San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin is taking advantage of the pandemic to push hard-left, pro-criminal reforms.
Boudin is your classic “red-diaper baby,” the child and stepchild of the most extreme of Sixties radicals. His parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were members of the revolutionary Weather Underground, whose crimes included bombing government buildings such as the Capitol, the Pentagon, and the State Department. The group’s activities landed Bernardine Dohrn on the FBI’s Most Wanted List in the early 1970s. Both Dohrn and her husband, Weather Underground bomber Bill Ayers, remain unrepentant to this day, although the suppression of evidence due to illegal surveillance and prosecutorial misconduct prevented them from serving serious jail sentences. Dohrn ultimately did time in 1980 for inciting a riot.
All that wasn’t radical enough for Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, so they and a splinter group (joined by members of the “Black Liberation Army”) staged dozens of robberies, culminating with an armed robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Rockland County, N.Y., in October 1981, almost a year after Ayers and Dohrn turned themselves in. The Brink’s bandits came loaded for combat, with body armor, shotguns, and M-16s that blew a huge hole in the reinforced windshield glass of the armored truck. The ambush and a subsequent shootout killed Nyack Police Officer Waverly Brown, Nyack Police Sergeant Ed O’Grady, and Brink’s security guard Pete Paige, who collectively left behind three widows and six fatherless children, the youngest six months of age.
Gilbert and Kathy Boudin drove the getaway cars. Gilbert remains in prison, serving a sentence of 75 to life. Chesa Boudin talks to him regularly; in a recent profile in the New Yorker, Boudin cites him as a sympathetic example of inmates facing the pandemic. Kathy Boudin was released in 2003 after two decades in prison and was hired (predictably enough) to teach at Columbia University (Dohrn got a gig at Northwestern Law). While the two Brink’s robbers were imprisoned, Ayers and Dohrn took custody of their son Chesa, then a toddler, and raised him. Dohrn then served another seven months in 1982 for refusing to cooperate with the Brink’s grand jury.
As you may recall, the Weather Underground became an issue in the 2008 presidential election. Barack Obama effectively launched his political career in 1996 with his first fundraiser for his first state senate campaign in the home of Ayers and Dohrn. Obama by then had routed hundreds of thousands of dollars of educational foundation grants to projects under Ayers’s control. Many of us were skeptical at the time of the claim by Obama and his campaign that he had been unaware of who Ayers and Dohrn really were. The pair had been national news. Obama was well-versed in Sixties radicalism. The Brink’s case, the most sensational in the history of my home town of Nanuet, was front-page news throughout the New York area for over a year while Obama himself was attending Columbia Law School. Moreover, a reasonable person might think that, at some point, he’d have asked where this kid they were raising came from.
Blood alone does not make you a radical, of course; Kathy Boudin’s brother Michael is a respected First Circuit judge appointed by George H. W. Bush. But being raised by unrepentant terrorists clearly rubbed off on Chesa Boudin. After college, he headed for Venezuela to work for socialist strongman Hugo Chávez. Boudin co-wrote a book flacking for the oppressive regime, a regime that would ultimately ruin the oil-rich nation’s economy and reduce its people to desperate poverty. In 2006, he told the New York Times, “The fact that we have a country that’s trying to create an alternative model is bold and ambitious and unique.” In a 2009 Nation piece — entitled “Chavez for Life?” — he argued, as the subtitle put it, that “there are at least three reasons why we should congratulate Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez on his recent success abolishing term limits.” He also wrote a memoir, Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America, drawing this acid evaluation from New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner:
Mr. Boudin seems surprised to learn that not all of South America’s poor want the things he wants for them. “Why weren’t they as eager as I to criticize imperialism?” he asks, adding, “Many in the town aspired to a consumer lifestyle like the ones they saw on television.”
About the political activities of his parents, Mr. Boudin writes: “Certainly violence is illegitimate when it targets civilians or intends to cause generalized or widespread fear, but my parents never did either of those.” At another point, he adds that his parents “paid a heavy price for their radical politics.” They didn’t pay that heavy price for their politics. They paid it for the part they played in the deaths of three men.
Chesa Boudin seems like a genial guy with a bright future stretching far ahead of him. If “Gringo” is any indication, that future should not include committing sentences to paper with the intention of distributing them widely.
Boudin’s view in his early writings that his parents’ part in the killings of two policemen and a private armored-car guard did not count as violence against “civilians” tells us a lot about his real opinion of what the lives of police officers are worth (he is more politic now when discussing the case but still takes pains to argue that his parents were not the triggermen). And his youthful combination of utopian romance about radical change with his disinterest in how that change affects the lives and desires of ordinary working people was echoed in his campaign last year for district attorney.
Consider Boudin’s announced priorities as district attorney before entering office. His experience since returning from Venezuela has been as a public defender, not a prosecutor. Endorsed and funded by a who’s who of left-wingers, Boudin fits neatly within what Andy McCarthy calls the “Progressive Prosecutor Project” in left-leaning cities nationwide. In November, Boudin welcomed his election victory — which he heard of while returning from a visit to Gilbert in prison — by declaring, “It’s time for radical change to how we envision justice. I’m humbled to be a part of this movement that is unwavering in its demand for transformation.’”
What kind of radical change? Boudin, who promised more prosecutions of police officers and named specific defendants he would have charged, started off with a toxic relationship with the San Francisco Police Officers Association. The POA spent $600,000 on attack ads calling Boudin “the number one choice of criminals and gang members,” and it issued a statement on his victory, lamenting that, “unfortunately, the election results mean that San Francisco residents will have to suffer through another four years of the . . . policies that have plagued our city and decimated public safety.” At Boudin’s Election Night party, “progressive city Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer took to a microphone to lead a chant of ‘F— the POA’”:
Moreover, it’s not just cops within his jurisdiction that Boudin wants to prosecute. During his campaign, the San Francisco Examiner reported that he pledged to “create a unit to help prevent undocumented immigrants charged with crimes from being deported” while “the unit would also be tasked with investigating and prosecuting ‘illegal tactics’ by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” But the Supreme Court, since an 1890 case immunizing U.S. Marshals from state prosecution for killing a former chief justice of the California Supreme Court while defending Supreme Court justice Stephen Field, has frowned on state efforts to prosecute federal law enforcement for acts taken in the course of their official duties. The Fifth Circuit upheld that rule as recently as 2017. It was not at all clear how Boudin planned to use state resources to lock up federal law-enforcement officers without the cooperation of the federal courts.
Who doesn’t Boudin want to prosecute? During the campaign, in response to an ACLU questionnaire, he said, “We will not prosecute cases involving quality-of-life crimes. Crimes such as public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, blocking a sidewalk, etc., should not and will not be prosecuted.” In a city whose most notorious public problem is an epidemic of defecation on public sidewalks, you might think that stopping the avalanche of poop would be a bigger priority than putting more criminals back on the streets or locking up more cops. Clearly, if you think that, you are not Chesa Boudin. San Francisco, as a result, was set to embark on a program of “radical change” of its public safety with the same attitude that Hugo Chávez once brought to radically transforming Venezuela’s economy.
Boudin was able to win because of a combination of a divided opposition and San Francisco’s eccentric system of “ranked choice voting,” such that a candidate with only a little over third of the vote could be declared the victor without a runoff. Fittingly, Boudin won on the strength of ballots naming him No. 2.
Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste
So how has Boudin reacted in office? As a sympathetic New Yorker profile observed:
As covid-19 has been spreading throughout the country, Boudin has been outspoken in urging criminal-justice leaders to reduce their jail and prison populations. But he also acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. “The decision about whether or not to release a particular individual from custody is often a challenging one,” Boudin told me. “As a law-enforcement official, as a politician, you are always going to have in the back of your mind the fear that someone you release will end up committing another crime, potentially a serious crime, during a period when they otherwise would have been incarcerated. And that fear has driven decision-making for decades in the criminal-justice arena. That fear of a Willie Horton moment has driven decision-making, legislation, executive action around criminal justice.” But “crises like this force us all,” he said, “to look in the mirror and make difficult decisions, ask difficult questions about what our priorities are.”
Naturally, Boudin’s priorities are the same ones they were before the virus. As he boasted to NPR’s Terry Gross in an interview last week, “we’ve reduced the county jail population since I took office in January by nearly 40 percent.” Boudin argues: “Compared to March of 2019, this past month has seen a decrease in crime of approximately 40 percent. So we’re both decreasing the jail population and seeing a parallel decrease in crime rates.” Of course, it is not that surprising that crime is down (for now) with the whole state locked down. Boudin has his sights set on bigger national game: He recently told Forbes that “COVID-19 is highlighting that the system of mass incarceration, in and of itself, is violent because it exposes people to disease and other forms of violence, like sexual assault.”
Not all of his ideas are pro-criminal; he has also promoted temporary housing for victims of domestic violence. But the “Willie Horton” scenario that Boudin paints mainly as a public-relations problem is not hypothetical. Just yesterday, a Hillsborough County, Fla, inmate who was released due to coronavirus concerns was arrested for committing a murder in Tampa the day after his release:
26-year-old Joseph Edward Williams . . . was just recently booked into jail on March 13 for possession of heroin (less than four grams), a third-degree felony, and possession drug paraphernalia, a first-degree misdemeanor. . . . He was previously convicted of two felony offenses including burglary of an unoccupied conveyance in 2012 and felon in possession of a firearm in 2018, in addition to five misdemeanor convictions. Throughout the course of his criminal history, Williams has been arrested for 35 charges in total.
You will notice that Williams had been arrested for nonviolent offenses.
Consistent with his prior advocacy for arresting federal immigration officers, Boudin demanded that Gavin Newsom, California’s arch-progressive governor, shut down federal immigration detention facilities. Even for Newsom, who has taken to referring to the onetime Bear Flag Republic as a “nation-state,” seizing federal property and reenacting Fort Sumter was a step too far. As Newsom’s press secretary conceded, “the federal government has exclusive authority over immigration law.”
Responsible law enforcement requires continually reevaluating the lessons of public safety. The great success of crime reduction since the early 1990s counsels against unlearning the lessons of that era. That does not mean that society should stop asking hard questions about what criminal-justice reforms could be undertaken safely. But a left-wing radical who is ideologically opposed to previous successes and who takes an adversarial stance toward the entire enterprise of law enforcement is unlikely to strike the right balance.