by Sierra Bourne, SF Bay View
It is no secret that controversial San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has fallen out of favor with some SF residents and interest groups. Indeed, the New York native is up against his second recall campaign since March of last year.
A proponent of restorative justice and rehabilitation for low-level crimes and misdemeanors rather than indiscriminate prosecution and life sentences, the DA has ruffled the feathers of many individuals and officials who admonish his practices for not being “tough on crime.”
On Friday, April 8, 2022, Boudin hosted an open forum before an audience of community members in the Bayview District’s historic Opera House to dispel these claims and reassure his past supporters that, while the approach of his office may be unpopular with some, he is determined to both secure justice and support for victims of crime while also holding perpetrators accountable in a humane and rehabilitative manner.
Initially a somewhat sparse crowd, Bayview residents and other parties gradually began to trickle into the 3 p.m. conference as time progressed. The lack of attendance was proposed by some to be a result of a concurrent protest at City Hall over the latest version of the redistricting map.
It should be noted that recall supporters still found time to congregate outside of the venue and attempt to disrupt Boudin towards the beginning of his speech, but were hastily ushered away by individuals stationed by the Opera House entrance.
What the audience may have lacked in numbers, however, it made up for with passionate, thought provoking questions and demands of the DA once he opened up the floor for dialogue. Present at the meeting and one of the first to take to the mic with a question was local environmental activist and founder of the Marie Harrison Community Foundation, Arieann Harrison.
Harrison spoke to the multitude of overlooked environmental injustices perpetrated by corporations in Hunters Point, namely, home construction company Lennar, which carried out construction on contaminated soil in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard – further resurfacing decades old toxins that have yet to be fully cleaned up and still plague residents with a myriad of health issues.
Harrison asserted that environmental justice should fall under the scope of the DA office’s responsibilities and that prosecution of negligent companies was essential to achieving reparations for the generational harm caused. Echoing Harrison’s environmental health concerns, the SF Bay View’s very own Mary Ratcliff would later take the mic, telling of her personal fight against terminal cancer, which she believes is due in large part to prolonged exposure to toxins while living and working in the Bayview for decades.
“I completely agree with you,” Chesa Boudin responded. He went on to explain that in every budget proposal he and his office draft for approval by the mayor’s office and SF Board of Supervisors, there is a request for funds allotted to hire a team specifically dedicated to environmental investigations.
The DA added that, although it is “no excuse” for the ongoing environmental injustices, amidst these budget proposals he faces increasing pressure to focus more on property and retail crimes. He did express that environmental justice is an avenue he is very open to continue pursuing in the near future.
Chesa Boudin also spoke of wanting to “redefine the role of prosecutor to be more proactive than reactive,” opting to stop crime in its tracks by supporting local programs that engage young people on the street and keep them out of trouble, like the non-profit Us4Us, run by community activist Damien Posey, affectionately known to the neighborhood as Uncle Damien.
For some members of the audience, including Posey himself, plans to prevent future crime were not enough; many demanded redress for harmful offenses that had already taken place, which they believed were not being addressed with enough punishment.
Jason Young, father of the late Jace Young, the 6-year-old boy whose life was tragically stolen in a gun-related crime in July of 2020, turned up to the community conversation and also had pressing questions for Boudin.
Since the murder of his son, Young has been in frequent contact with the DA, tracking the progress of the case against one of the individuals involved in the deadly shooting, on a mission to receive justice for his child. Young was open about his dissatisfaction with the handling of his son’s case and his current support for the recall effort due to what he feels is too lenient of a sentencing for the shooter in question.
“How is releasing people from prison who have committed murder back on to the streets in three to four years keeping our community safe?” Young queried. “There are young people getting locked up for serious, violent crimes and in four years they’re back on the streets preying on the youth in the community, grooming them to become shooters and bragging about it.”
Young spoke to the horrors of hearing his entire household weeping at the loss of the deceased child and feeling disempowered at not being able to do anything to bring him back. He stressed that the consequences of brazen destruction of life such as this must be more severe than a few years behind bars.
“I’m not saying throw them away for the rest of their lives, but maybe 15 years or something to send the message that this can’t be taken lightly.”
“I want to recognize that nothing I or anyone else can attempt to do will ever be good enough … because it can’t bring back your son,” Chesa Boudin replied. He went on to clarify that his office is not, in fact, pushing for three or four-year sentences for homicides, and actually has the highest conviction rate for murder regardless of age – but he is standing on his promise to the voters not to prosecute juveniles as adults, a practice that disproportionately affects young people of color, particularly African Americans.
Boudin continued, saying that although his office can recommend sentencing procedure and duration, it is ultimately the judge who makes the final decision, and that most often if a juvenile is recommended to be tried as an adult, they will be incarcerated for far longer than 15 or so years – potentially for life.
He proclaimed that, by trying juveniles as adults, subjecting them to a lifetime of trauma, abuse and other well documented, inhumane treatment occurring in state and federal prisons and jails, “we are giving up hope on the human capacity to change.” Boudin highlighted how some of the individuals sitting in the room were able to return to their communities and make a positive impact after being released from incarceration, a circumstance that would not have been possible had they been imprisoned for life or even executed.
Later in the gathering, April Green, organizer of the event and aunt of Keita “Icky” O’Neil, a young man unlawfully gunned down by former SFPD Officer Christopher Samayoa in 2017, told of her family’s own tragic journey of loss and hope. Green stated she believes that a portion of the vitriol directed toward Boudin has manifested because of his move to prosecute the former officer, an unprecedented decision from a district attorney in San Francisco, and, despite not knowing what the outcome might be, she feels confident that Boudin and his office will set a new standard for holding even police officers accountable for their crimes.
“We are changing the culture of officers being able to kill with impunity,” said Boudin of his office. Overall, traditional emphasis on property crime over environmental protections for residents, police privilege over safety of the public and promotion of prisons over community investment all point to systemic issues.
Vestiges of the country’s racist, classist legacy do not merely pervade the American criminal justice system – they have comprised it since its very inception. One radical district attorney alone will not be enough to slay this behemoth.
The Bayview District and the marginalized peoples of San Francisco have long deserved so much better than the shoddy carceral methods that imprison our people without a second thought, criminalize every facet of our existence, relegate us to poisonous ghettos and empower our oppressors to shoot us like dogs in the streets. We deserve more than promises from a revolving door of politicians.
True, lasting change will not flow from the same channels that drown out our cries for justice but will be realized through continued unification and collaboration of our communities to uplift ourselves from the trenches and seize our own freedom.
True change will come with the abolition of these archaic systems – systems that will only ever offer us piecemeal solutions to our problems, never the entire solution. Because they know the solution threatens their survival as institutions in our present society.
But there does lie an indispensable value in those individuals who are willing to serve as catalysts for change, to risk reputation and re-election to stay true to their campaign promises and garner resentment from the establishment for challenging the status quo.
While far from perfect, Chesa Boudin has shown in his short time as DA that he is willing to act in the best interests of the people of San Francisco and move towards a vision of accountability, as well as second chances. The same may not be true of whomever is appointed to replace him should he be recalled.
It is up to us: on June 7, 2022, turn out to vote NO on the recall of DA Chesa Boudin! Turn out!
Sierra Bourne is SF Bay View’s community journalist and social media team member born and raised in Bayview Hunters Point. Her reporting covers issues affecting youth in SFUSD schools and all over the City. Reach Sierra by email at email@example.com.