How They Made Chesa Boudin the Fall Guy

Chesa Boudin. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

Call him the man on the street, or better yet the man on the bus. In San Francisco, it was June 8th, the day after Election Day. The banner headline in the Examiner screamed, “Boudin Ousted in Crushing Recall Defeat.”  The man on the bus looked over my shoulder, read the words and shook his head. “Oh, no,” he moaned. “This is terrible news.” It was disappointing to me. I had followed the campaign and Boudin for months and thought he had a chance to beat the recall. But that was not to be.

60,000 voters had cast ballots demanding that the controversial DA leave office. 40,000 wanted him to keep his job and continue to do what he started, which was to reform a criminal injustice system that favored the wealthy and punished the impoverished. San Franciscans were proud that their local story made the national news, though they seemed to be more focused on the Warriors than the recall.

On the afternoon of Election Day I worked the phones at Boudin’s headquarters on Noe Street off Market. I wanted to contribute to the cause and I saw myself as a participant journalist operating on the inside, not the outside. A couple of photographers took pictures, but there were no journalists around to observe and ask questions. Cellphones and laptops dotted tables. Flyers filled brown paper bags. The floors needed to be swept and mopped, though no one besides me seemed to notice. And no one besides me observed that Boudin’s headquarters was reminiscent of the SDS national headquarters in Chicago where I spent part of a summer writing New Left propaganda about George Jackson and Huey Newton, whom Eldridge Cleaver described as “the baddest motherfucker ever to step inside history.”

The volunteers on Noe Street looked like the SDS members I met long ago. They had more or less the same spirit of defiance and eagerness to do something that would make a difference. Six young Chinese men and women sat closely together in a small room and made phone calls to Chinese voters, using a prompt in Chinese written by Dixon, their supervisor, with all the appropriate talking points. When I asked Dixon, “Which way will the Asian vote go, for or against Boudin?,” he replied, “That’s the $4 million dollar question.” In fact he had no answers, only questions of his own and the resolve to keep on campaigning until the last possible moment before the polls closed.

On the phone for a few hours I talked to voters who were known supporters of Boudin to make sure they had actually cast a ballot for their candidate. No surprise. Most of them had, though many hung up before I could talk to them, and more than a few said, “Don’t bother me.” One man eager to chat said, “I can’t see how San Francisco voters could be so stupid as to want to recall Boudin. He’s doing what we elected him to do.” Maybe the eager talker was right. Maybe voters were stupid. Tens of thousands of them had bought into the big lie that branded Boudin as soft on crime and a criminal’s best friend. Not true. That data showed that crime had not soared under Boudin’s command. It was yet another example that the perception carries more weight than the reality, the tail wagging the dog.

SF citizens were angry with whatever: the world, the pandemic, homelessness, corruption in high places, drug addicts in the streets and more. Chesa Boudin was the fall guy. He had to take the rap, though when he spoke to his supporters at 9 p.m., when the votes were all counted, he didn’t sound like a defeated candidate, but rather like an organizer embarking on yet another campaign and setting a fire under the troops. It might have been ’68 or ‘69, though unlike most of the SDS rebels from that era, Chesa had opted for a career in the law, ran for public office and aimed to use wisely whatever power he had in his hands.

In the packed crowd, standing a few feet from where I was standing and writing in my notebook, I saw Chesa’s biological father, David Gilbert, who had recently been released from prison. I couldn’t read the expression on his face. Was he proud or stunned or some of both? Also in the crowd: Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers who had raised Chesa, along with their two sons, Malik and Zayd. The veterans of the 60s, 70s and beyond didn’t come to the microphone or make their presence known. They seemed content to remain anonymous and unrecognized, though voters knew all about them. They were yet another strike against the DA. The occasion belonged to Chesa who climbed on top of a beer keg, held the microphone in his right hand and said, “This is not a moment in time. This is the beginning of a movement.” He sounded like he believed his own words. The crowd chanted, “Chesa, Chesa, Chesa.” Their voices rose into the night sky.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.