantage of people.” Hearing from reporters how homeless people were unable to pay court fines, he quipped that “It’s almost worthless to even have them arrested.”

    Fayetteville’s longtime congressman, Rep. Mike McIntyre, was one of the most visible conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats. The area’s white DA, Billy West, went viral for prosecuting a Black boy and his girlfriend for “child pornography” because they “sexted.”

    San Francisco is not Fayetteville. Art Agnos, who served as the city’s mayor from 1988 to 1992, once called it “the center of that progressive liberal ethos.” When it comes to local icons, San Franciscans have Harvey Milk, not Diamond and Silk. The city is a target for far-right radio hosts and conservative pundits looking to claim that a culture of tolerance and liberal policies will destroy America.

    Perhaps nothing triggers some San Francisco residents more than District Attorney Chesa Boudin, elected on a platform of decriminalizing poverty and homelessness.

    San Francisco’s relatively moderate mayor, London Breed, recently criticized what she called the “very, very extremely left group of people on the Board of Supervisors,” claiming that “their focus is to not necessarily do what’s best for people in San Francisco, but do what’s best to stay in the good graces of this whole lefty movement.”

    Fayetteville does not tend to host such allegations. But, when it comes to the way some people in the Bay Area talk about unhoused and other marginalized people, we nonetheless find similarities with those voices reported in Fayetteville.

    Oakland property developer Gene Gorelik made headlines in 2019 for saying that homeless people should be rounded up on a party bus with one-way tickets to Mexico. Paneez Kosarian, who lives in San Francisco, told the New York Times that “Putting mentally ill people and people with drug abuse problems in residential areas is careless,” referring to the fact that zoning laws differentiate between where people are supposed to live and work.

    And perhaps nothing triggers some San Francisco residents more than District Attorney Chesa Boudin, elected in late 2019 on a platform of decriminalizing poverty and homelessness.

    On June 14, reporter Lynne Melendez, who works for a decidedly mainstream news outlet (ABC-7 in San Francisco), took a video of a man shoplifting from a Walgreens, throwing items into a large bag and walking out the door. Melendez posted it on Twitter with the caption, “This just happened at the @Walgreens on Gough & Fell Streets in San Francisco. #NoConsequences @chesaboudin.”

    The tweet went viral, attracting coverage from all the nastiest, most bigoted far-right outlets.

    Some weeks earlier, a different reporter from ABC-7, Dion Lim, fabricated a story that Boudin dropped charges against a teenager who attempted to carjack an elderly woman. In fact, the DA didn’t drop the charges. The scandal made the Washington Post.

    Yet DA Boudin is no different to many other pro-decarceration prosecutors who now represent jurisdictions covering around 38 million people nationwide. In fact, on a number of policies, Boudin is actually less progressive and more incrementalist than Suffolk County (Boston) DA Rachael Rollins, for example.

    After taking office, Boudin announced he would not prosecute drug possession cases that came out of pretextual car stops. Boston DA Rollins promised to not prosecute drug possession and 14 other low-level offenses, period. Rollins’ courage has been rewarded: independent academic researchers found that her policy actually made her jurisdiction safer, and she’s also in the running for a US Attorney nomination from President Joe Biden.

    Despite all this and the severe challenges of the pandemic, DA Boudin is subject to our national trend of media and the public attacking reform prosecutors while failing to apply equivalent standards to carceral traditionalists.

    “Some in the media have taken it upon themselves to not just amplify crime stories, but racialize the reporting of crime with a strong anti-Black narrative.”

    “Unfortunately, its liberal reputation aside, San Francisco has a strong conservative streak that has aligned against the working class, our unhoused neighbors, and the reforming of our criminal justice system,” John Hamasaki, a local defense attorney who also serves on the San Francisco Police Commission, told Filter in response to recent events.

    “There are some in the media who have taken it upon themselves to not just amplify crime stories, but racialize the reporting of crime with a strong anti-Black narrative,” he added.

    Big Tech made the San Francisco Bay Area what it is today: a metropolis where it is too expensive to live. In 2018, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development designated a family in the area making $117,400 a year as “low-income.” The median market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is an astronomical $3,700 a month.

    There have been local efforts to house homeless people, since it is the right thing to do and it also reduces crime. Yet critics of such efforts point to the fact that about 10 percent of the city’s housing units set aside for homeless people are vacant. What they miss is that these rooms are vacant for legitimate reasons. Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told The Guardian that, despite the self-serving idea that some homeless people are “service-resistant,” impacted people cite issues such as a lack of wheelchair accessibility, or concerns about family separation.

    As Greg Rosalsky explained on NPR’s Freakonomics Radio earlier this month, the current homelessness crisis resulted from the federal government cutting housing aid in the 1980s. The California state government did the same with social services and mental health care. A huge number of renters in San Francisco also found loopholes in the city’s rental control law (passed by a 1994 ballot initiative) that allowed landlords to keep hiking rents.

    These laws can be changed with the political will, even if supply-and-demand for housing is much harder to control. That said, there are even more city policies that make it impossible for so many people to remain housed, like extremely strict zoning laws and restrictions on affordable housing. Changing these laws should be priority Number One for progressive elected leaders.

    Tech leaders in the Bay Area can do their part, too. The pandemic has shown that a remote-work world is not only possible, but even preferable if we can move beyond preconceived notions. Tech company workers being able to move to, or be hired from, elsewhere could alleviate unsustainable pressure on San Francisco’s housing. In nearby Menlo Park, Facebook has already announced this as a policy, even after the pandemic.

    Chesa Boudin, in short, is not the problem here. But as a leader working to redefine his job’s traditional role, he’s a convenient scapegoat. Some of his critics should address their own fake progressivism and profound moral rot.


    Photograph by Shani Heckman via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0


    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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