Bob Lee’s Murder and San Francisco’s So-Called Crime Epidemic
The progressive prosecutor—Larry Krasner of Philadelphia; Kim Foxx of Cook County, Illinois; or Ramin Fatehi of Norfolk, Virginia, to name a few—serves under the influence of two seemingly conflicting truths. The first: a whole lot of people—especially the press and the police—blame their lenient bail and sentencing practices for every murder, robbery, and homeless encampment.
The progressive prosecutor—Larry Krasner of Philadelphia; Kim Foxx of Cook County, Illinois; or Ramin Fatehi of Norfolk, Virginia, to name a few—serves under the influence of two seemingly conflicting truths. The first: a whole lot of people—especially the press and the police—blame their lenient bail and sentencing practices for every murder, robbery, and homeless encampment. The second: despite mostly bad press, public outcry, and the accusation from the right that they are pawns of George Soros, who has sent them to single-handedly turn America’s great cities into wastelands, they keep getting elected. Chesa Boudin, the former San Francisco district attorney who was removed from office via a recall vote, made the Bay Area an epicenter of debate over whether this movement of progressive prosecutors will actually break cycles of incarceration and usher in a better, more humane criminal-justice system or whether they will flood the streets with irredeemably violent criminals.
The region has seen two high-profile murders in the past few months, both of which will shape the way in which the public thinks about the progressive-district-attorney movement. Earlier this month, Bob Lee, a well-connected tech executive and the founder of Cash App, was stabbed to death in San Francisco during the early-morning hours. The news kicked up what has now become a predictable and exhausting reflex in which dozens of relatively prominent people with large social-media followings declare that the city has turned into a lawless pit of homelessness, drug addiction, and violent crime. Before a single relevant detail was released about the suspect in Lee’s murder, this chorus had already blamed it on the chaos brought on by Boudin’s administration. The sentiment was perhaps best summed up by Matt Ocko, a local venture capitalist, who tweeted, “Chesa Boudin, & the criminal-loving city council that enabled him & a lawless SF for years, have Bob’s literal blood on their hands. Take action.” David Sacks, another venture capitalist and one of the hosts of the “All-In” podcast, predicted “dollars to dimes” that Lee’s case would be similar to the tragedy of Brianna Kupfer, a U.C.L.A. student who was fatally stabbed by a homeless person. Elon Musk also chimed in with “Violent crime in SF is horrific and even if attackers are caught, they are often released immediately. Is the city taking stronger action to incarcerate repeat violent offenders @BrookeJenkinsSF?”
Musk’s tweet was addressed to Brooke Jenkins, the tough-on-crime career prosecutor who replaced Boudin. Upon taking office, Jenkins promised to be everything her predecessor was not; she says she will impose harsh sentences on fentanyl dealers, crack down on robberies, and seek harsh prison sentences against violent criminals. Her job, in many ways, is to appease critics like Ocko and Musk and clean up a violent-crime epidemic that simply does not exist. San Francisco, despite what Ocko and Musk say, has a relatively low murder rate compared to other major cities.
On Thursday, news came that the San Francisco Police Department had made an arrest in Lee’s murder. The suspect is not a deranged lunatic or career criminal left free to roam the hills of the city by a district attorney who left office nine months ago but, rather, a fellow tech entrepreneur with whom Lee was familiar. Given these realities and the fact that they will not quiet the doomsayers who see San Francisco as a post-apocalyptic zombie set filled with violent psychotic homeless people, Jenkins’s popularity among the Ockos, Sackses, and Musks will likely hinge on how she handles the public-relations part of the job, namely how loudly she renounces Boudin and his movement and how well she can tell the story that the streets are safer.
In February, on the other side of the Bay, Jen Angel, a baker, book publicist, and political activist, was dragged to her death by a getaway car driven by two men who had just robbed her in Oakland. After Angel’s death, her friends, family, and partner put out statements that she believed in restorative justice, and would not have wanted her assailants to spend any time in prison.
Angel’s case will be taken up by Pamela Price, the progressive district attorney of Alameda County, who has spent the first four months of her first term mired in the types of scandals that ultimately sank Boudin. First came the grumblings that Price, a former civil-rights attorney, was in over her head. Then came a series of high-level departures from Price’s office, including Jill Nerone, a veteran prosecutor who, in her resignation letter, wrote that she felt that she could no longer protect the rights of victims of violent crime. In February, Price’s office worked out a plea deal with a man who had been convicted of three homicides. In exchange for a significantly reduced sentence, the man was going to publicly apologize. The plea was rejected by an Alameda County judge. In response, Price has moved to bar the judge from presiding over any criminal cases in Alameda County.
These stories have been accompanied by the case of Jasper Wu, a toddler who was killed during a highway shootout in 2src21. Price’s office is currently reviewing the charges filed by her predecessor against the three men suspected of Wu’s killing, which, in turn, has activated the same local Chinese American groups who protested Boudin for what they saw to be his callous handling of a series of attacks on Asian Americans in the city. They believe that Price, like Boudin, is more committed to protecting criminals than protecting Asian residents.
In response to the criticism from Wu’s advocates, Price put out a lengthy video statement on social media in which she talks about the racist comments and messages her office has received in reaction to its perceived inaction in the Wu case, which, while horrible in their own right, don’t have much of anything to do with what she, an elected official, plans to do about the murder. This past Sunday, a five-year-old girl was shot and killed in another senseless freeway shooting in the East Bay, a day before a planned protest at the Alameda County Courthouse, where a crowd gathered to demand justice for Jasper Wu and call on Price to remember that “victims come first.”
Price also singled out a journalist—the local TV news reporter Dion Lim—who had released unflattering e-mails from Price’s office and has interviewed Jasper Wu’s family, who are anxious that they will not see justice. Boudin also had his run-ins with Lim, who is mostly known for posting videos of violent attacks on Asian American Bay Area residents to her social-media accounts. One can feel however one wants about the salaciousness of Lim’s reporting, but it is unusual for two separate district attorneys to single out a reporter, question her integrity, and accuse her of trying to sabotage their mandates. One television reporter should not be able to derail a progressive prosecutor’s entire office. The targeting of Lim by these two, separate administrations reflects the unique spoiler role that local media can play in the tenure of a progressive district attorney. Crime reporting is the lifeblood of local news, and finding someone to blame is the job of the opinion makers. Every murder, assault, or rash of robberies becomes a referendum on the progressive prosecutor. The news will hit, a suspect will be named, and if the perp has any rap sheet at all—and it’s likely that they will—everyone will start asking why this thug was out on the streets in the first place. That Price and Boudin both seem more concerned with calling out a reporter for doing her job than providing actual answers to the public’s inevitable questions exposes what could kindly be called a confused set of priorities in their respective administrations. More important, it suggests that there may be a gap between what the public hears from progressive prosecutors about reducing sentences for, say, low-level drug offenders—a broadly popular policy, especially in blue cities—and their willingness to extend the same leniency toward violent criminals.
The focus on Lim is especially strange because while the local media still plays a role in selecting which crimes capture the public’s attention, their role in shaping the narrative around law and order has been ceded, in large part, to social-media clout. For both Angel’s and Lee’s murders, the outcry in the Bay Area wasn’t measured by the number of headlines but, rather, by the volume of high-follower tweets. Since both Angel and Lee were seemingly beloved members of highly visible communities—Angel was well known within East Bay organizing circles; Lee had worked in the C-suite of one of the region’s large tech companies—their murders were widely discussed on social media; this, in turn, prompted local news to cover them even more.