Should DSA SF Endorse Chesa Boudin for District Attorney?

Two members share their views on a potential DSA endorsement of Chesa Boudin. Alejandro Schuler argues for an endorsement, while Melissa Hernandez argues against.

DSA SF should endorse Chesa Boudin

Chesa Boudin, an openly socialist deputy public defender whose parents were Marxist revolutionaries, is running for San Francisco district attorney. He speaks explicitly about addressing housing and poverty as a means to make our society safer. He rails against the prison-industrial complex. He promises to fight cash bail, shift prosecution of misdemeanor crimes to a restorative justice approach, and create a unit to prosecute ICE agents who break the law. 

Boudin is part of the wave of left-wing DA insurgencies that recently led to a near-victory for Tiffany Cabán in Queens. Cabán was heavily supported by her local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. But despite Boudin’s radical credentials, dedication to transformational change, and endorsements from prison abolitionists like Angela Davis, DSA San Francisco has not yet endorsed his candidacy. 

Why not? 

Well, perhaps any endorsement of a DA candidate is a step too far for an abolitionist organization. Some say that, because DAs are prosecutors, they are on the wrong side of the criminal justice system no matter how progressive they are.

The problem with that argument is that DAs aren’t the only elected officials that are implicated in the criminal justice system. Mayors, for instance, directly oversee police departments. And, to zoom out even further: the president of the United States legally commands an imperialist military. So does that mean that DSA should never endorse candidates for mayor or president?

Our entire society is implicated in injustice. That’s what makes systemic issues, well, systemic. DAs have a lot to do with criminalization, but there is no clear-cut line that demarcates which offices are complicit with which systems of oppression and which aren’t. Trying to draw one is a fool’s errand. 

So while we shouldn’t blindly endorse the most progressive candidate in every race, putting an imaginary cordon around certain offices isn’t a good idea either. Every endorsement decision should be made with an eye not only towards the complicity of that office with systems of oppression, but also the capacity of the candidate to immediately help the oppressed, radicalize the public, and create transformational change that could shift the meaning of the office itself. 

And Chesa Boudin will do all of that.

If elected, Boudin could immediately decarcerate people held for minor charges. He could allow our most marginalized neighbors to keep their money instead of throwing it away on bail. He could roll back unjust convictions. He could blacklist the most abusive police officers who terrorize our communities. And with an endorsement, DSA SF could demand even more. These policies are about doing something real for the people suffering the most from oppression here and now, not in some hypothetical socialist future. 

Boudin is running a visible campaign that will make waves nationwide. Larry Krasner’s victory in Philadelphia inspired a new surge of radicalism in the justice system, of which the Boudin and Cabán campaigns are a part. In the public eye, these DAs normalize abolitionist ideas that the real solutions to crime are found outside the criminal justice system. DSA SF should not pass up the opportunity to build a visible on-ramp to socialism and prison abolition for those who support criminal justice reform.

Boudin is actively talking about structural changes to the role of the DA. His opponents say that the creation of separate units for wrongful convictions and immigrants are unnecessary, and they probably are if what we want is to maintain the status quo. But these proposals demonstrate that Boudin is interested in an impact beyond his years in office, an impact that changes the meaning of “District Attorney”. If we believe that the apparatus of the state itself, which was designed to serve the elite, can be transformed through socialism to serve the oppressed, then we must believe that the office of the DA can be transformed to serve real justice.

Yes, we should be careful with who we endorse. It sets a precedent and that matters. But there’s nothing magical about law enforcement offices- every public servant is implicated in multiple overlapping systems of injustice. Endorsements should be considered on a case-by-case basis, carefully considering harms and benefits. And in this case, it’s clear: Chesa Boudin will relieve the suffering of people today, promote radical ideas, and make lasting changes to the office he will occupy. 

We should endorse Chesa Boudin.

No, DSA should not endorse cops

In a time where even “mainstream” politicians are gleefully lurching to the right, many of us are understandably ecstatic at the prospect of a leftist politician who shares a desire to dismantle, or at least disrupt, the systemic injustices of our criminal justice system.

Over the past several years, a handful of self-described progressives have thrown their hats into the ring for the position of District Attorney, a position historically associated with candidates who market themselves as “tough on crime,” on platforms promising criminal justice reform. Some of those prosecutors shamelessly betrayed their voters by doubling down on old practices after taking office. Others have arguably done better at remaining committed to their values, but still refuse to rock the boat in practice. 

In San Francisco, this trend has given us Chesa Boudin, a socialist whose revolutionary parents were incarcerated when he was just a baby. Throughout his campaign, Boudin has boasted a commitment to reducing the use of incarceration and ending the criminalization of poverty, drug addiction, and mental health crises. Boudin has also promised to ensure that the law applies equally to all by prosecuting bad cops.

Yet, Boudin is campaigning to take over a law enforcement position. He will work with police on a daily basis, oversee all criminal prosecutions, and, for all intents and purposes, function as San Francisco’s top cop. That’s not to say that holding the office of DA won’t give Boudin unprecedented power in choosing which laws to enforce and how to resolve charges. But even as DA, Boudin will have only so much control over the cases that are referred to his office. As recently as July, Mayor London Breed told the press that the San Francisco Police Department needs more officers. With more officers stationed around our city, most likely in already heavily-policed communities, common sense tells us that the people who will be subjected to the criminal justice system at all will still likely be the unhoused, the poor, and people of color. 

So why are comrades from an organization that has endorsed a resolution supporting the complete abolition of prisons so eager to endorse a candidate for a position that will ultimately continue to terrorize certain communities and place them in cages? Make no mistake—while other governmental positions may be complicit with systems of oppression, a DA is more than complicit: their sole duty is to implement and perpetuate oppression in partnership with other cops. Law enforcement was created, at its core, to protect the rich and their interests from the hands of the masses, and putting a gentler hand at the helm does little to challenge that dynamic. 

This is not just about feeling good about drawing a line in the sand, but about truly committing, as an organization, to dismantling the criminal justice system as it exists today. If we are serious about collectively working for abolition, we should be using chapter resources in a way that centers the people of San Francisco instead of using them to elect someone who will incarcerate people in a more progressive way. It’s worth noting that this piece is in no way intended as a rebuke of Boudin’s platform and promises to overhaul the San Francisco DA’s office. Boudin’s election would be an incredible achievement and would send a great message that voters are ready for a change in the way we see our justice system. But our chapter can only do so many things at one time, and endorsing Boudin would mean using our people power, time, and budget in hopes of installing a particular top cop instead of using those resources to continue base-building and supporting the efforts of the communities most affected by criminal prosecution. The only way to truly redistribute the power currently held by police and the DA’s office is by continuing to grow our ranks and refusing to bow to the system placing that power into the hands of the few.

In the same vein, it’s important to understand that endorsing Boudin will inevitably take the air out of the room as our chapter continues to push for real transformative reform that places the tools of public safety into the hands of the people, rather than relying on a few highly empowered individuals, who overwhelmingly tend to be white males, to use their discretion in the least harmful way. The next DA would still have the power to radically change or undo any of Boudin’s policies, just as Boudin plans to do to George Gascón’s policies if elected. 

Of course, we can, and must push for better policies and hold any DA accountable for following through on their promises, but we can do so without endorsing their campaigns. The assumption that the only way we can demand a seat at the table is if we actively contribute to Boudin’s campaign is flawed. We have come together as a chapter in the past to push for radical changes to the status quo. We don’t have to endorse Boudin to work with him on goals we all share.

So instead of pumping our collective time and money into a campaign for a progressive cop, what could we do? It’s hard to know where to start, but here are a couple of examples: we can hold more brake light clinics, which could lessen the chances of police encounters for the general public. We can focus our efforts more firmly in support of No New SF Jail Coalition– which our chapter joined in July 2019– and its efforts to close down our main jail, stop building new jails, and insist that our city adopt public safety policies that do not rely on jailing or policing. We can work with other coalition partners to codify progressive policies to ensure that any DA, including Boudin, has less discretion to use the threat of incarceration against defendants. We could even create a legal defense fund for comrades who are arrested during demonstrations. Any of these activities would allow our chapter to counteract the harms of policing and incarceration without compromising our commitment to abolition. 

In sum, endorsing Chesa Boudin or any other cop is not necessary or prudent, and we should refrain from doing so.