Everyone in San Francisco Has Something to Say About Chesa Boudin

A wave of discontent crashes on a progressive prosecutor.

Photo: Ian Allen
Photo: Ian Allen
Photo: Ian Allen

When Chesa Boudin was sworn in as district attorney of San Francisco on January 8, 2020, he seemed perfectly cast for the moment. Since 2016, a new class of progressive prosecutors had been claiming victories in liberal cities from Chicago to St. Louis, pledging to undo decades of tough-on-crime policies. In the process, they sought to change the public’s traditional perception of their role: the DA as anti-crime crusader or, in the words of Larry Krasner, the progressive district attorney of Philadelphia, “Dirty Harry in a suit.” In San Francisco, Boudin repudiated this image and then some. A 39-year-old public defender, he was a son of the old-school American radical left, a Rhodes Scholar with a sensational backstory that involved Marxist-revolutionary parents incarcerated for murder. He campaigned on promises to fight mass incarceration, decriminalize poverty, and hold cops accountable. Though Boudin had experienced great privilege, he had also suffered and seen human suffering, and his endorsements came from not just local political players but national public intellectuals like Angela Davis, Bernie Sanders, and Ibram X. Kendi. He embodied the surging progressive will to uproot systemic racism from courts, jails, and police departments nationwide as well as any white American male possibly could.

This reformist impulse gained urgency after the killing that May of George Floyd, wide-scale Black Lives Matter protests, and outrage over police brutality against activists. By the end of last summer, though, months into pandemic lockdowns, another national mood was settling in, one that now threatens to end Boudin’s term prematurely: fear of rising crime. In San Francisco, it started in late summer 2020, when local news outlets, citing police data, reported a more than 40 percent increase in home burglaries over the past year. Bay Area TV stations aired home-security video paired with interviews with concerned residents; families added extra locks to front doors. Soon, reports of other brazen crimes captivated the city: a hit-and-run with a stolen vehicle on New Year’s Eve, the fatal assault of an elderly Thai man in broad daylight.

On June 14, inside a Walgreens, a local ABC News reporter witnessed a shoplifter sweeping entire shelves of products into a garbage bag, mounting a bike, and riding past a security guard out the automatic sliding doors. The reporter posted a video on Twitter, where it was viewed 6 million times (the population of San Francisco is fewer than 900,000 people). Less than a month later, cell-phone footage began to circulate online showing a group of thieves booking it out of Neiman Marcus with stolen handbags. “San Francisco is lawlessness personified!” read one Twitter caption. As a rule, the people sharing these posts on social media didn’t add tags shaming the police for being absent or the corporations for not employing enough security. They tagged Chesa Boudin.

Cities all over the country are going through similar preoccupations with crime, driven by findings that 2020 saw the biggest year-over-year jump in homicides since the federal government started keeping national crime statistics in the 1960s. Whether that qualifies as an overall crime wave is a matter of intense debate: While murders and gun violence are spiking, they remain far below historic levels. Plus all crime figures from 2020 carry the confounding variable of the pandemic, and there is no way to predict what will happen after society fully reopens.

The argument is especially pitched in San Francisco, where police-department data shows that overall crime actually decreased 23 percent in 2020, but surges in burglary and car theft have many convinced that the city is headed for disaster. A poll conducted recently by the Chamber of Commerce found 70 percent of San Franciscans saying that quality of life in the city was deteriorating and 40 percent saying they planned to move away.

Boudin, who won office on his remarkable life story and confident moral vision — and who quickly enacted policies that reduced the use of cash bail and reined in the power of police — is now experiencing the challenges of having such a clear public identity. In a city that has never before tried to recall a district attorney, Boudin currently faces not one but two recall initiatives. Throughout the spring and summer, his opponents have been circulating petitions, trying to gather enough signatures to trigger a special recall election. If either initiative collects 51,325 signatures by its respective deadline — the first is on August 11, the second, and more threatening one, on October 25 — voters in one of America’s most liberal cities will have an opportunity to throw Boudin out of office.

From left: January 8, 2020: Boudin with his wife, Valerie Block, during his swearing-in ceremony in San Francisco. Photo: Jeff Chiu Photo/APApril 2021: Recall-committee volunteers gathering signatures in the Marina District. Photo: Courtesy of Recall Chesa Boudin 2021
From top: January 8, 2020: Boudin with his wife, Valerie Block, during his swearing-in ceremony in San Francisco. Photo: Jeff Chiu Photo/APApril 2021:... From top: January 8, 2020: Boudin with his wife, Valerie Block, during his swearing-in ceremony in San Francisco. Photo: Jeff Chiu Photo/APApril 2021: Recall-committee volunteers gathering signatures in the Marina District. Photo: Courtesy of Recall Chesa Boudin 2021

Boudin has thin brown hair and a scraggly beard that barely camouflages a gigantic jaw. The first time we met, at his office in Potrero Hill, a light-industrial neighborhood popular with start-ups, he wore a fashionable gray-blue suit; he was bound for a political event later in the afternoon. On a wall opposite his desk hung framed photographs of Boudin surfing substantial waves. He pointed to one and said, with the vowels of a Midwesterner and the rapid-fire cadence of a trial lawyer, “That’s me right there in El Salvador. And that’s Samoa — the first wave I got barreled in. I was on this backpacking trip, and I found this resort. You go out on a boat, shallow reef …”

Boudin picked up surfing when he was 31 and now lives with his wife in the Outer Sunset near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, a famously difficult break where winter waves can exceed 15 feet. His commitment to surfing is more than casual — he surfs many days a week before dawn — and adds an unexpected dimension to his very well-known origin story, the one that Boudin has been telling and retelling since childhood.

Boudin typically begins with his parents, who joined the militant organization known as the Weather Underground in the 1960s to fight against American apartheid and the war in Vietnam. In 1981, when Boudin was 14 months old, they left him with a babysitter to serve as unarmed getaway drivers while members of another revolutionary group robbed a Brink’s armored car in Nanuet, New York. Remembered as one of the watershed excesses of countercultural radicalism, the heist left two police officers and a guard dead. Neither of Boudin’s parents fired a shot. His mother pleaded guilty, his father did not, but both were convicted of murder and sent to prison. Boudin was adopted by two other members of the Weather Underground, the education reformer Bill Ayers and the clinical-law professor Bernardine Dohrn. He spent his childhood in a world of radical-left ideological purity, shuttled between the comfortable life of his adoptive family and the prisons where he visited his biological parents.

Clockwise from left: November 1981: Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert at the Rockland County Courthouse. Photo: David Handschuh Photo/APPhoto: David Handschuh Photo/APFebruary 2002: Boudin with his father in the maximum-security prison where Gilbert is serving a 70-year sentence. Photo: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images
From top: November 1981: Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert at the Rockland County Courthouse. Photo: David Handschuh Photo/AP... From top: November 1981: Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert at the Rockland County Courthouse. Photo: David Handschuh Photo/APFebruary 2002: Boudin with his father in the maximum-security prison where Gilbert is serving a 70-year sentence. Photo: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty ImagesPhoto: David Handschuh Photo/AP

As a child, Boudin did not understand that his birth parents were political figures. “When I was little, they would try to describe the robbery using Robin Hood as an analogy,” he says. “They would emphasize that they weren’t trying to keep the money for themselves. They were trying to take money from a bank, which had a lot, and give it to communities that didn’t have any and that nobody was supposed to get hurt. But people did get hurt, and they were being punished as a result.”

His mother received 20 years to life in prison, while his father got 75 — a difference that struck Boudin as arbitrary even when he was a child. He says he developed an early fixation with fairness. “Those were the things that would set me off as a kid,” he says. “Sometimes it would be little things, like who had how much time with the checkerboard during recess.” (Later, when he enrolled in law school, people frequently asked him if he was becoming a lawyer to get his father out of jail; Boudin rejects this, calling it “a too-neat kind of Freudian analysis.”)

Only as a teenager, when Boudin learned to operate his high-school library’s microfiche machine, did he read the original New York Times articles about the Brink’s robbery and come to see his parents’ public personas. He also began to craft his own. In 2005, Boudin co-edited Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out; the first chapter was a letter from Boudin to his incarcerated father. In that document, Boudin stakes out his moral and political terrain relative to his parents’ — asserting his loyalty to their desire for a better world but condemning political violence and professing his faith in democratic civil society. In 2009, after completing a Rhodes Scholarship, he wrote a memoir about his travels. The book, Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America, was published by Scribner and received ecstatic blurbs from Seymour Hersh, Noam Chomsky, and Phillip Lopate — as well as a scathing pan from the Times book critic Dwight Garner. (“Mr. Boudin seems surprised to learn that not all of South America’s poor want the things he wants for them,” Garner wrote.)

After graduating from Yale Law School in 2011, Boudin clerked for a federal judge in San Diego (this is where he learned to surf). The next year, Boudin moved to San Francisco and took a fellowship with the public defender’s office, where, he jokes, he learned that local juries “will acquit anybody. There’s no better place to try a case if you’re a defense lawyer.”

Boudin eventually moved up to deputy public defender, a predictable advancement for a lawyer committed to criminal-justice reform. Any attorney can defend somebody they believe to be innocent, Boudin points out, but a public defender has an ethical obligation to perform that role for every client, guilty or not. Looking back on that job, Boudin remarks that there was something extraordinarily simple about it. “Not that it’s easy, not that it’s not complex or sophisticated,” he says, “but it had a moral clarity.”

During Boudin’s time in the public defender’s office, the San Francisco district attorney was George Gascón, a onetime L.A. beat cop and former San Francisco chief of police. In 2015, a police shooting of a Black man in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, captured on video, along with the disclosure of racist and homophobic texts sent by San Francisco cops, triggered citywide soul-searching about how a town so convinced of its compassion could have cops so reactionary. In response, Gascón introduced progressive reforms, reducing the use of cash bail and prosecuting fewer misdemeanors. But he also created an independent city bureau to investigate police shootings — and it was this move, the prospect of holding police accountable for their actions, that turned out to be a political third rail.

San Francisco is far more politically complex than its progressive self-image suggests. In many ways, the city embodies the split personality of California’s political culture: a symbolic progressivism (corporate-sponsored Pride events, a BLM poster in every home) in tension with a temperamental conservatism (crushingly low public-teacher salaries, affordable housing near impossible to build). The aura of 1960s counterculture still draws tourists to Haight-Ashbury, and residents lean so far left that Republicans rarely bother to run in local elections, leaving voters to choose between moderate and progressive Democrats. But ever since the Gold Rush, when San Francisco became the financial capital of the West, a conservative old-money elite has played an outsize role in local politics; in more recent decades, that conservative elite has allied itself with a powerful police union. The tech boom of the past 20 years added yet another layer of affluence — this one with a distinctly libertarian bent.

During Gascón’s tenure, a booming real-estate market pushed squatter and homeless communities out of empty lots and abandoned buildings and into sidewalk tent cities. Car break-ins and other property crimes worsened, and public defecation and intravenous-drug use became commonplace. Gascón’s policies, fairly or otherwise, took much of the blame.

Perhaps sensing a shift in the political winds, San Francisco mayor London Breed endorsed a moderate Democratic DA candidate, Suzy Loftus, a former lawyer for the San Francisco county sheriff. Loftus would also win endorsements from other California Establishment Democrats: Gavin Newsom, Dianne Feinstein, and Kamala Harris. In October 2018, Gascón bowed out of the race.

Boudin, still a public defender, was reading the electorate differently. From his vantage, the movement for criminal-justice reform was only growing stronger. “I was witnessing a national cultural transformation where we moved away from the kind of tough-on-crime, draconian, three-strikes-you’re-out, death-penalty, ‘super-predator’ rhetoric that even Democrats embraced in the ’90s,” he says, “to a place where the concept of mass incarceration is widely understood.” That view was supported by recent elections of progressive prosecutors all over the country, not only in Chicago and Philadelphia but even in places like Portsmouth, Virginia. Boudin had also begun to find the work of being a public defender constraining: “Imagine being a nurse with Doctors Without Borders and you go to South Sudan — you can save a couple lives and provide really urgently needed care. But you’re going to leave, and the problems are still there.”

In an election in which the civic mood seemed to favor a law-and-order approach, Boudin decided to run as overtly reformist. With no prosecutorial experience or Establishment support, Boudin was the last candidate to enter the race. Progressive endorsements poured in — from celebrities like John Legend and Michael Franti but also from Sanders sympathizers, tenants’-rights groups, the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, the Chinese Progressive Association, the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, and Starchild, a prominent Libertarian sex worker.

With ranked-choice voting, Boudin won by a margin of less than 2 percent after three rounds. Upon taking office in January 2020, he started making exactly the reforms he had promised. He became the first district attorney in America to eliminate the practice of requesting cash bail. He announced a diversion program aimed at keeping parents out of jail. He scaled back sentencing enhancements that add prison time for prior convictions and gang affiliation and banned the prosecution of charges stemming from either pretextual traffic stops, which disproportionately affect Black drivers, or statements given by officers with histories of racist or brutal behavior.

Then, in November, Boudin did something no San Francisco DA had done before: He charged a police officer with homicide, for the killing of an unarmed Black man in 2017. Weeks later, Boudin charged a second officer for beating a man with a baton near Fisherman’s Wharf and later charged two more officers for beating a man after he tried to surrender. Tony Montoya, the head of the San Francisco police officers’ union — which along with other law-enforcement groups had spent more than $650,000 to keep Boudin out of office — accused the new DA of announcing those charges in an “almost celebratory” spirit.

Throughout the second half of 2020, San Francisco experienced a feedback loop: Shoplifting and robbery videos became common on social media, and local reporters responded to fear of crime by covering more crime. The sense of chaos reached a crescendo on New Year’s Eve, when a man named Troy McAlister drove a stolen car through a red light and killed two pedestrians. The local ABC affiliate reported that McAlister was out on parole because Boudin’s office chose not to charge him in an earlier case. Not long after, another person recently released, also driving a stolen car, ran a red light and caused an eight-car pileup that killed a young father.

In January 2021, Richie Greenberg, a local Republican agitator and failed mayoral candidate, posted a Change.org petition calling on Boudin to resign immediately. “In four days, we got 10,000 signatures,” Greenberg tells me. “Colleagues of mine said, ‘Maybe with this kind of enthusiasm and public opinion, let’s just convert this into a full-blown recall effort.’ ”

That same month, Cyan Banister, a prominent venture capitalist who formerly worked at the Peter Thiel–backed Founders Fund, released security-camera footage showing a burglar stealing what she claimed was more than $30,000 worth of computer gear and appliances while her 9-year-old son was home. Banister changed her Twitter name to “Recall Chesa Boudin” and donated thousands of dollars to Greenberg’s recall effort. PayPal’s founding COO, David Sacks, donated $25,000, followed by $10,000 from Jesse Powell, the founder of a cryptocurrency exchange. Online, other figures in the tech scene began making it a sport to lob insults at Boudin’s record. “Chesa Boudin is an almost perfectly inverse Batman,” tweeted Florent Crivello, a tech entrepreneur. “Poor, weak, not very bright, taking his revenge on honest people because his parents were criminal.”

California recall laws are among the loosest in the nation. Unable to win general elections in many parts of the state, Republicans have discovered that recalls can be a convenient way to mount publicity attacks on Democratic officials. If a recall petition gets enough signatures, it triggers a special election in which voters answer two questions: first, whether the incumbent should be recalled, and if so, who should replace them. Victory goes to whoever wins a simple plurality, making it mathematically possible for a challenger to succeed with dramatically fewer votes than the incumbent got in the original election. When I ask Boudin about this, he makes it clear he doesn’t consider Greenberg’s recall effort worth dwelling on. “These people who have been really loud in attacking me are arguably the Rockefellers of our generation,” he says. “In a capitalist society, especially post–Citizens United, is it a surprise that they would have an outsize voice? Maybe not. On the other hand, should they have more of a voice than any other average citizen? Shouldn’t we be taking our lead from experts in the field?”

In early April, a group led by Mary Jung, a real-estate lobbyist and a former chair of the local Democratic Party, decided to start a second recall campaign, which she named San Franciscans for Public Safety. Jung lined up money from a lobbying group funded largely by Republican hedge-fund manager William Oberndorf as well as from venture capitalist Garry Tan.

The spokesperson for San Franciscans for Public Safety is Andrea Shorter, a longtime LGBTQ+ and women’s-rights advocate who supported Loftus for DA in 2019. The problem with the first recall, Shorter tells me, and the rationale for launching one associated with moderate Democrats, was that in a city as heavily liberal as San Francisco, it seemed unlikely that an obviously Republican initiative could succeed. Greenberg’s recall effort echoed the many dozens of concurrent Republican-led efforts throughout California, including the campaign to oust Newsom. “That allows Chesa to basically say, ‘Well, of course these folks are after me. It’s a Republican venture,’ ” Shorter says.

Shorter’s case against Boudin hinges less on specific policies or data than on the contention that Boudin prioritizes reform over public safety — and that San Franciscans don’t have to make that choice. Her recall organization insists it favors progressive reforms like reducing prison sentences. Boudin’s approach to reform looks good on paper, she says, but is much too lenient toward serious repeat offenders. “By the eighth, ninth time that you have come before the district attorney on the same type of charges, there has to be consequences,” says Shorter. “Instead, it just seems to be going, ‘Well, what can we do to reduce felony charges to misdemeanor charges?’

“We don’t need two public defenders,” she continues. “And right now, we have two public defenders: one that’s the public defender, and one that is a public defender in the district attorney’s office.” Shorter’s group has found common cause with local women’s advocates who have argued that Boudin’s office has a tendency to not file charges in domestic-violence cases, allowing perpetrators to remain at large. They have drawn attention to the case of a man who had been twice arrested for felony domestic violence and released, then went on to allegedly kill a 7-month-old. (Boudin says he hasn’t changed the department’s policies on such matters since taking office.)

None of these arguments seem to faze Boudin. When asked about a particular perpetrator’s latest crime, Boudin often points out that his office has more than 5,000 open case files and that anybody who thinks the DA is personally involved in all of them is misguided. Also, he says, “if it’s the standard that any time anybody who has ever had previous contact with the criminal-justice system commits a crime, it’s our fault,” he says, “that’s impossible.”

Yet for seemingly every violent crime that a community advocate or a police spokesperson has publicly tried to pin on leniency from the DA’s office, Boudin can rattle off counterarguments, citing the most minute details of arcane data and even the past criminal records of individual perpetrators — every time they were arrested but cops failed to provide adequate evidence, every time the DA’s office asked a judge to hold the perp without bail but got denied.

Take, for example, the case of a highly publicized double murder, which spurred a blame game that played out in local media. Police told the press that the suspect, a man named Robert Newt, had been arrested weeks before the killings in a stolen car and with a gun that were both linked to earlier homicides but that Boudin’s office had declined to press charges. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Boudin countered that he had asked the police for DNA or fingerprint evidence linking the gun to Newt and that police failed to deliver — and that his office was currently awaiting such evidence in 100 other prosecutions.

On a Saturday morning in late June, Boudin arrived at a park in the Bayview, a historically Black neighborhood of San Francisco. Local organizations were hosting a basketball tournament and sign-up for the public defender’s Clean Slate program, which erases old criminal records to make it easier for people to get jobs. With weeks to go before the deadline for the first recall petition, Boudin was going out to hustle up community support.

As Boudin climbed out of an SUV, the tournament’s MC and referee, Malik Washington, caught Boudin’s eye. Grabbing the microphone, Washington told the crowd, “I want to introduce you to the most progressive district attorney in the United States, Chesaaaaaa Boudin!” Wearing a short-sleeved shirt and faded jeans held up by a Guatemalan-fabric belt, Boudin took the mic and said, “Thank you, Malik. So good to be out here with all of you. We know we can build safer communities without relying on jails and prisons.”

Afterward, members of the crowd approached Boudin. A young man introduced himself as a recent college graduate looking for an internship in criminal justice; Boudin shook his hand and said the deadline for his office’s internship program had passed, then pointed to a booth run by the public defender’s office and said he was pretty sure it still had room. Next, a petite older woman introduced herself to Boudin as an editor at the Bay View newspaper and said, “I just want you to know the Bayview’s got you. I’m concerned that the opposition is stealing a lot of your mental — ”

“That’s what they’re trying to do,” Boudin agreed. “They’re trying to distract us.”

A younger woman, visibly agitated, spoke softly and quickly as she told Boudin that she’d seen Newt, the suspect in that recent double homicide, in the neighborhood. She asked Boudin what to do if she saw Newt again — how to report it without putting herself in harm’s way. Boudin turned his back so that they could talk privately; after a few minutes, he gave her his business card and told her to email him.

The perception of increased crime under Boudin’s tenure does not necessarily correlate to an actual increase, at least in overall crime. The San Francisco Police Department’s official statistics show that crime has fallen steadily during Boudin’s time in office. Burglary and car theft did spike in 2020, but larceny, a broader category of theft that includes shoplifting, has plummeted. Homicide and gun violence also jumped, but far less than in other cities across the country or even in the Bay Area. Still, the overall drop in theft may have been due to the disappearance of tourists and commuters during the pandemic; spikes in home invasion and homicide, meanwhile, are more likely to hit city residents — which may explain why many feel that crime has worsened.

The ubiquity of sidewalk tent camps, intravenous-drug use, and unhoused people suffering mental illness in San Francisco has long fueled a general feeling of lawlessness. And if you hear that neighbors have been robbed or that an alleged felon is in your neighborhood, a statistical drop in reported larceny or the technical details of a suspect’s release is unlikely to ease your fear. Some officials, like Anne Marie Schubert, the district attorney for Sacramento and a candidate for attorney general of California, argue that the crime statistics also mask the true scale of the problem: Residents have become so dispirited by the lack of accountability, she says, that they’ve stopped reporting crimes.

In such a climate, it may be Boudin’s refusal to conform to the traditional script of the anti-crime crusader that drives his critics, and at least some of his constituents, crazy. The cultural logic of our criminal-justice system casts the public defender and DA in roles that stand in existential opposition. The public defender is our designated optimist — tasked with seeing every criminal suspect as a human in crisis and imagining a future for them beyond crime and punishment. The traditional prosecutor is the pessimist — charged with seeing the same suspect purely in terms of the danger they pose to the public. Boudin elaborates on this binary in surfing terms: “When you’re a public defender, you’re looking over the lip of the wave, and you want to see a line you can draw that doesn’t involve you getting crushed. When you’re a prosecutor, you’re saying, ‘Maybe you can make that wave, but how many other waves that you’ve tried to make didn’t work out and looked just like this?’ ”

The progressive-prosecutor movement rejects that separation of roles. But its remedy — bringing a public defender’s moral sensibility to the work of the DA and setting law-enforcement policy with an eye to protecting suspects — may be easier to vote for than to watch in action.

The success of the recalls will not hinge on whether the traditional or progressive approach is more effective but rather on whether recall backers can capitalize on the city’s anxieties to oust Boudin. But correctly reading a voter’s mood around criminal justice and crime is tricky. Just a few weeks ago, New York City chose progressive prosecutor Alvin Bragg and tough-on-crime former cop Eric Adams on the same day. For now, Boudin’s strategy for holding off the recall campaigns is similar to the one that got him elected two years ago and has the benefit of simplicity: He is doubling down. His anti-recall posters, which now appear all over town, bear a photograph of Boudin smiling in an overtly gentle way under the words STAND WITH CHESA alongside slogans like “Harmful Incarceration Dropped by 50 Percent,” “Police Held Accountable,” and “Crime Down by 30 Percent.”

Will it work? By late July, the two recall campaigns had a combined war chest of nearly double that of the efforts supporting Boudin. And Boudin is aware that more can change between now and October; a handful of high-profile crimes could further compound the city’s fear. Given the narrowness of Boudin’s original victory, it might also turn out that his approach to criminal justice is not shared by enough of his constituents to keep him in office.

“It’s easy for those who prefer a tough-on-crime approach,” he said recently. “Whether it’s the police union and that’s how they get their budget, or people who have a racist agenda, or developers who want property values to go up, or the tourist industry, or people who live in fear and feel safe when they see police — whatever it is, if you’re the tough-on-crime prosecutor, you have an answer to any criticism: ‘Liberal judges are letting them down!’ or ‘The damn state legislature won’t let us seek the death penalty for shoplifting.’ ”

The progressive approach, in Boudin’s view, exposes prosecutors like himself to criticism less because of the effect of their policies and more because of the philosophical leap it asks citizens to make. “We’re processing more than 10,000 human beings every year through San Francisco County Jail,” he says. “If you look at it from 30,000 feet, you know that some of those people are going to go on to commit violent crime or are going to be victims of crime.” Releasing a suspect can come with collateral damage, but so can punishing them: “Someone may get released and go on to commit another crime or get killed themselves. On the other hand, if we hold someone in jail, they may get sexually assaulted,” Boudin says. “Their partner may lose housing and end up on the streets, or their kids may end up going into foster care, or they lose their mental-health treatment. That happens every day also.”

Early one morning under a low gray fog, Boudin and I met on a sidewalk near his home. Wearing black wet suits, we walked across enormous sand dunes and over a broad beach that ran for miles to the north and south. At the water’s edge, we waded into cold gray-green shallows, then lay down on our surfboards and paddled hard away from the sand. Ocean Beach is notorious for a difficult initial paddle — just to get away from shore, we had to push headfirst into onrushing rows of white water that boomed against us and pushed us backward. More than once, we both had to dive off our surfboards and swim underneath a wave, then get back on and start paddling again.

About 50 yards offshore, still under that dense fog, we found half a dozen other men, talking and taking turns riding waves. Several seemed to know Boudin — from surfing that part of the beach, not from his role as DA. Boudin chatted with them about recent conditions and swell forecasts.

Then a wave appeared, four or five feet on the face and coming toward Boudin. He pointed his surfboard toward the beach, paddled to catch the wave, and, with a friend hooting gentle encouragement, hopped to his feet and glided away.

When Boudin returned, he told me that he pretty much always surfs early in the morning. He mentioned the pleasure of watching the sun come up over the city on days without so much fog. Unprompted, Boudin asked if I’d heard about a recent assault — a 94-year-old woman stabbed multiple times. Police were apparently saying they had arrested the guy weeks earlier but that Boudin’s office failed to jail him at the time.

“The funny thing is,” Boudin said, “we asked a judge to hold him, and the judge turned us down.” Just then, another surfer appeared alongside Boudin and said he’d seen one of the anti-recall mailers. He complimented Boudin on the quality of the brochure and said, “Good luck with all that!”

Boudin laughed and said, “Do you know there are 67 recall efforts in California right now? That’s an all-time record.” He shook his head and took off, paddling into the next wave.

Everyone in San Francisco Has Something to Say About Chesa