Interview with the new San Francisco district attorney, raised in a radical environment and a symbol of the left wing of the Democrats that is winning elections in the United States
This interview is part of a series of talks with leading intellectuals, editors, activists, economists, and politicians who help describe the state of affairs before the elections. You can read the other deliveries here.
San Francisco’s new district attorney has spent his life in and out of jail. Not as an intern, but visiting his parents. Chesa Boudin is the son of David Gilbert and Kathie Boudin, two members of the radical leftist group Weather Underground, considered terrorists by the FBI, which was active in the late 1970s. In 1981, they participated in the armed robbery of an armored truck outside New York in which three people died. His mother was released on parole in 2003. His father is still in jail. Boudin was raised by two other members of that group, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
His education includes a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford and a law degree from Yale. But before that, he traveled through Latin America. He lived in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. In 2004 he settled in Venezuela and worked as a translator for the Government of Hugo Chávez. He speaks excellent Spanish. Back in San Francisco, he began working as a public defender.
Beyond his colorful biography, Boudin (New York, 40 years old) is part of a group of prosecutors who advocate a reform of the penal system in the United States, the country with the most incarcerated people in the world. A system in which race and economic resources often determine the outcome of justice, there are hardly any avenues of social reintegration and there are such things as unconditional imprisonment for life, or mandatory prison terms for drug retail.
On November 5, 2019, Boudin won the district attorney election against the odds, a semi-political position that puts him at the forefront of the county’s entire penal system. Now, he is the chief of police. Is not easy. The local police union (SFPOA) spent $ 650,000 campaigning against Boudin, including some flyers in the mail saying he was “the favorite of criminals and gang members.” The relationship with the police union, which describes the reformist positions of the new prosecutor as “dangerous”, remains very tense.
Politically, he represents the most left-wing current in the Democratic Party that is challenging the old guard of the party. Boudin’s victory follows the same trend as those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Katie Porter or Ayanna Presley. His campaign was against the entire establishment from San Francisco, but public support from Senator Bernie Sanders, former civil rights leader Angela Davis, Black Lives Matter leaders, musician John Legend, and other progressive US prosecutors. It is the most energetic wing of the party, the one that wanted a political revolution led by Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Julián Castro, but who in the end has to settle for the most conventional candidate of all, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Chesa Boudin, the son of Weather Underground, the translator of the Bolivarian Government, perhaps the public office with the most revolutionary pedigree of the United States, says that Biden can count on the votes of the left because “democracy is at stake.”
Question. You have a very particular biography for a politician.
Answer. When I was a baby, my parents left me with a babysitter and never came to pick me up again. They participated in an armed robbery in which three men died. Two of them were policemen, killed in the line of duty by the people my parents were collaborating with. My mother served 22 years in jail. My father was sentenced to a minimum of 75 years and is still in jail today. I don’t remember the day they were arrested, but my oldest memories as a child are visits to jail, going through steel barriers and metal detectors just so I can give them a hug. After years and decades of visiting prisons to see my parents, I learned hard lessons about how America’s penal system is failing. It fails to repair the damage to the victims. It fails to rehabilitate those who commit the crimes. In reality, it is making us less safe because it weakens our communities, destroys families, and ruins school districts and state governments. And it’s all because we have a very narrow vision.
P. In those visits he would learn concrete examples of that failure.
R. I visited my parents often and made friends with the children who were there to visit theirs. We played together while we waited for the process of entering the prison. For decades I have seen what happened to many of those children who did not have the opportunities and support that I had. I have witnessed firsthand how the intergenerational cycle of incarceration unfolds. Literally. I made a friend of South American origin who was going to visit his mother in the same jail as mine. He was a couple of years older than me and for me he was an example to follow. He was a first-rate student and the star of his basketball team at a time when I was grieving and in pain from the trauma of losing my parents. A few years later, when I was starting at Yale, he was on a very different path. He ended up incarcerated in the same module as my father. In the end, he was deported to his country. We keep in touch and I have been to visit him. He had all the potential, certainly the same as me or more, and his life ends in deportation, instead of a Rhodes scholarship and public office. That was avoidable. That is something that makes us all worse as a country. Not only to the victims of the crime he committed, but to everyone, for the loss of his potential. His mother was jailed for 17 years for selling drugs. You don’t need any more examples.
P. Are you an example of what President Trump calls the “radical left” and the “socialists” who want to turn the United States into Venezuela?