A new world is brewing, as a national Black-led youth movement has ignited widespread uprising. Long-suppressed conversations are now taking place, making it possible to think in new ways that reimagine policing, prosecution, and prisons.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has stepped prominently into this moment with a dynamic vision. His achievements during his first six months in office include releasing more than one-third of the jail population and eliminating cash bail.
We cannot simply rebuild and replicate institutions of the past. We know if we do that, we’ll simply be amplifying the racism and discrimination that too many people experience at every step of their life, and in all of their interactions with government and other institutions.
Boudin offers a unique perspective, grounded in a lifetime of personal emotional pain inflicted by the “criminal justice” system. When he was just fourteen months old, both of his parents were incarcerated for their role in a militant action connected with the Black Liberation movement. Thirty-eight years later, he lives with the daily anxiety of knowing his seventy-five-year-old father, David Gilbert, remains incarcerated at a maximum security facility, and is potentially vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
It took great perseverance, a loving adoptive family, and a committed support network for Boudin to overcome the deep trauma of parental separation. He eventually won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, traveled the world, served as a translator for Hugo Chavez, published several books, got a law degree from Yale, and worked as a San Francisco public defender.
In an extensive interview conducted on June 17 for the nationally syndicated Pacifica Radio show “Flashpoints!,” Boudin shared his deep vision and courageous progress toward structural change. What follows is a condensed version of that interview.
Dennis Bernstein: A former Atlanta police officer was charged this afternoon with murder and aggravated assault in the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s fast food restaurant in Atlanta. The officer, Garrett Rolfe, faces eleven charges, with prosecutors saying that Rolfe shot Brooks twice in the back and then kicked him as he was lying on the ground. I’d love to get your response. These are pretty strong charges coming out of a district attorney’s office against a police officer.
Chesa Boudin: They are, and I think it speaks to the unique historical moment that we’re in. It was a really tragic and unnecessary shooting. The video makes it very clear that the officer shot multiple times at a person who was running away from him and had his back turned to him. And you know, we have to really question why an officer would use lethal force to try to stop an unarmed person running away from what had been a very calm and nonviolent, unarmed interaction around the possibility of driving under the influence. I mean it’s just tragic and it’s unnecessary.
But I think one of the things that’s important to emphasize is, six weeks ago, six months ago, six years ago, it would have been inconceivable that that officer would have been charged. That political pressure, the grassroots social movement and uprising around this country that we have seen since the murder of George Floyd [in Minneapolis], attacking white supremacy, demanding transparency, accountability, and creativity when it comes to how our neighborhoods and communities are policed, has also put tremendous and long overdue pressure on district attorneys like myself to enforce the law equally and to ensure that we are not turning a blind eye on crimes committed by law enforcement.
Q: But this still will not be a cake walk by any means.
Boudin: No question. You know, there are real challenges to successfully prosecuting police officers, no matter how egregious the circumstances of the crimes that they’re accused of. It’s hard to get juries to be willing to be open minded to convicting police officers. That’s one challenge.
Another is it’s very hard to do a good investigation of a crime allegedly committed by a police officer or law enforcement because the officers who are accused of these crimes are the ones on scene, and their partners and colleagues are the ones who respond after the shooting, and they’re the ones who speak to witnesses and gather evidence. And it can be very, very challenging to do independent investigation. Often witnesses disappear, video footage may disappear or it may be impossible to track down.
And then a third challenge . . . is that the law makes it very easy for officers to justify use of force, even in situations like this. There’s a rule in many jurisdictions called the Fleeing Felon Rule that basically allows police officers to legally, lawfully shoot, even shoot to kill at a person fleeing them who they believe or have reason to believe committed a felony.
That’s sort of, in my view, a really crazy law. There are so many thousands of felonies and virtually none of them are eligible for the death penalty. In San Francisco, of course, we never seek the death penalty. Why would we want an officer to shoot to kill when the person hasn’t even been formally charged or convicted?
Q: Can I ask you to respond to the killing of George Floyd? Clearly the dam broke there. What were your thoughts as you saw everything unfold? This is a real opening for your vision of law enforcement and the kinds of transformations you’re thinking about.
Boudin: Well, first of all let me just say watching that video is heartbreaking. It’s horrific. It’s tragic. It’s painful. It’s nauseating. In many ways it’s more violent, and more intimately violent than even the shooting of Rayshard Brooks, or many of these other officer involved shootings. Think about the duration. A gunshot is quick. A gunshot is from a distance. What we saw happen over nearly nine minutes to Mr. Floyd was flesh on flesh.
And it was an officer who knew that he was being videoed, who was watching the camera on him with indifference. That speaks both to the inhumanity of the act, but also to the confidence that he would be able to commit this murder with impunity. And if not for the national uprising, he would have been right. But for the tremendous upwelling of energy from Black Lives Matter activists and from police reform activists and from the progressive prosecutor movement and from so many others saying, “enough is enough,” he would have been right. He could have literally gotten away with murder.
On the one hand, I’m heartbroken. On the other hand, I think it’s absolutely cause for hope and for optimism because of the way that the country has responded. It’s put the spotlight on an issue that I’ve worked on for much of my life, which is, How can we hold police accountable? How can we ensure that the folks we trust with the power to wear a uniform and carry a gun and to make arrests on our streets are held to the highest standards? That’s certainly not what’s happening in most parts of the country today, and we need to move in that direction quickly.
Q: I’d like to invite you to share your own remarkable story of your upbringing and your life before you became a district attorney. Remind us where you came from, because there are a lot of young people listening to this that don’t know your incredibly important history and background.
Boudin: Well, I was born in 1980 and at the time my parents were living in New York City. They’d moved back east from California. And my parents were very active during the 1960s and 1970s in Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, a wide range of groups that were involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement. And that work led my biological parents to want to play a supportive role for a group called the Black Liberation Army, a split off of the Black Panther Party, a militant Black liberation group.
On October 20, 1981, my parents dropped me off at the babysitter in Manhattan. And they headed off for the day, told the babysitter they’d pick me up that night. Then my parents drove a getaway car that was used to help people who had just committed an armed robbery of a Brinks truck to get away. The armed robbery went wrong. A security guard was shot and killed. Another security guard was seriously injured. And then my parents’ vehicle was stopped at a roadblock and my parents came out of the car unarmed with their hands up. The officers went around to the back of the truck to search the back of the truck my parents were driving. And the people who had committed the robbery came out shooting assault rifles and killed two police officers.
Both of my parents were arrested that day. My mother ended up serving twenty-two years in prison. My father was sentenced to a seventy-five-year minimum sentence and is still incarcerated today. He may never get out. As a result of what my parents did and what would happen to them and what they participated in, my earliest memories are going through steel gates and metal detectors just to visit them, just to give them a hug. My experience, my whole life, has been intimately connected with America’s system of mass incarceration.
Q: I understand you becoming a public defender with your background. But this really must have been a very conscious battle for you to want to come in directly through the door of law enforcement, so that you could get the job to change the job. Is that part of your vision? Is that your motivation?
Boudin: I absolutely want to help reinvent and reimagine the role of district attorneys and prosecutors. And I want to be clear. When I went to law school, when I made the decision to become a public defender, prosecutors across the country, in virtually every single office in the thousands of elected prosecutors’ offices across this country, had been on the wrong side of mass incarceration. They’d been contributing to mass incarceration. They’d been resisting criminal justice reform. They’d been advocating death penalty and life sentences and reducing investment in victim services and reducing investment in rehabilitation programs and reentry services.
I didn’t want to be part of that. It’s why I became a public defender. I wanted to fight against mass incarceration. I wanted to help imagine and build pathways that help people transform their lives away from crime, not simply define them by their worst mistake and condemn them to lifetimes in cages. And I loved my work as a public defender.
But over the years a national movement grew, a movement of people like me in many ways, running for and winning office as district attorneys in places like Baltimore, Maryland, and Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois, and beyond. And I saw the tremendous influence that those elected district attorneys were able to have.
Q: You have managed in a very short time to implement some significant changes in the system. Talk about the kinds of things you’ve been working on, like the parental diversion program.
Boudin: I have an ambitious platform and we hit the ground running. Just in my first three or four months in office, we did a number of really significant policy changes and adjustments. Let me start with the one you mentioned.
We implemented a new state law. We’re the first county in the state [of California] to implement this law, which is a primary caregiver diversion program aimed at keeping families together, while still holding caregivers accused of crimes accountable. The basic premise is that we as a community are safer when parents are at home with their kids than when parents are in cages in our jails and prisons.
And so the program creates a pathway for primary caregiver parents who are accused of low-level offenses to engage with parenting classes and other programming relevant to their needs, whether it be mental health or anger management or counseling, so they can, over a period of between six months and two years, earn a dismissal of charges if they successfully engage with programming and continue to be there for their kids.
We also implemented a rule prohibiting my office from ever asking for money bail. We don’t want that system where people are incarcerated based on their poverty or where dangerous people can buy their way out just because of their wealth. So we replaced a wealth-based discriminatory system that undermines public safety, with a risk-based system, where the amount of money in the bank has nothing to do with whether someone’s in jail or on the streets.
Q: I am interested in the work you’ve done around the use of gang and status enhancements, which have really been a racist scar on the criminal justice system.
Boudin: One of the things we did a couple months ago now was to announce a policy that we would, as a presumption, decline to file racist gang enhancements or other status enhancements. We want to make sure we’re holding people accountable for what they’re accused of in the case at hand, not punishing them for who they are, what neighborhood they grew up in, the color of their skin or something they’ve already been punished for in the past.
Q: Can you address how you have been dealing with COVID-19 behind bars? I imagine this is not just a political problem, and work for your job as D.A., but you must also be worrying about your dad all the time.
Boudin: Absolutely. I have a lot of anxiety about my father. New York State, where he’s incarcerated, was hit very hard, and at least one person in my father’s prison has died of COVID-19, and many more have tested positive. My father’s in his seventies. He’s got pretty serious underlying health issues because of now nearly forty years in prison, and with the medical care that’s offered to him in prison, which is very minimal.
I looked at the crisis back in March through the lens of a public health crisis, which it is. I did what I wish the President of the United States would have done, which is, I listened to our public health experts. I listened to the medical director in the San Francisco County Jail, who said very clearly in writing, early on in this pandemic, that she could not prevent a full-scale outbreak in the jail. That would affect not just inmates, but also staff, also people in the courts, people in my office, if we did not drastically reduce the county jail population.
Q: What policy changes seem possible now that may have seemed unlikely before this national outbreak of protest and resistance? Do you have more hope now?
Boudin: Absolutely. This movement has also generated and produced a tremendous number of ideas. We need creativity. We need grassroots energy critically evaluating what we do in the criminal justice system. We need transparency, accountability, and creativity in how we approach the path forward.
We cannot simply rebuild and replicate institutions of the past. We know if we do that, we’ll simply be amplifying the racism and discrimination that too many people experience at every step of their life, and in all of their interactions with government and other institutions. We need to draw on the energy of this movement to make possible tomorrow what we couldn’t have even imagined yesterday.
Ken Yale contributed to this article.