This interview is part of a series of talks with leading intellectuals, editors, activists, economists and politicians who help to describe the state of affairs before the elections. You can read the other deliveries here.
San Francisco's new district attorney has spent his life in and out of jail. Not as an intern, but visiting his parents. Chesa Boudin is the son of David Gilbert and Kathie Boudin, two members of the radical leftist group Weather Underground, considered terrorists by the FBI, which was active in the late 1970s. In 1981, they participated in the armed robbery of an armored truck outside of New York that killed three people. Her mother was paroled in 2003. Her father is still in jail. Boudin was raised by two other members of that group, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
His education includes a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford and a law degree from Yale. But before that, he traveled through Latin America. He lived in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. In 2004 he settled in Venezuela and worked as a translator for the Government of Hugo Chávez. He speaks excellent Spanish. Back in San Francisco, he began working as a public defender.
Beyond his colorful biography, Boudin (New York, 40 years old) is part of a group of prosecutors who advocate a reform of the penal system in the United States, the country with the most incarcerated people in the world. A system in which race and economic resources often determine the outcome of justice, there are hardly any avenues of social reintegration and there are such things as unconditional imprisonment for life, or mandatory prison terms for drug retail.
On November 5, 2019, Boudin won against all odds the election for district attorney, a semi-political position that puts him at the forefront of the entire county penal system. Now, he is the chief of police. Is not easy. The local police union (SFPOA) spent $ 650,000 (about 548,000 euros) campaigning against Boudin, including flyers in the mail saying he was "the favorite of criminals and gang members." The relationship with the police union, which describes the reformist positions of the new prosecutor as "dangerous", remains very tense.
Politically, he represents the most left-wing current in the Democratic Party that is challenging the old guard of the party. Boudin's victory follows the same trend as those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Katie Porter or Ayanna Presley. His campaign was against the entire establishment from San Francisco, but garnered public support from Senator Bernie Sanders, former civil rights leader Angela Davis, Black Lives Matter leaders, musician John Legend, and other progressive US prosecutors. It is the most energetic wing of the party, the one that wanted a political revolution led by Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Julián Castro, but who in the end has to settle for the most conventional candidate of all, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Chesa boudin, the son of Weather Underground, the translator of the Bolivarian Government, perhaps the public office with the most revolutionary pedigree of the United States, says that Biden can count on the votes of the left because "democracy is at stake."
Question. You have a very particular biography for a politician.
Answer. When I was a baby, my parents left me with a babysitter and never came to pick me up again. They participated in an armed robbery in which three men died. Two of them were policemen, killed in the line of duty by the people my parents were collaborating with. My mother served 22 years in jail. My father was sentenced to a minimum of 75 years and is still in jail today. I don't remember the day they were arrested, but my oldest childhood memories are visits to jail, going through steel barriers and metal detectors just so I can give them a hug. After years and decades of visiting prisons to see my parents, I learned hard lessons about how America's penal system is failing. It fails to repair the damage to the victims. It fails to rehabilitate those who commit the crimes. In reality, it is making us less safe because it weakens our communities, destroys families, and ruins school districts and state governments. And it's all because we have a very narrow vision.
P. In those visits he would learn concrete examples of that failure.
R. I visited my parents often and made friends with the children who were there to visit their own. We played together while we waited for the process of entering the prison. For decades I have seen what happened to many of those children who did not have the opportunities and support that I had. I have witnessed firsthand how the intergenerational cycle of incarceration unfolds. Literally. I made a friend of South American origin who was going to visit his mother in the same jail as mine. He was a couple of years older than me and for me he was an example to follow. He was a first-rate student and the star of his basketball team at a time when I was grieving and in pain from the trauma of losing my parents. A few years later, when I was starting at Yale, he was on a very different path. He ended up incarcerated in the same module as my father. In the end, he was deported to his country. We keep in touch and I have been to visit him. He had all the potential, certainly the same as me or more, and his life ends in deportation, instead of a Rhodes scholarship and public office. That was avoidable. That is something that makes us all worse as a country. Not only to the victims of the crime he committed, but to everyone, for the loss of his potential. His mother was jailed for 17 years for selling drugs. You don't need any more examples.
P. Are you an example of what President (Donald) Trump calls the "radical left" and the "socialists" who want to turn the United States into Venezuela?
R. Very little of what the president says is honest, or true, and can be accepted as is. It is a sad reflection of the state of politics at the national level in this country. I think a better reference to use the word radical is Angela Davis, who defines the word radical as attacking things in the bud. That's what that word means. Being radical is going to the root of things. And that is exactly what we need in the reform of the penal system. For decades, people who say they are tough on crime, people who support Trump today, have refused to look at the root causes of crime and public safety. They prefer to focus solely on draconian punishments. And we have done it in a way that is unprecedented in the history of the world. The United States leads the world in imprisonment. 25% of all people in prison in the world are in the United States (2.2 million inmates). This is how we ended up with the refusal to look at the roots, what Angela Davis would call radical, of the challenges to public safety. In San Francisco, for example, 75% of county jail inmates have mental illness, or are drug addicts, or both. Is it radical to suggest that we spend more on mental health services and addiction treatment to prevent crime and protect San Francisco residents? It is more cost efficient, more likely to be successful, and more humane. But it is radical in the sense that it looks at the roots, which is what prosecutors, police unions and the far right refuse to do.
P. All this has been going on for decades. What has made it impossible to reform the system, despite the fact that there is some bipartisan consensus of Democrats and Republicans on this?
R. I think we have taken a long time to understand the consequences of the revenge approach and mass incarceration. It has taken decades until the failures of the prison system can no longer be manipulated or hidden by the police unions and the right-wing media. Furthermore, they are bankrupting the government. That has taken a long time to happen. A time has come for a national awakening. It has been seen this year with the Black Lives Matter movement. It has taken time to profoundly affect every corner of life in America and change our culture. Most Americans have an immediate family member who is in jail or has been through jail. That was not the case 20 or 30 years ago. Today, yes. The result is that everyone in America is affected by jail or addiction and that is causing a cultural shift.
P. You ran against all the establishment Democrat from San Francisco and won. What does your choice tell us about the state of affairs within the Democratic Party?
R. San Francisco is a politically special place because there is practically no Republican Party. 10% of the voters are registered as Republicans. It really is a one-party city. And within that single party it is divided between progressives (progressives, a word that in the US is equivalent to leftist) and moderate. Progressives have a majority on the Board of Supervisors (the county provincial authority). I have had significant support from San Francisco progressives, the Board of Supervisors, former mayors, Democratic clubs, and teachers and service unions. So I ran against the moderate and conservative Democrats, but I had support from the progressives. I believe that what it tells us at the national level is that the progressive movement is taking place throughout the country, is growing and is gaining traction. So much so that the people I was running against tried unsuccessfully to convince voters that they were the progressive prosecutors. This movement has tremendous traction and is expanding beyond the recent elections. And it's seen in the Black Lives Matter movement. The same movement that elected me in San Francisco is part of a larger one nationwide, calling for police reform and accountability and investment in public safety policies, which has dominated the headlines in 2020.
P. He establishment San Francisco Democrat is not just anyone, it is the home of Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Beyond the issue of criminal justice, what lessons can the party draw from its victory in the rest of the country?
R. We will have to see what happens on November 3. But yes, I hope it is significant about the direction the Democratic Party is going. Look, for too long, in my opinion, the Republican Party has been allowed to be a tyrannical minority, and an extremist. I don't think it is an edifying or democratic situation. We are seeing it with the maneuvers on the Supreme Court. Yes, I hope that the San Francisco approach can be an example for the country. I hope that the Democratic Party continues to evolve and that it listens to its grassroots about the democratic principles that underpin the party and our democracy in general.
P. That didn't happen in the primaries. The party chose Joe Biden, who is not only the opposite of you, but was responsible in the 1990s for some of those criminal policies that you are now trying to undo. As a figure on the left in California, does the Democratic left favor Joe Biden?
R. The left is absolutely determined and in favor of removing Donald Trump from the White House. I think people who preferred Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or other candidates are motivated, very motivated, to do whatever it takes within the law so that Donald Trump doesn't win a second term. Bernie Sanders supported Joe Biden. I think you can see all the leaders, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, constantly encouraging people to vote on social media, asking people to vote and do whatever it takes. I think many on the left have a real sense that the fate of our democracy is at stake.
P. In other words, what is being voted on this November goes beyond specific policies.
R. Totally. Those of us who are committed to democracy and democratic principles view the rise of fascism with fear, anxiety, and concern. Regardless of the policies we propose, we are determined to ensure that we continue to live in a democracy. That is in jeopardy in this election.
P. And on that objective, what effect do slogans such as “remove funding from the police” (defund the police) or “abolish the immigration police” (abolish ICE), who throws the left and then the Republicans use against the Democrats?
R. Shaking fear is an established electoral tactic among Republicans. It is not new. And sadly sometimes it is effective. But the movement on police funding, frankly, is something the Republican base could support if people spoke honestly about it. It's a conversation about how we spend our taxes, and making sure we get the most bang for our buck when we spend on public safety. It is a movement that calls for a careful examination of police budgets and study alternatives to improve security. That's something fiscal conservative Republicans and libertarians support. But Donald Trump and the Republican Party have turned it into a weapon to distract from the conversation about the police and focus on fear.
P. Do you think the current state of affairs is a good time to have this conversation about the police, or could that reductionism end up hurting Democrats?
R. We will see what happens in November. But I would say that in a normally functioning democracy it is always a good time to have difficult conversations about politics. The problem is that we are in a democracy that is not working, because one of the parties no longer plays by the same rules. The Republican Party is willing to do whatever it takes to get and keep power. That makes it very difficult to have the kind of national conversation about politics and values that would be essential in a functioning democracy.
P. How can Democrats respond to that speech about radical socialism?
R. I believe that it is always a good time to set an example with honesty, integrity and empathy.
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