June 8, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
No, it’s not about crime. It’s about quote-unquote crime
Are we talking about illegal acts? Or are we talking about the unacceptable? Do white liberals know the difference?
Chesa Boudin is a name you probably never heard before. You’ll hear a lot about him this week, however. His story fits into a larger national story about the Democratic Party’s predicted wipe out in the midterms.
Boudin is San Francisco’s district attorney. A newcomer in 2019, he won the job narrowly as “part of a national wave of progressive prosecutors who pledged to seek alternatives to incarceration, end the racist war on drugs and hold police officers to account,” the AP said.
His term coincided with a rash of high-profile shoplifting sprees, some of which went viral on social media, and violent attacks on Asian Americans, part of a nationwide racist pattern of scapegoating that community for the coronavirus. So, the AP said, residents organized a recall of “the former public defender and son of left-wing activists.”
Last night, he lost.
Given that since 2019 rates of violent crime fell by 22 percent in San Francisco, why would the city’s liberal residents recall their district attorney based on the argument that he’s soft on crime?
The description of him as a “son of left-wing activists” is important to the national story about the backlash against Democratic control of Washington. The argument for recalling Boudin is based on the claim that progressives are soft on crime, hence San Francisco’s crime wave.
Today the Times, as it does, set the national agenda. Head: “California Sends Democrats and the Nation a Message on Crime.” Subhead: “The recall of a progressive prosecutor in San Francisco and the strong showing by a former Republican [Rick Caruso] in the mayor’s race in Los Angeles showed the shifting winds on criminal justice.”
It appears, in the wake of his defeat, that the Times’ interpretation seems respectable to respectable white people like Amy Walter, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“Politics isn’t that complicated. If you are the party/candidate in charge and things aren’t going well, voters will punish you,” she wrote. In SF/LA, homelessness and reports on crime have made voters feel less safe. It doesn’t mean these voters are pro-GOP or less liberal.”
It’s not simple.
“Crime” as in illegal acts
The argument against Boudin turns out to be a baseless. According to attorney David Menschel, crime went down. “As of two days ago, Chesa had been DA for 880 days. During those 880 days, there were 11,777 violent crimes in San Francisco. During the 880 days just prior to Chesa becoming DA, there were 15,190 violent crimes in San Francisco.
“Violent crime fell 22 percent,” Menschel wrote.
So if rates of violent crime fell, why would city residents recall their district attorney based on the argument that he’s soft on crime?
To hear Boudin tell it, he was outspent by “rightwing billionaires.”
But the answer isn’t money.
Not money alone.
The answer is rooted in the fact that even a progressive city, and its numerous white liberals, can get caught up in the stream of history and the political dynamics rushing through it. The answer to why San Franciscans recalled their top cop on a charge of being soft on crime when rates of violent crime dropped rests on the meaning of “crime.”
Are we talking about illegal acts?
Or are we talking about the unacceptable?
And do San Francisco’s white liberals know the difference?
“Crime” as in the unacceptable
To make the recall vote make sense, we have to set it in the context of the backlash against political gains made in the wake of George Floyd murder at the hands of a white cop. More broadly, as part of a violent white-power reaction to the election of the first Black president.
If we don’t set the recall aside the forces of liberal democracy that made room for post-Floyd political gains and for Barack Obama, the vote can only be seen through an old tiresome lens, between “reform candidates,” the AP said, and “traditional law-and-order candidates.”
The Republicans mean progressives like Chesa Boudin, in trying to reform the criminal justice system and hold police officers accountable for their crimes, are tearing apart the orders of white power designed to give white people, even white liberals, the very best advantages. They mean progressives are not punishing the enemies of white power.
Politico, as is its wont, can be trusted to reiterate the tiresome: “Opponents of criminal justice reform and Republicans seeking to depict Democrats as weak on public safety will likely cite Chesa Boudin’s rejection in a deeply liberal city as evidence that voters are balking at efforts to ease sentencing and reduce incarceration.”
But “traditional law-and-order candidates” are not what they seem to be. Neither are “Republicans seeking to depict Democrats as weak on public safety.” To be sure, both are guardians of “tradition” – ie, the natural order of things – but not law and order. Just the opposite.
Indeed, it can’t be otherwise.
The party of “law and order” can stop democracy
If the Republicans stood for law and order, they’d have accepted the fact that America elected a Black president by way of liberal values put into practice and the democratic process. They’d have accepted the fact that police departments are often sources of violence against law-abiding citizens for the purpose of impairing their political power. They would have then joined, or not have blocked, efforts to hold cops to account, clean up corruption and reform the criminal justice system.
But if the Republicans had done that, they would have committed suicide, as the justice system is not for them corrupt but working as it’s supposed to. The GOP and its rightwing bloc will not tolerate reform or the liberal democratic forces that are demanding it. Liberal democracy, by its nature, collapses the hierarchies of power that give all white people, even white liberals, the very best advantages.
Police are the last line of defense.
To protect the orders of white power, the Republicans have set out, since about 2008, certainly since 2012, to destabilize law and order, to promote lawless acts against democratic pluralism and to mass produce public violence on a scale that terrorizes white people, even white liberals, into seeking protection from the party of “law and order.”
Party of chaos and anarchy is more like it.
When “traditional law-and-order candidates” say the Democrats, especially the progressive reformers among them, are “soft on crime,” they do not mean they are weak in the face of actual illegal acts.
They mean progressives like Chesa Boudin, in trying to reform the criminal justice system and hold police officers accountable for their crimes, are tearing apart the orders of white power designed to give white people, even white liberals, the very best advantages. They mean progressives are not punishing the enemies of white power.
That’s a “crime.”
Only the party of “law and order” can punish them.
What the midterms will be about
Do San Francisco’s white liberals know the difference between actual illegal acts and something unacceptable to the white-power order?
I don’t know. But last night’s results are suggestive.
They suggest that with enough money – with resources from “rightwing billionaires – white liberals can be conned into believing their cities are overrun with criminals even as actual crime rates drop.
They suggest that with enough money, white liberals can be made to doubt the desirability of liberal democracy. Worse, they can be made, without much effort, to hold “crime” and “Black” in the same thought.
Come what may, the coming midterms won’t be about “opponents of criminal justice reform … seeking to depict Democrats as weak on public safety.” It won’t be about voters, even white liberal voters, “balking at efforts to ease sentencing and reduce incarceration.”
It will be about white power reclaiming its advantage after the country experienced a brief period in which real reform seemed possible.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.