SAN FRANCISCO — A quintessential Hyde Park upbringing helped instill San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin's professional values. He's a Californian now, facing far different challenges than Chicago's, but he said in a Herald interview that he empathizes with State's Attorney Kim Foxx's work.
Boudin’s parents, members of the Weather Underground, were incarcerated when he was 14 months old. He was raised by University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Bill Ayers and Northwestern University law professor Bernardine Dohrn — first at 48th and Kimbark, and then at 50th and Kenwood. Being in a "really, truly integrated summer baseball league" and in a home where dinner parties were not only integrated by race, but by class and "political and social engagement," had a tremendous impact on him.
"That was a normal part of life growing up in Hyde Park in a way that it probably wasn't even for friends of mine who went to Lab School but who grew up on the North Side," he said.
He remembers drive-by shootings during summer baseball practices in Kenwood Park, 1330 E. 50th St., and the city taking down basketball hoops there out of concerns that they were creating "a vehicle for violence."
"I remember the complexity around wanting to play and be safe in what was effectively our front yard and also the reality of gun violence growing up," he said. "The other side is that some of the people who were in my baseball league ended up themselves being victims of drive-by shootings, ended up themselves being incarcerated for gun violence. And those people were my friends, some of them classmates.
"It forced me, in ways that are similar to having grown up visiting my parents in prison, to grapple with the complexity of public safety issues and the humanity of people's lives that are caught up in crime and violence."
Boudin has stayed in touch with childhood friends in Hyde Park. He addressed last year's Lab School graduating class. His brother lives in Chicago. While he professed love for Chicago, he recalled summers in the Bay Area, where all four of his parents had spent parts of their lives and where another brother had moved after college.
After finishing law school at Yale University, he passed the New York and California bar examinations and moved west. "Not necessarily committed to staying," he said, but he wound up building a life there: "I love the environment, the political community, the social community. This is where I met my wife. It's where I call home."
San Francisco and Chicago, obviously, are quite different cities, in terms of population, racial makeup and, he pointed out, violence.
"The fact is, San Francisco is a much safer city," he said. "Our problems in San Francisco around crime are much more related around property crime than they are to violent crime. Of course I want to be very clear: we have gun violence. We have violent crime in San Francisco like any other big city, but in terms of the scale, it's just not comparable with what you see in Chicago."
Ten people were killed last Memorial Day weekend in Chicago; in San Francisco, there have only been 10 homicides so far this year.
"We have different issues with wealth inequality and tourism that lead to a lot of the crime that we deal with," he said. The biggest issues when I was running for office in 2019 was auto burglaries, smash-and-grabs. A real problem, but nothing compared to the severity of gun violence that Chicago is dealing with."
(Boudin did commiserate with the present author over the shared frequency of catalytic converter thefts in the Windy City and the City by the Bay.)
Both Boudin and Kim Foxx have been recognized as a part of a new vein of progressive, criminal justice reform-oriented elected prosecutors in the United States. In so doing, they have come under intense scrutiny for being overly permissive in prosecuting crime.
"Kim is an unbelievably hard-working, principled person with a vision for more equitable and more transparent justice, and she has suffered from and been targeted in the attacks that many of us have been targeted for in this movement," Boudin said.
"In her case, I know there's a lot of racial and gender-based animus directed at her that I don't face, but I know that what we have in common, in terms of the framework through which our (terms) in office have been judged, is a real double standard. It's one in which critics from the right blame us for every crime that occurs."
He pointed out that, contrary to some San Franciscans' beliefs, crime is down since he took office last year. "There's a huge gap between perception and data, which is one part of the problem. And that's not unique to me and Kim — that's true across the country over the last 20 years. As crime rates have fallen nationally, the perception has consistently been that crime is up," he said, quoting the journalistic "if it bleeds it leads" maxim and the selection bias.
In Oakland's Alameda County, across the bay, homicides are up 200% since the beginning of the year, Boudin said, though no one blames the county's tough-on-crime prosecutor, Nancy O'Malley.
"In San Francisco, where our homicide rate is flat, I'm being blamed for every homicide that occurs," he said. "On one hand, we're responsible for public safety, which makes sense. But you don't see that same framework applied to traditional prosecutors. People might blame the police. They might blame poverty or inequity or mental illness, but with us, anytime something goes wrong, they want to point the finger at us. We're punching bags."
Boudin, 40, is a first-time elected official, and the pandemic struck two months after he took office. He has spoken to district attorneys California-wide about the situation he finds himself in.
"Pretty much what they say to me is, 'You know, I promise you it's not usually like this. Being in office is not usually like this.' That's what they say, because it is such a historically difficult year for everybody — for the people who we serve and for the law enforcement partners who we work with and for our staff and for the courts when we try to do business.
“On top of all of those historic challenges, we're also, as local elected officials, taking the brunt of the anxiety, fear and instability that the folks we serve are experiencing on a daily basis. What people say to me, whether they're Republican DAs or progressive prosecutors or whatever it is, what they say to me is, 'It is not usually like this. I promise.'"