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Are Progressive District Attorneys at Risk?

ACCORDING TO LIZ - Progressives went into meltdown mode in the wake of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s (above right) recall in San Francisco two weeks ago. 

Last week, the campaign to recall Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón (above left) announced that they had enough signatures to put it on November’s ballot. 

But these impediments to progressive reform in the criminal justice system need to be taken in context. 

The Politics

Chesa Boudin’s recall in San Francisco – and I wouldn’t call 55% as much of a runaway that many headlines implied – may have been initiated by the pro law-and-order sentiment backswing after the hyperbole of the Defund the Police movement, but it succeeded because his policies did not find favor with high-spending individual donors and corporate entities. 

And, despite the fact that crime in San Francisco is at a generational low. 

Law enforcement opposed to his progressive policies, a billionaire backer of Republican candidates, other ultra-consecutive donors, and business leaders afraid his policies would scare off tourists spent over $8 million to impose their views on the city, well over double the $3.3 million Boudin supporters raised to keep him in office. 

Crime has risen everywhere, often significantly more than in the Golden City, but opponents effectively used local visuals of smash-and-grab robberies and racially motivated assaults to frighten voters. And capitalized on residents’ overwhelming malaise as the pandemic dragged on, drug overdoses rose, and dissatisfaction drove more acts of random violence. 

This combined with the fact that there was no-one in competition with Boudin who might have drawn some of the slings and arrows led to that 55%. Note that Alex Villanueva received less than 32% of the vote in his effort for reelection as a law-and-order LA County Sheriff.

In fact, Boudin’s loss was predicated primarily on scare tactics and, in a race that was less a bellwether of his success and more a statement about the electorate’s frustration in general, he received more votes than when he ran for District Attorney in 2019. 

And, although a replacement will be named by the Mayor of San Francisco for now, Boudin can run again in November when more of his supporters are likely to vote and the qualifications of his opponents can be questioned.

Progressive Reform

Conflating current urban disorder with criminal-justice reform is not a good move by any measure. 

The first is a direct result of the political and economic climate at a time when a divisive president has torn apart the fabric of American society encouraging the unhappy to strike out at whatever they perceive to be contributing to their lack of satisfaction. 

Unfortunately emulating the poorest behavior of the president-past. Selfish. 

On the other hand, criminal justice reform is one of the underpinnings of the progressive movement. 

San Francisco’s voters elected Boudin in 2019 to increase police accountability, and improve offender rehabilitation options by cutting back on the over-incarceration that sucks the budget dry. And he had made progress. 

Of course, those whose baser actions he attempted to rein in objected. 

And those making money off the private prison system struck out to defend their cash cow. California spends more on locking people up than on educating our children and giving them the tools to stay out from behind bars. 

Doing-right-by-all means addressing racial inequities in our prison system and in our education system. Systematic barriers to people improving themselves through education and better opportunities are significant contributors to rates of incarceration. 

This is where progressive justice comes to the fore, by breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline and pursuing policies that benefit families and communities. And by cutting the cords that virtually guarantee recidivism once in the system. 

The value of the new breed of District Attorneys is that not only do they offer improved quality of life – to those entering the system and to those already there, by reframing justice to stopping the cycle, they are also protecting in advance those who might suffer from crime now averted. 

To implement material and lasting changes the focus must razor in on the real inequities inherent in the American judicial system. 

Like Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascón here in Los Angeles 

Promoting Change

There is a danger in symbolic acts of political correctness, such as changing the names on school buildings while ignoring the effects of Covid school closures, which legitimately led to the recall of San Francisco school board members. 

And inevitably right-wing forces will use any such victories to attempt more reversals of progressive progress. 

But each battle must be mounted based on the individual situation. Within the judicial system, public safety must be paramount but with a view to changes that will reduce the school-to-prison pipeline, reduce recidivism and. above all, reduce the negative impact the existing process has on families and communities. 

The follow-the-money mantra must be exploited to expose and debunk greedy opportunism of those who oppose beneficial reform. 

The $12 per signature paid by anti-Boudin partisans to push the recall onto the ballot and the multi-million dollar advertising blitz that followed, the recall was a blatant purchase of Boudin’s demise. 

The campaign for Boudin received far more individual contributions but its wealthy opponents were able to capitalize on political unrest that exists across the country, often worse in many conservative strongholds, to scare a subset of San Franciscans to the polls. In a subversion of the democratic process. 

As in San Francisco, George Gascón’s opponents lost the initial election and once before failed in placing a recall on the ballot. 

His election and the failure of the first recall attempt to gain traction signifies that Los Angeles County voters by-and-large support his agenda. 

There will always be those who oppose change; there will always be those who feel threatened by increased accountability. 

That doesn’t mean that workers shouldn’t have rights, that Blacks should not vote and that women should not sit on the Supreme Court. 

Above all, unions representing police officers are vicious opponents of any requirements for personal accountability of the brotherhood in blue. 

There will always be crime, especially in such an unequal society. 

What people need to understand is that bad things will happen no matter who is in office and what policies are initially pursued. 

Problems that existed in the past have been exacerbated by the social malaise in the wake of Trump, the Me-Too and Black Lives Matter movements, and the fears engendered by the pandemic. 

Deep pocket interests deliberately stirred the pot to unfairly demonize progressive reform and replace Boudin and Gascón with District Attorneys who won’t cut into prison profiteering and insist on police accountability. 

Big Money and scare tactics had a louder voice in San Francisco. But one of the tenets of democracy is that everyone should have a voice, not just those who have the wherewithal to buy ads and push their opinions further and faster on social media. 

Let’s hope Big Money is not allowed to eviscerate positive change in Los Angeles and we can continue to count on Gascón to fight for improved quality of life for all after November.

 

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)