Last month, I was at a CVS in San Francisco when a homeless man entered the store, grabbed a few bags of chips, then ran out.
There are, as far as I'm concerned, two reactions to witnessing a poor person stealing from a convenience store chain. One is to sympathize with them; their situation is dire enough to where they feel they have no other recourse, which is ultimately a reflection of America's unsustainable level of inequality and a failure on the part of our social services. The other is to blame them and be upset at them; they alone are responsible for their actions, no matter how dire their situation might be.
I sympathized with the man, who I presume needed food. This was hardly the first shoplifting incident I'd encountered in a major metropolitan city, where lots of people — including lots of unhoused people — congregate and live. I would've preferred he hadn't stolen from the CVS, but I get why he did.
The CVS employee standing next to me felt differently. "They're so lazy," she said to me as I checked out.
This weekend, a string of highly publicized burglaries occurred in Union Square. The affected stores were luxury retailers like Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent. The burglaries appear to have been coordinated to some degree, and some of the thieves made out with thousands of dollars of goods. Hucksters like Andy Ngo tried to link what happened to Black Lives Matter protests that followed the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, even though there's zero evidence to support that conclusion. On Tuesday evening, nine people involved in the burglaries were given felony charges , and more charges are expected.
The social media videos from the burglaries are wild. One stands out to me: A would-be thief jumps into their car and is immediately surrounded by cops, who bash the car with already-drawn batons. Windows are smashed and the person is dragged to the ground.
Damn cops were not playing . Louis Vuitton in San Francisco union square pic.twitter.com/KY32rxjQ9c
— Yealenne (@Yealenne) November 20, 2021
I'd venture to guess the above video conveys a similar binary reaction to the convenience store shoplifting scenario I described (with the caveat that the crimes committed are clearly different in terms of severity and potential consequences). One side (my personal view) is it sucks the person in the video was stealing stuff, but the cops' use of force was far more stunning and disturbing. All this violence, all these officers, to stop someone from snagging some handbags? The other side has a drastically opposed viewpoint — they’re upset at the imagery of someone stealing from a store, and they blame the thief for putting themselves in a volatile situation; since stealing is against the law, the cops simply acted within their means to enforce the law.
A few days after the burglaries, on Monday night, I walked through Union Square. It was essentially empty. That's not in itself unusual in the evening. But there also weren't any cars anymore. Almost every intersection was blocked off. Flashing lights blinkered from the police cars. Armed officers stood in front of many of the luxury stores, protecting the items inside. This new plan, to convert a rich-person tourist trap into what looks like a permanent police state, was stamped and approved by San Francisco's mayor, London Breed.
"We’re going to be making some changes to Union Square and how cars are able to access," she told reporters after the burglaries. "There will be limited access in terms of when you come to this area."
It's not that I'm surprised by the open-ended change, nor do I have fond-enough feelings about Union Square itself to complain about the aesthetics. I do find the swiftness with which it was implemented and the general muted response from, well, most everyone, to be both infuriating and ominous.
It seems as though the Union Square police takeover is a test balloon for an ostensibly liberal city fully ceding to capital and conservative talking points — the natural result of months and months of fear mongering about Business Owner Rights and crime and especially bogeyman District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who's facing a recall effort .
Contrary to the Fox News segments and viral Facebook posts that have set the tone for this ongoing conversation, San Francisco isn't some sort of socialist stomping grounds. This is a city of affluent liberalism, of "hate has no home here" signs that begin and end on residents' pricey properties. The median household income in San Francisco jumped by more than $40,000 over the previous decade, according to Forbes, the second-largest increase behind only the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale. We're represented in Congress by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who's worth more than $100 million. Most of the SF Board of Supervisors, save for Dean Preston, would vehemently reject the "socialist" title, as would Breed herself, who hasn't taken a position on the Boudin recall.
Let's be clear: The recall stems from misplaced angst about property and capital. There are obviously voters who are genuinely concerned about crime (more on that in a minute), but there's a far more influential donor class full of wealthy liberals and conservatives who've teamed up to take out Boudin . That's why SFPD has initiated an openly politicized temper tantrum in the name of saving handbags, not human lives.
Scary anecdotes pushed especially hard by local TV reporters have driven the narrative about Boudin's tenure, but those anecdotes aren't backed by data, which more so shows a mishmash of statistical noise rather than a clear pattern. Year over year, burglaries are down, larceny theft is up and robberies are down. There have been more recorded homicides and fewer recorded sexual assaults. Total crime is up by 8% compared with 2020, when people were largely avoiding other people.
Liberal politicians in the city haven't done a good enough job of explaining those discrepancies. Rather than defending Boudin, they've shrunk and scurried away at the mere mention of him, further emboldening SFPD. (Only two of the 11 supervisors, Preston and Hillary Ronen, have bothered to even tweet in support of Boudin over the past year. ) Their squishiness in moments like these is embarrassing and a failure; it could absolutely lead to a drop-off of semi-reliable voters who aren't affluent liberals, some of whom are white, some of whom are not, and all of whom are getting sick of Democrats running on nothing except "Trump bad."
Instead of capitulating to the SFPD police chief, here's a suggestion: put things in perspective. Acknowledge that yes, we shouldn't steal things, but Louis Vuitton's profits are, by their own metrics, flowing; the burglaries they endured in Union Square were the equivalent of you or I dropping a dollar bill on the ground. Louis Vuitton's CEO, Bernard Arnault, is worth more than $200 billion. He can toss a money bag at the Union Square location and have it fixed up in no time.
SFPD already presented their counterargument, and it's a terrible, disproportionate one. "We are going to flood the area," police Chief William Scott bragged to reporters, "and we're not going to stop at Union Square."
That's a dare for Boudin, now politically vulnerable and without liberal allies, to do something. It's a threat. And it's a waste of money, too.
San Francisco's liberals have a choice to make. What's the real problem here? Is it the Bay Area's galling income inequality, the worst in the country , lending itself to homelessness and theft during a global pandemic? Or is it that the city's riffraff cannot be trusted under the supervision of Boudin, so now we need the police to do some heavy-handed babysitting?
Mayor Breed and many of the Board of Supervisors can stay silent and align with a coalition that's begging for more arrests, more batons, more blaming of San Francisco's perceived ills on a leftist district attorney. That scenario ends with a predictable, significant rightward shift in policy. And for the record: The liberal politicians who play along will get zero credit for doing so, they'll still get angry tweets from SFPD union's Twitter account, and they'll lose voters anyway.
There's another option, though. Breed and the liberal Board of Supervisors can snap out of it. They can forcefully push back against the police when they float the possibility of posting up all over the city. They can publicly discuss the root causes of poverty and crime, why we don't need to vilify the poor, and more than that, how we're going to help them in a noticeable, useful manner.
And if you're one of the aforementioned affluent liberals, someone who dislikes Boudin and ties your identity to the Democrats, you too can do something useful: take a minute to think critically about what constitutes real theft in the first place. Is it the man worth $200 billion, or the dozens of people who allegedly stole stupid clothes and bags?
On Monday night, on my walk back to Chinatown, I passed by a well-dressed family right before I reached the Stockton Tunnel. The family had two little kids in tow and were walking in the direction of Union Square. One of the little kids pointed to a disheveled-looking woman who was rifling through the trash, pulling out aluminum cans.
"What's she doing?" the kid asked. I don't know what the parents said back, and won't pretend otherwise. I imagine it was one of two responses, one grounded in sympathy, the other full of resentment.
That's the thing. We can all agree the situation at Union Square is an unmitigated disaster with far-reaching implications. How you define that disaster, and how you assess the factors that got us here, is a matter of two polar-opposite perspectives. SFPD has made it known that we have precious little time left to pick a side and react accordingly.
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