Despite advocates’ pleas to ban cars from Great Highway or JFK Drive, it was Union Square that has been declared car-free. Silly advocates: If they wanted vehicles verboten from Great Highway or JFK, they should’ve organized a smash-and-grab robbery. If opportunistic mobs motored off with armfuls of de Koonings, there’d be no damn cars on JFK, lickety split.
That’s how it went down at Union Square after organized groups, like Visigoths of old, on Nov. 19 swarmed high-end retail shops and made off with armfuls of Louis Vuitton purses and other luxury items. And that accomplished what years of community process could not: The pedestrianization of Union Square.
But wait, there’s more: The horse may be out of the barn, a $30,000 purse clutched in its teeth, but San Francisco has spared no expense reinforcing the barn door. Union Square now has enough law-enforcement personnel on the ground to rival the closing scenes of Ghostbusters. The notion of hordes of thieves hitting the same spot again is dubious, especially after you’ve barricaded the streets. But, if they were foolish enough to try, it’d be akin to attempting to rob a police station.
But wait, there’s even more: The same mayor who spurned a free Muni program, in part because it would purportedly benefit “our most affluent riders,” is now touting free parking in city garages for shoppers who drive to Union Square to buy Louis Vuitton purses. The cost will be borne by our transit agency and Recreation and Parks Department — a gift estimated at up to $645,000 for the former, and $345,000 for the latter.
So, San Francisco’s response has been reactionary in every sense of the word. But here’s the rotten cherry on the rancid sundae: On Nov. 30, Donald Trump, predictably, followed the displays of security theater and boarded-up windows and breathless nationwide media furor — and, of course, videos of Black people committing crimes — with a broadside against Democrats and “their cities.” And, naturally, that most Democratic of cities, San Francisco, came in for the most opprobrium.
“There has never been such a thing that has happened in our Country,” wrote the man whose supporters on Jan. 6 smashed and grabbed the Capitol, in his strange, randomly capitalized version of English.
“Some chains are closing most of their stores, it is all not even believable,” he wrote in a statement last week.
One week again and, I will rule the North America! The Canada and the United States even won’t be something with that! Oh, sorry — that wasn’t Trump, it was dialog from the Canadian Ninja comic book my roommate and I scored in college. They both read like jarringly poor translations; my mistake.
Fact-checking Trump is a tedious endeavor; his communiques are aimed at people who care little for facts. But let the record show that smash-and-grab robbers also hit Walnut Creek and San Jose, local bergs that do not harbor a reputation for demonstrative liberal politics or coddling criminals. They also, in recent weeks, hit North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and elsewhere.
This isn’t a Democratic problem, it’s a “where the money is” problem; there are very few non-Democratic large cities, and even fewer places espousing some form of “Frontier Justice” where you can also drop by a Louis Vuitton outlet. And while the brazenness of these crimes is a (telegenic) shock, a disproportionate number of the perpetrators in San Francisco and elsewhere have been caught. It’s organized crime, but it’s not Moriarty-organized. It’s hard not to foresee more and more robbers being tracked down and arrested after the fact as their accomplices (and everyone’s ubiquitous electronic devices) give them up.
But this isn’t about the ex-president saying whatever he wants to say. It’s about San Francisco making it too easy for him. San Francisco has markedly failed to have an honest debate about what is the best way to make our city both safe and just. And in failing to have that debate, while scoring cheap local political points by propping up simplistic and statistically bereft claims of this city’s demise, we have ceded the floor to grifters and enriched our bad-faith opponents.
Our shared opponents.
The transformation of Union Square into a police state looks a bit funny if you’re one of the many San Franciscans who’s had trouble getting even perfunctory service from the police department — when a Mission housing nonprofit this month called the cops to report a $40,000 burglary, it took the better part of two days for officers to even show up and take a report.
It also comes off a bit weird to the many cannabis businesses who’ve been preyed upon in this city and across the bay. They suffered losses far worse than those reported in Union Square, while receiving a fraction of the media coverage and little to no recourse from police. Video from a Nov. 16 San Francisco dispensary burglary, in fact, reveals three San Francisco police patrol cars and their occupants watching as the crime unfolds and failing to intervene.
The Union Square hysteria and the video of the cops’ non-action at the dispensary, which occurred three days apart, may finally have punctured an increasingly untenable status quo: It is simply no longer viable for this city’s most powerful players to calculatedly allow every bill for all of San Francisco’s myriad problems to be charged to District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
You may believe Boudin is performing adequately or you may not. You may feel his pending June recall election is a calculated screwjob or you may be looking forward to it. But the twin images of multi-jurisdictional smash-and-grab robberies and police casually allowing a business to be pillaged ought to put to rest the notion that he’s some manner of Keyser Soze and the nexus for all of San Francisco’s myriad crime woes.
Boudin deserves our scrutiny. He’ll get plenty of it in the months leading up to June. But we must render unto Boudin what is Boudin’s: The District Attorney is only responsible for so much.
Last year in San Francisco, police cleared
only 1 in 16 reported property crimes.
Reported property crimes
Crimes are not cleared
Crimes are cleared
rate of 9.5%
rate of 6.2%
Last year in San Francisco,
police cleared only 1 in 16
reported property crimes.
Crimes are not cleared
Crimes are cleared
rate of 9.5%
rate of 6.2%
Reported property crimes (1000s)
Crime clearance data from OpenJustice. Graph by Will Jarrett.
Mayor London Breed has benefited no small amount from Boudin becoming a catch-all punching bag, and his ongoing irradiation has harmed her political enemies, while she has remained oddly insulated. But the problems San Franciscans are most likely to complain about, including street conditions and homelessness, are issues under the aegis of this city’s strong mayor, not its D.A. The city cannot prosecute its way out of homelessness or filth.
The D.A., also, cannot control the city’s police department; that’s also the mayor’s dominion.
San Francisco Police Department statistics reveal that violent crime is down. Quality-of-life crimes, however — burglaries, auto break-ins — remain ubiquitous. But, here’s the thing: They’re not getting solved. In the most recent year, the San Francisco Police Department recorded a clearance rate, meaning an arrest or otherwise, in just 6.2 percent of reported property crimes.
That means 15 of 16 reported property crimes were not cleared. And that means the rancor over what the D.A. did or did not charge regarding property crimes is a debate over the one case in 16 that came his way. By the way, this is not a new development: A 2016 paper by the Public Policy Institute of California noted that San Francisco police have the lowest arrest rate in the state by a wide margin.
Should the D.A. be on the spot for his charging decisions? Of course. He has not consistently done an adequate job of this. As we have noted before, he has not, in fact, done an adequate job of explaining what he sees as the overall role of a prosecutor and how San Franciscans needn’t trade safety to alleviate decades of carceral injustice.
But focusing on the one case that makes it to the D.A. to the exclusion of the 15 that didn’t seems farcical. No honest discussion about crime and punishment (and politics) in San Francisco can do this. And, in lieu of honest discussions, shills and bad actors have filled the void.
San Francisco has, once again, enabled the oldest play in the book: Manufactured outrage against whatever it is San Francisco is doing, be it banning Happy Meals or allowing non-citizens to vote or letting gay people get married or ceasing to measure success in the D.A.’s office by how long people can be locked away.
Playing footsie with fascists regarding criminal justice matters is ill-advised: The GOP is, once again, claiming that only it can fix it. Only it is the party of law and order and accountability, and Democrats and “their cities” are bastions of lawlessness.
The preferred “solution” for the GOP would allow police to act with impunity and prosecutors to revert to racially disparate mass incarceration mode while doing nothing to instill or mandate the effective systems of police work that are, evidently, sorely lacking.
That would be the worst of all words. But, truth be told: Some version of that is how things are already going, for the vast majority of the nation. And that’s how it’s been for many, many years.
It is all not even believable.