Chesa Boudin is running for San Francisco district attorney as the latest candidate in a wave of decarceral prosecutors running for office across the United States. Senator Bernie Sanders and other leading progressives have endorsed Boudin, who is a public defender and the child of Weather Underground activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. His parents were imprisoned when Boudin was a toddler. These experiences have given him a firsthand view of “how broken our criminal justice system is,” he says. “My earliest memories are going through steel gates and metal detectors just to see my parents, just to give them a hug.” Boudin is running on a platform of ending cash bail and dismantling the “war on drugs,” seeking to end “tough on crime” tactics and restore civil rights. Bay Area voters will cast their ballots on November 5.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a candidate looking to upend San Francisco’s approach to criminal justice. Chesa Boudin is running for San Francisco district attorney, and his résumé is highly unusual. He’s the child of Weather Underground activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who were imprisoned when Boudin was still a toddler. Gilbert remains in prison. Boudin was raised by former Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Chesa Boudin has been endorsed by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and is running on a platform of ending cash bail and dismantling the “war on drugs.” This is his campaign ad.
CHESA BOUDIN: We live in a city built on a simple ideal. It’s called equal justice for all. But for so many of us, this ideal is being betrayed. We’ve become a city of prosperity, but also of abject poverty. We’ve become a city of aspiration, but also of exclusion and inequity. Our most vulnerable residents do not receive the mental healthcare and shelter they need. We fill our jails with African-American San Franciscans, who make up more than half the county’s inmates but only 5% of the city’s population. We let the wealthy defendants go free on bail even if they’re dangerous, while the poor remain behind bars even if they are innocent.
I know what it’s like to be impacted by the criminal justice system. When I was an infant, my mother was sentenced to decades in prison. My father may never get out. My earliest memories are walking through steel gates to visit them. When I served as a public defender, I brought those experiences with me to the courthouse every day as I worked on behalf of the poorest and most overlooked residents of our city to ensure that people who couldn’t afford a lawyer still had access to equal justice.
I’m part of a growing movement that’s bringing a new vision to the District Attorney’s Office, a vision to make the criminal justice system work for all of us, not just the rich and powerful. Justice demands an independent voice, someone willing to directly challenge a broken system.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Chesa Boudin is the newest addition to a growing number of public defenders who have vowed to use a local prosecutor’s seat to end “tough on crime” tactics and restore civil rights. Over the summer, Tiffany Cabán came within 55 votes of winning a tightly contested Queens district attorney seat against the Democratic machine’s favored candidate. The 31-year-old queer Latina public defender was supported by progressive district attorneys Larry Krasner of Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins of Boston, all part of a new decarceral prosecutor movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to San Francisco, where we are joined by Chesa Boudin.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Chesa. The race, the election is just a week away. There have been unusual developments, and one of your main opponents has just been appointed the DA of San Francisco. If you can explain what just happened, for a national audience, and also, with your unusual history, why you want to become district attorney of San Francisco?
CHESA BOUDIN: Well, thank you, Amy. It’s great to be back on the show. Thank you, Juan. Always good to be here.
We are just under a week away from the election. And the election is November 5th. On October 18th, the current elected district attorney, George Gascón, stepped down in order to pursue the Los Angeles district attorney position. And it was a highly unusual development, particularly because this was the first open district attorney race in San Francisco history in over a century, quite literally the first time without an incumbent on the ballot since 1909. And when George Gascón announced his early departure on October 18th, the mayor immediately announced that she would be swearing in one of my competitors, Suzy Loftus, as the interim DA for the 18 days until the election.
It was a move widely criticized. The nonpartisan ACLU, for example, called it an interference with the democratic process. Many other observers jumped into the race to denounce this move as an effort by the mayor to tilt the scales of the election and influence the outcome. And, of course, we have seen what everyone expected, which is that the interim DA has used her position, quite literally every day, to do a press conference or some campaign-related activity to draw attention to her otherwise uninspiring campaign platform.
AMY GOODMAN: And why you’re running, Chesa Boudin?
CHESA BOUDIN: Well, Amy, I’m running because I’ve seen firsthand, personally, my whole life, how broken our criminal justice system is. My earliest memories are going through steel gates and metal detectors just to see my parents, just to give them a hug. And I learned, through years and now decades of prison visits, that our justice system is not doing nearly enough for victims of crime. It’s not rehabilitating people who have been convicted of crimes. And it’s a system of racist mass incarceration that’s actually costing taxpayers billions of dollars and making us less safe. I saw that, I lived it, I experienced it my whole life. And I decided to become a public defender to make sure that people had access to equal justice, no matter how much money they had in the bank. And day in, day out, practicing as a public defender here in San Francisco, I saw the same kinds of systemic injustices that I experienced firsthand as a family member of incarcerated parents.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Chesa, could —
CHESA BOUDIN: I fought day in, day out — oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead, Amy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: No, I was going to ask you, Chesa: Could you talk about some of the main planks of what you’re hoping to accomplish as DA, especially in terms of sexual assault, immigration, mental health treatment and also the racial disparities within the criminal justice system?
CHESA BOUDIN: Absolutely. Well, thank you for bringing those issues up, Juan. They’re actually all key platforms in my campaign. Let’s start with sexual assault. I’m committed to testing every single rape kit, new or old, in San Francisco. I think if someone survives a sexual assault, has the courage to submit their body to an evidentiary collection process, it is incumbent upon law enforcement to at least test the evidence. My main opponent, the interim DA, was actually a defendant in a high-profile lawsuit because she refused to test rape kits when she was the president of the police commission.
Mental illness is another critical issue in San Francisco. Seventy-five percent of people arrested and taken to county jail in this city are drug-addicted, mentally ill or both. And we are currently using the county jail as the number-one provider of mental health services in the city. It’s not working. It’s not keeping us safe. It’s not humane. It’s not therapeutic. I want to treat mental illness before crimes are committed, instead of waiting for people to be taken to jail.
Racial disparities. San Francisco incarcerates African Americans at a rate that is higher than any other major city in the country. It’s a disgrace, it’s unjust, and we’ve got to systematically attack it. It is not enough, in this day and age, in a city like San Francisco, to simply say we are being race-neutral. As one of the leaders I’m proud to have as an endorsement in this race, Angela Davis, likes to say, we must be anti-racist. And those are the policies that I’ve developed — anti-racist policies to systematically root out racism at every step of the criminal justice system. It’s a detailed program that will take an unflinching look at the ways in which racial bias manifests, and attack it everywhere we see it, including implicit bias training on an annual basis, including a refusal to use evidence gathered by police officers with a history of racial profiling, of excessive use of force or of dishonesty on the witness stand.
And the other thing that’s critical to my platform, absolutely essential, is putting victims first. We know that all too often in our criminal justice system crime victims are used as pieces of evidence rather than given a meaningful voice in the process. I’m the only candidate in this race who is committed to requiring my staff to actually contact every victim of every crime within 48 hours to give them a voice. And I’ve developed the broadest, most ambitious restorative justice program of any jurisdiction in the country. As San Francisco’s next district attorney, I will give every victim of every crime the right to participate in restorative justice, if they choose to.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Chesa, you mentioned earlier on that one of your earliest memories was visiting your mother and father in prison. As you probably know, I was a classmate of your father’s. We were both together at Columbia University and in SDS at the time. And I have always said that your father was, without a doubt, the most brilliant student at Columbia, at least at the time that I was there. I’m wondering, given their history, their imprisonment, how they are looking at your campaign and how that’s affected how the voters are looking at you in San Francisco?
CHESA BOUDIN: Well, Juan, I think all of my parents, despite the mistakes they’ve made and the consequences they’ve paid for those mistakes, are supportive and proud of me. And I think they’re excited about this campaign. They certainly all worried that their mistakes and their history, things they did before I was even born, would be used to attack me in this race. And I think that was a concern they had. And I think they also worried that this criminal justice system we have is so oppressive and so punitive that it would be a very difficult challenge to reform it into a system that actually uplifts people, that heals the harm that crime causes, that prevents crime instead of simply focusing on punishment.
So they shared those concerns with me. I think probably the hardest of those conversations was with my father, your former classmate. I visited him at his prison last fall, when I was considering throwing my hat in the race. And we talked about it in his prison visiting room. And he made the point pretty succinctly, when he said that his cell block was already full, and he really didn’t need more people being sent to prison.
And, of course, you know, he knows, as I do, that we live in a society where prisons today are not obsolete, to quote again from Angela Davis’s book. But we do have a need to protect society from people who are violent, and that is a role that jails and prisons appropriately play today, but it’s a role that’s really overused and abused, and we need to find ways to decarcerate, to safely allow people to return to the community, to have effective mechanisms for re-entry.
And I think my parents’ concern was primarily that this is going to be a serious fight and that people were going to attack me for things I hadn’t done. And, of course, their concerns proved to be accurate. The Deputy Sheriffs’ Association in San Francisco has spent over $100,000, much of it attacking me in this race, using my parents’ history, using bizarre Red Scare tactics in a video put out by the John Birch Society to attack me. And just in the last week alone, the Police Officers Association here in San Francisco has spent over $200,000 in attack ads in mailers and TV commercials, making up lies, spreading misinformation and using the kind of racist fearmongering that has unfortunately been a hallmark of the tough-on-crime era of the ’90s and early 2000s.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the issue of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association similarly opposing your candidacy, as you said, reposting this video from the John Birch Society titled “Terrorist’s Son as SF District Attorney?” with a question mark. So, how do you work with these groups once you become district attorney? And talk about the wave of this new generation of district attorneys across the country, from Larry Krasner in Philadelphia now, and the significance of you getting Bernie Sanders’ endorsement, Chesa?
CHESA BOUDIN: Thank you, Amy. Well, I’m proud to have been endorsed by, as you said, a wave of progressive prosecutors, people running for and winning offices around the country, from coast to coast, on a vision of making our communities safer by reducing racial disparities, by decarceration and by holding law enforcement accountable — people like Larry Krasner, as you mentioned — I’m actually doing a campaign event with him tonight here in San Francisco — Tiffany Cabán, who has been out here to campaign with me on the trail, and Rachael Rollins and Kim Foxx, who have both endorsed me in this race.
You know, in addition to those folks and, of course, Bernie Sanders, who I’m tremendously honored to have the support of, one of the things that all those folks recognize, as do our rank-and-file law enforcement — and this goes back to the first part of your question, Amy — is that we are safer when we enforce the law equally. And all too often in today’s criminal justice system, the quality of justice that people receive depends not on guilt or innocence, but on the color of their skin, on how much money they have in the bank account or on whether they wear a uniform to work.
And so, what I’ve learned and what I’ve heard over and over again from rank-and-file sheriffs’ deputies, from rank-and-file police officers, is that they are anxious to be liberated from the tyranny of the minority of officers who abuse their power, who abuse their uniform and their badge. Imagine being an officer on the beat and having a partner who violates the law, who plants evidence, who racially profiles, who uses excessive force, and lies in police reports and testimony before the court. Well, if you’re the honest officer serving alongside the dishonest one, and you do your job and follow the law and report the misconduct that you witness, absolutely nothing will happen to the officer who has committed misconduct. And you, for having integrity and decency, will be retaliated against, and your career will be over. I believe that the majority of officers have taken their jobs because they want to serve and protect their communities, and their ability to do so is undermined, and their safety is put at risk, by the tyranny of the minority.
So I am excited to work with the majority of officers who have integrity, who serve with pride, who actually want to serve and protect their communities. But to do so, we need to make sure we’re enforcing the law equally. I am the candidate in this race who has made the clearest, most consistent commitment to do that. And it’s exactly why the most extreme right-wing elements that run the police union have chosen to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking me.
AMY GOODMAN: And the terrible crisis of homelessness, Chesa? You co-wrote an article in The San Francisco Examiner titled “The district attorney has a role to play in protecting tenants.” On your campaign website, you vow to prosecute landlords who break laws to exploit tenants. Can you talk about what this means and how you would deal with the increasing criminalization of unhoused people in the city? San Francisco has become really the poster child in this country of homelessness.
CHESA BOUDIN: Amy, we have a real crisis of homelessness in San Francisco. You see it everywhere you go. And it’s one of the issues that comes up with the most frequency on the campaign trail. Everywhere we go, people are asking the district attorney candidates, “What are you going to do about the homelessness crisis?” And, of course, one of the first points we need to make always is that being homeless is not a crime. Being poor is not a crime. And yet, approximately 40% of our county jail is made up of people who were unhoused at the time of their arrest.
Now, I’m committed to using data to inform my policies, to look at what the numbers show us, and make policy based on data. So let’s take housing as an example. Seventy percent of the people who are currently unhoused in San Francisco were previously living in housing in San Francisco. So if we are committed to finding ways to reduce and address the housing crisis, we need to start by ensuring that people who are currently housed don’t lose their housing through fraud, deceit or illegal tactics by corporate landlords. Turns out that a huge percentage of the people who have been owner-move-in evicted, OMI evicted, in San Francisco have been done so using fraud, deceit or threats.
Being a progressive prosecutor, Amy, is not just about decarceration, reducing racial disparities and so on. It’s also about making sure we are using the tremendous power and discretion of the District Attorney’s Office to enforce the laws equally. That means prosecuting corporate landlords when they commit fraud. It means prosecuting police when they commit murder or perjury. It means prosecuting corporations when they dump toxic waste into our communities, as they did in the Hunters Point shipyards. And it means having a broader vision of using the District Attorney’s Office to actually keep our communities safe, not simply wage a racist war on drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: Chesa Boudin, we want to thank you very much for being with us, San Francisco deputy public defender, now candidate for San Francisco district attorney. The election, the primary, is next week.
When we come back, speaking of homelessness, speaking of losing homes, Decade of Fire. A new documentary tells the story of the terrible fires that ravaged the Bronx in the ’70s and the community that fought to save their neighborhood. Stay with us.