His Dad Got a Chance at Clemency. Then His Baby Was Born.

In an interview, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin discusses fatherhood, who deserves to be punished, his relationship with the police, and more.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin is featured with blue and yellow triangles on a light-yellow background
Yalonda M. James / The San Francisco Chronicle; The Atlantic

Late one recent afternoon, Chesa Boudin logged on to Zoom to have a conversation with me while his wife was in labor. His critics see the 41-year-old San Francisco district attorney as a symbol of the progressive legal-reform movement’s excesses. But Boudin has also attracted national attention because his personal story is so extraordinary: When he was barely a toddler, his parents, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, left him with a babysitter so they could rob a Brink’s armored car with fellow members of radical leftist militant groups. Participants in the robbery shot and killed two police officers and a security guard, and Boudin’s parents were both convicted of felony murder. Boudin was raised by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, leaders of the Weather Underground who, along with Boudin’s birth parents, orchestrated anti-government bombings and anti-war protests, such as the violent 1969 Days of Rage riots in Chicago.

Boudin’s detractors say that rates of certain kinds of crime are up in the city because he does not enforce the law aggressively enough. Two recall campaigns have been launched against him, although one has already failed. He has described the recalls as Republican-backed, and slammed the police union for undermining him. “These tactics have nothing to do with me or my policies and everything to do with a retrograde, reactionary, racist police-union leadership determined to exploit tragedies, undermine criminal-justice reform, and ensure impunity for even those police officers who shoot and kill unarmed Black men,” he told me.

In the past few weeks, Boudin’s story has taken another astonishing turn. Just days before Boudin’s first child was due to arrive, then–New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a last-minute grant of clemency to Boudin’s father, making him eligible for a parole hearing and possible release after 40 years of incarceration. (Boudin’s mother was released from prison in 2003.)

Frankly, I was surprised that Boudin kept our interview date. For someone just hours away from the birth of his child, Boudin was suspiciously coherent; he vibed like a practiced debater who has worked and reworked his winning lines. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Emma Green: I feel like I need to do a little throat-clearing here. The timing of us talking is so intimate. I don’t know you. And you don’t know me.

Chesa Boudin: We’re gonna get to know each other.

Green: Well, just to start with something big: When you were 14 months old, your parents made a choice that fundamentally shaped who you are. They participated in a robbery. A guard and two police officers were killed. Your parents went to prison for it. You’re now about to become a father, responsible for a little tiny person. I wonder how the choice that your birth parents made 40 years ago has shaped how you’re thinking about becoming a father.

Boudin: Well, for one thing, I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my ability to be there every single day of my child’s life. What my parents did had devastating consequences for the three men who were killed, first and foremost—for their families, for their entire community, for all the other people who were victims, directly or indirectly—and for our family. I’ve asked my parents infinite times, “How could you possibly have done something so dumb, so reckless, so harmful? How could you have risked not just the harm that was caused to those men and those families, but to me—to us?”

As I think about being a father, I want to make sure I’m trying to avoid not just the normal, everyday mistakes that all parents inevitably make, but the really big ones that some parents, like mine, make. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m asking someone else to step up and do the day-to-day diaper changing and bottle feeding and clothes shopping and temper calming.

Green: Has the context of your childhood made you anxious about doing the wrong thing or making choices that could have a ripple effect in your child’s life?

Boudin: Yes and no. There’s no way that I’ll ever be involved in something like my parents were involved in. It’s beyond the realm of possibility, so I don’t worry about that. I don’t imagine ever being in a position where my kid will have to come through metal detectors and steel gates to see me. That was, of course, a defining part of my childhood and continues to be a defining part of my relationship with my dad.

Green: Which is a really poignant aspect of you becoming a father. The same week in which, God willing, you’re going to have a new baby, you also got the news that former Governor Cuomo granted a commutation of your father’s sentence. At the very least, your dad is going to get a parole hearing, with the possibility of being released from prison. What is that like?

Boudin: There really are no words. My entire life, I’ve wondered and dreamed about “What if he gets out? What will it feel like?” Increasingly, it has seemed like something I shouldn’t even let myself dream about. My dad is 76 years old. As his health problems mounted during a global pandemic, he wasn’t allowed visits for over a year. It seemed almost inevitable that he would die in prison or that, at a minimum, his first and only grandchild would have to go through the same indignities I went through as a child just to get to meet their grandfather.

The news was a humongous weight lifted from my shoulders. It was the opening of a universe of possibilities. I’m not talking about the big things people tend to dream about—trips to outer space or luxury cruises around the Caribbean. I’m talking about being able to hold his hand and not have a correctional officer tell us to stop; being able to cook him dinner and watch a movie and go for a walk in the park; being able to watch him change his grandchild’s diaper—things that are as mundane as they are trivial until they’ve been taken away from you for 40 years. Then they mean the world.

Green: You advocated for the commutation of his sentence. As someone who bore the harm of your dad’s choice, what made you come to believe that he deserved to be released from prison?

Boudin: When my parents were arrested, I was angry at them. My feelings changed over time, but it was a mix of anger and confusion and fear and stigma and anxiety, and a sense of profound abandonment. I said to a child therapist at one point, “If only I’d been more lovable, maybe they wouldn’t have risked losing me.” I had a very real sense throughout my early childhood that their bad choices—their criminal act and subsequent punishment—were my fault, even though I’d only been 14 months old when it happened. It took a lot of work to recover from the damage their arrest caused.

Restoring trust and building a relationship—particularly given the long-distance trips, the searches and pat downs, the metal detectors and steel gates, the invisible ink on my hands, the impossibility of them showing up at birthday parties or graduations—required a lot of work for both of us. It required a commitment on my part to continue making those trips and suffering those indignities. And it required a commitment on their part to accept full responsibility for the horrible mistakes they’d made and to engage with me honestly wherever I was over the years, as my understanding of our family situation and their responsibility for it became more nuanced.

They’re more than just their worst mistakes. They’re more than just the crime for which my dad is now spending nearly 40 years in prison. He’s someone who’s caring and loving and insists on seeing the world through a glass-half-full lens, despite the hardship of his daily life and the miseries of getting old in a prison cell.

Green: Reading about your life, the thing I have a hard time understanding is that, from a very young age, you had to grapple with questions of taking responsibility for bad choices. One could imagine, in an alternate universe, a version of DA Boudin who is tough on crime and wants people to have to face up to the consequences of their actions.

Your critics say you don’t take seriously your duty to enforce the consequences of bad choices people make that have harmful effects on others—crimes. Help me reconcile that. How did you go from your childhood, which was shaped by bad decisions with bad consequences, to promoting an alternative vision of what criminal justice should look like?

Boudin: I want to be really clear: I believe in consequences. I believe that serious crimes should and must have serious consequences. There’s a big disconnect between what some of the critics you mentioned say and what’s actually happening on the ground.

Let me lay it out for you. Since I took office, even despite court closures and a global pandemic that’s led to fewer arrests being presented for prosecution than at any comparable period in San Francisco history, my office has filed more than 7,000 new criminal cases. I’ve personally secured an indictment in front of a grand jury in a murder case. In the last month alone, my lawyers have successfully prosecuted and tried two separate murders in front of juries. There are serious consequences for crimes in San Francisco, and I believe that people who commit crimes must be held to answer. But it must be done in ways that reduce rather than create future crime. It must not simply be based on fear and vindictiveness, but justice, equal enforcement of the law, and data-driven policies that are actually aimed at promoting public safety.

I was elected on a very explicit and clear platform to center crime victims, to prioritize resources for healing, and to address root causes of crime. In some cases, that absolutely means jail and prison. In other cases, we can do far better for public safety.

Green: You’ve talked about the systemic nature of crime and the way data should inform criminal-justice policies. But looking at those statistics, burglary in San Francisco is up year over year. Gun crimes are significantly up year over year. Each of those numbers translates into an individual, into a family, into actual human beings who don’t feel safe. It’s hard to talk about systemic change when people are scared of walking around in their own neighborhoods. Do you think that as the DA, you have a responsibility to not only pursue aggressive enforcement, but also acknowledge that people are scared—and they have a reason to be scared?

Boudin: My job is to make sure that San Francisco is safe and that people feel safe. Those aren’t always synonymous. There’s often a disconnect between what we see in terms of data and how people feel. That’s driven by individual experience, social media, and local news coverage as much as it’s driven by any policy that any district attorney could implement.

I want to be clear about what the data does show. It shows that in my first year in office, overall crime fell by about 20 percent. Rapes were down by about 50 percent. Robberies were down by about 20 percent. Assaults down by about 15 percent. Auto burglaries down by about 40 percent. So, yes, you’re absolutely right. There are some categories of crime, like residential burglaries or like gun violence, that have gone up—categories that appropriately make people feel scared. Residential burglaries are scary. Gun violence is terrifying. [Editor’s note: I checked these statistics, and they’re accurate. They’re complicated by the pandemic, but it’s hard to know exactly how. The pandemic may have lowered rates of crime that typically targets people such as tourists (petty theft, break-ins to steal property from rental cars) and increased crimes such as home break-ins.]

Green: I want to ask you about your relationship with the police. Police unions and advocacy groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing you and supporting the recall campaign against you. You indicted several officers for alleged misconduct, which police advocates took as a slap in the face. Do you think that you, as the DA, can be an effective crime enforcer in San Francisco if the police fundamentally don’t want to cooperate with you?

Boudin: The criminal-justice system requires cooperation from a lot of different agencies—the police and the DA, to be sure, but also the courts and the sheriff’s department and probation and parole. No one agency can hold people who commit crimes accountable or can ensure justice is being served on its own. I have a great relationship with Police Chief [William] Scott and his command staff. Many of my line attorneys work every day in court with officers who are out there on the front lines, making arrests and writing reports. It’s frustrating that the police officers’ association in San Francisco has consistently been a source of toxic misinformation and lies in the public discourse. We’ve seen the police union not just spend millions attacking me and other like-minded reformers—they also went after my predecessors. These tactics have nothing to do with me or my policies and everything to do with a retrograde, reactionary, racist police-union leadership determined to exploit tragedies, undermine criminal-justice reform, and ensure impunity for even those police officers who shoot and kill unarmed Black men.

Green: Do you think that’s grounds for a city like San Francisco to divert funds away from the police officers—which some people would call defunding the police?

Boudin: During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, our mayor and our police chief, both of whom happen to be Black, publicly called for defunding the police. I never joined them in that call. My focus has been on maximizing efficiency of tax dollars when it comes to public safety. I know there’s lots of work police are doing every day in San Francisco that could be done more cheaply, more safely, and more humanely by other people. In 2019, there were about a million calls for service to the police. Only about 5 percent of those calls were violent crimes in progress. Some significant percentage of those calls were mental-health crises or homeless encampments, issues that distract police from investigating violent crimes or having a quick response time when there’s a property crime in progress. I am absolutely certain that most San Francisco Police Department officers do not want to spend their time responding to mental-health crises or drug overdoses, and sadly, that’s what they’re doing right now. So it’s less about defunding or increasing funding and much more about how we use the tax dollars that are there. The San Francisco Police Department budget is about 10 times my budget. It’s over $700 million. It is a very well-funded police department. We need to make sure they have the time and the space to focus those resources on the things that matter most to San Francisco when it comes to public safety.

Green: There have been two recall campaigns against you. Do you think your platform could end up costing you your job?

Boudin: I was extremely detailed and transparent on the campaign trail. I was very clear about what my policies would be once I took office. The trademark policies of my administration are wildly popular in San Francisco: things like ending money bail so that we’re not incarcerating people who are presumed innocent based on their poverty; things like reducing juvenile detention so that we don’t have children in jail; things like getting the last person off of California’s death row, who was sent there from San Francisco County. The recall campaign is exploiting fear and anxiety in a global pandemic. Folks didn’t like the outcome of the last election and see an opportunity, using money raised from Republican donors, to try and reverse it.

Green: Most of the people behind one of the recall campaigns were Democrats, so it’s not just Republicans. When it comes down to it, if you are focused on trying to release people on parole and reduce the size of the jailed population, more people accused of crimes will be walking around on the streets. For better or for worse, that is probably going to mean that some of them will commit crimes again while they’re out of the prison system. Do you think there’s a fundamental trade-off between the criminal-justice system you envision and the fact that people just have to live with the possibility of more crime in their neighborhood?

Boudin: I don’t at all. But first let me address your point about who’s behind this recall. You are absolutely right that the second recall is trying to brand itself as Democrat-led. It’s also true that the San Francisco Republican Party has endorsed it and the vast majority of money they’re raising is coming from a very, very small group of Republican mega-donors who give money to Republican causes all across this country. So yes, they’re calling themselves Democrats, but the reality of where their money is coming from and who’s endorsed them makes it very clear that this is a Republican-led operation.

The logic behind your question—what’s implied—is that because we know some percentage of people who are arrested will eventually commit new crimes, therefore we should incarcerate everyone who’s ever arrested for life. That’s reading between the lines of your question. Do we know that sometimes when police arrest someone that person goes on to commit a murder? Yes, we know empirically that will happen. It will happen in every city in this country, with a Republican tough-on-crime DA, or with a Democrat reformer DA. And the response cannot be to say, “Well, then, every time anybody gets arrested, we will hold them in jail indefinitely.”

When we ignore the broader context that leads people to commit crimes, we ensure that more crime will be committed in the future.

Green: What made you decide yours is a better way of trying to enact a radical vision than, for example, the Days of Rage protest in Chicago, which all four of your parents were involved in?

Boudin: My parents’ approach didn’t work out that well for them, or for me. So there’s that. There’s also the historical context. My parents lived through the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement. They lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Fred Hampton. Those were defining moments in their coming of age. And it led them to make some serious mistakes.

I lived through a really different history: one of mass incarceration, one of a country that has come to lead the world in locking people up, one in which we prioritize punishment over healing. I saw with my own eyes and my own lived experience a failed approach to public safety and justice.

Green: In some number of hours, God willing, you’re going to have another little person join your family. Do you hope that that little person grows up to be a radical?

Boudin: I hope what I think all parents hope for, which is that my child is happy and healthy. And that’s really all that matters to me. If they’re happy and healthy, and if they find a way to live their life that helps benefit the community around them, I’ll be the happiest father in the world.

Green: But a side of radical, anti-imperialist politics wouldn’t hurt?

Boudin: You know, honestly, it has never occurred to me. You may find that hard to believe. But I’ve got two brothers who grew up in the same family with the same parents, and neither one of them chose to get directly involved in politics. One of them is a sixth-grade-science teacher. My other brother is a professor and teaches and writes and is essentially an artist. I know that there are infinite possibilities for my child, some that involve politics and some that don’t.

Green: So maybe entomology or dentistry for little baby Boudin.

Boudin: I would be happy to support baby Boudin through dentistry school or, you know what, even nonprofessional careers. I spent summers in high school doing carpentry, building houses, and also on a factory assembly line. And those jobs—working with your hands, seeing the tangible outcome of your labor every single day, literally working for a living, earning an hourly wage—are an experience that I will always cherish. In many ways, it’s something that’s far easier to feel pride in. It’s so much more concrete than the abstract intellectual work that many folks with too many letters after their name engage in. I would be fully supportive of my child even in a decision not to go to college or not to seek a professional career if that’s what makes them happy and that’s what their calling is—art or music or sports or language. I have tremendous admiration for people who know how to carry a tune, which sadly I do not. I’m going to be in big trouble when it comes time to sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Green: Well, good luck. I think you’ll probably figure out a way, like many tone-deaf parents—musically untalented parents—before you.

Boudin: I hope so.