WHEN CHESA BOUDIN was sworn in as district attorney of San Francisco on January 8, 2020, he seemed perfectly cast for the moment. Since 2016, a new class of progressive prosecutors had been claiming victories in liberal cities from Chicago to St. Louis, pledging to undo decades of tough-on-crime policies. In the process, they sought to change the public’s traditional perception of their role: the DA as an anti-crime crusader or, in the words of Larry Krasner, the progressive district attorney of Philadelphia, “Dirty Harry in a suit.” In San Francisco, Boudin repudiated this image and then some. A 39-year-old public defender, he was a son of the old-school American radical left, a Rhodes Scholar with a sensational backstory that involved Marxist-revolutionary parents incarcerated for murder. He campaigned on promises to fight mass incarceration, decriminalize poverty, and hold cops accountable. Though Boudin had experienced great privilege, he had also suffered and seen human suffering, and his endorsements came from not just local political players but national public intellectuals like Angela Davis, Bernie Sanders, and Ibram X. Kendi. He embodied the surging progressive will to uproot systemic racism from courts, jails, and police departments nationwide as well as any white American male possibly could.
This reformist impulse gained urgency after the killing that May of George Floyd, wide-scale Black Lives Matter protests, and outrage over police brutality against activists. By the end of last summer, though, months into pandemic lockdowns, another national mood was settling in, one that now threatens to end Boudin’s term prematurely: fear of rising crime. In San Francisco, it started in late summer 2020, when local news outlets, citing police data, reported a more than 40 percent increase in home burglaries over the past year. Bay Area TV stations aired home-security videos paired with interviews with concerned residents; families added extra locks to front doors. Soon, reports of other brazen crimes captivated the city: a hit-and-run with a stolen vehicle on New Year’s Eve, the fatal assault of an elderly Thai man in broad daylight.
On June 14, inside a Walgreens, a local ABC News reporter witnessed a shoplifter sweeping entire shelves of products into a garbage bag, mounting a bike, and riding past a security guard out the automatic sliding doors. The reporter posted a video on Twitter, where it was viewed 6 million times (the population of San Francisco is fewer than 900,000 people). Less than a month later, cell phone footage began to circulate online showing a group of thieves booking it out of Neiman Marcus with stolen handbags. “San Francisco is lawlessness personified!” read one Twitter caption. As a rule, the people sharing these posts on social media didn’t add tags shaming the police for being absent or the corporations for not employing enough security. They tagged Chesa Boudin.
Cities all over the country are going through similar preoccupations with crime, driven by findings that 2020 saw the biggest year-over-year jump in homicides since the federal government started keeping national crime statistics in the 1960s. Whether that qualifies as an overall crime wave is a matter of intense debate: While murders and gun violence are spiking, they remain far below historic levels. Plus all crime figures from 2020 carry the confounding variable of the pandemic, and there is no way to predict what will happen after society fully reopens.
The argument is especially pitched in San Francisco, where police-department data shows that overall crime actually decreased 23 percent in 2020, but surges in burglary and car theft have many convinced that the city is headed for disaster. A poll conducted recently by the Chamber of Commerce found 70 percent of San Franciscans saying that quality of life in the city was deteriorating and 40 percent saying they planned to move away.
Boudin, who won office on his remarkable life story and confident moral vision—and who quickly enacted policies that reduced the use of cash bail and reined in the power of police—is now experiencing the challenges of having such a clear public identity. In a city that has never before tried to recall a district attorney, Boudin currently faces not one but two recall initiatives. Throughout the spring and summer, his opponents have been circulating petitions, trying to gather enough signatures to trigger a special recall election. If either initiative collects 51,325 signatures by its respective deadline—the first is on August 11, the second, and more threatening one, on October 25—voters in one of America’s most liberal cities will have an opportunity to throw Boudin out of office.
BOUDIN HAS thin brown hair and a scraggly beard that barely camouflages a gigantic jaw. The first time we met, at his office in Potrero Hill, a light-industrial neighborhood popular with startups, he wore a fashionable gray-blue suit; he was bound for a political event later in the afternoon. On a wall opposite his desk hung framed photographs of Boudin surfing substantial waves. He pointed to one and said, with the vowels of a Midwesterner and the rapid-fire cadence of a trial lawyer, “That’s me right there in El Salvador. And that’s Samoa—the first wave I got barreled in. I was on this backpacking trip, and I found this resort. You go out on a boat, shallow reef …”
Boudin picked up surfing when he was 31 and now lives with his wife in the Outer Sunset near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, a famously difficult break where winter waves can exceed 15 feet. His commitment to surfing is more than casual—he surfs many days a week before dawn—and adds an unexpected dimension to his very well-known origin story, the one that Boudin has been telling and retelling since childhood.
Boudin typically begins with his parents, who joined the militant organization known as the Weather Underground in the 1960s to fight against American apartheid and the war in Vietnam. In 1981, when Boudin was 14 months old, they left him with a babysitter to serve as unarmed getaway drivers while members of another revolutionary group robbed a Brink’s armored car in Nanuet, New York. Remembered as one of the watershed excesses of countercultural radicalism, the heist left two police officers and a guard dead. Neither of Boudin’s parents fired a shot. His mother pleaded guilty, his father did not, but both were convicted of murder and sent to prison. Boudin was adopted by two other members of the Weather Underground, the education reformer Bill Ayers and the clinical-law professor Bernardine Dohrn. He spent his childhood in a world of radical-left ideological purity, shuttled between the comfortable life of his adoptive family and the prisons where he visited his biological parents.
As a child, Boudin did not understand that his birth parents were political figures. “When I was little, they would try to describe the robbery using Robin Hood as an analogy,” he says. “They would emphasize that they weren’t trying to keep the money for themselves. They were trying to take money from a bank, which had a lot, and give it to communities that didn’t have any and that nobody was supposed to get hurt. But people did get hurt, and they were being punished as a result.”
January 8, 2020, Boudin with his wife, Valerie Block, during his swearing-in ceremony in San Francisco.
His mother received 20 years to life in prison, while his father got 75—a difference that struck Boudin as arbitrary even when he was a child. He says he developed an early fixation with fairness. “Those were the things that would set me off as a kid,” he says. “Sometimes it would be little things, like who had how much time with the checkerboard during recess.” (Later, when he enrolled in law school, people frequently asked him if he was becoming a lawyer to get his father out of jail; Boudin rejects this, calling it “a too-neat kind of Freudian analysis.”)
Only as a teenager, when Boudin learned to operate his high-school library’s microfiche machine, did he read the original New York Times articles about the Brink’s robbery and come to see his parents’ public personas. He also began to craft his own. In 2005, Boudin co-edited Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out; the first chapter was a letter from Boudin to his incarcerated father. In that document, Boudin stakes out his moral and political terrain relative to his parents’—asserting his loyalty to their desire for a better world but condemning political violence and professing his faith in democratic civil society. In 2009, after completing a Rhodes Scholarship, he wrote a memoir about his travels. The book, Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America, was published by Scribner and received ecstatic blurbs from Seymour Hersh, Noam Chomsky, and Phillip Lopate—as well as a scathing pan from the Times book critic Dwight Garner. (“Mr. Boudin seems surprised to learn that not all of South America’s poor want the things he wants for them,” Garner wrote.)
After graduating from Yale Law School in 2011, Boudin clerked for a federal judge in San Diego (this is where he learned to surf). The next year, Boudin moved to San Francisco and took a fellowship with the public defender’s office, where, he jokes, he learned that local juries “will acquit anybody. There’s no better place to try a case if you’re a defense lawyer.”
Boudin eventually moved up to deputy public defender, a predictable advancement for a lawyer committed to criminal-justice reform. Any attorney can defend somebody they believe to be innocent, Boudin points out, but a public defender has an ethical obligation to perform that role for every client, guilty or not. Looking back on that job, Boudin remarks that there was something extraordinarily simple about it. “Not that it’s easy, not that it’s not complex or sophisticated,” he says, “but it had a moral clarity.”
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