San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was at home cooking dinner on a Thursday evening in January when he opened a new app called Clubhouse that lets people drop into virtual “rooms” and listen to live, unrecorded conversations. Someone had messaged Boudin to let him know that tech investors were hosting an “interesting” conversation about the “Future of SF.” As he prepared his food, some of them were speaking critically about San Francisco’s liberal political leaders. Soon, Boudin’s own name came up.
The district attorney wasn’t necessarily surprised; he’s no stranger to heavy chatter about his policies. Since taking office in January 2020, Boudin has built a reputation as one of the most progressive prosecutors in the country—a former public defender who understands the horrors of mass incarceration because both his parents, members of the radical Weather Underground movement, were imprisoned when he was a boy. He won his election with support from communities of color who wanted to make the criminal justice system less racist and improve public safety without imprisoning more people. In his first year, he tried to do this by ordering his office to stop asking for cash bail, reducing the jail population as the coronavirus spread behind bars, and beginning to prosecute some police officers who beat or killed suspects, all of which earned him praise from supporters.
But radical change breeds backlash, and the disruption of the old ways seemed to especially bristle some tech investors, many of whom have businesses in or near San Francisco. For weeks, the tech elite claimed the city was becoming uninhabitable under Boudin, with a growing scourge of crime and homelessness, and some even demanded that he step down from office. On the Clubhouse call, they accused the district attorney of sympathizing with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and argued he was coddling “criminals” in San Francisco. Boudin grew frustrated as he listened from his kitchen: “The level of dishonesty and misinformation was frankly staggering,” he recalls.
Clubhouse works like a lecture panel. Listeners are avatars in the room who can join the conversation or ask a question. Soon, the organizers noticed Boudin was in the audience, and invited him to speak. From there, the conversation went viral (at least in terms of city politics), with nearly 3,000 listeners tuning in from around the country. Boudin was in the hot seat as the investors barraged him with questions about crime. For about an hour, he tried to explain the nexus of failures within the justice system and the scope of what his office can do. Then someone asked Nancy Tung, who ran unsuccessfully against Boudin for district attorney in 2019, how she would go about prosecuting a hypothetical criminal offense. “I’m going to gracefully exit because we’re in a land of speculation,” Boudin said before logging off.
Boudin was being hit with California’s unique variant of recall fever, a mix of traditional right-wing complaints about progressivism now boosted by a clique of tech elites. Other targets of their ire include Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, who previously held Boudin’s position in San Francisco and, like Boudin, is part of a nationwide movement of progressive prosecutors seeking to make the criminal justice system less punitive. [Continue reading…]