We shouldn’t visit the sins of parents on their children. In the Hebrew Bible God does it, to the “third and fourth generation,” but our Constitution rightly forbids “corruption of blood.” When children want to impose their parents’ dangerous views on us, though, the connection becomes relevant.
On November 5, San Francisco deputy public defender Chesa Boudin hopes to be voted in as the city’s district attorney. Boudin has certainly been impressively schooled: Yale undergraduate, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and student at Yale Law School. But he seems to have been bizarrely educated on the American legal system.
That’s because Boudin affirms his parents’ and adoptive parents’ self-serving narrative about their participation in two 1970s terrorist movements: the Weathermen and the Black Liberation Army. That narrative justifies political violence and violence against wealthy people. It seeks to minimize accountability for the impact of crime on victims. And it is driven by white guilt that excuses crimes committed by people of color — even against other people of color.
I became familiar with this narrative while doing research for a novel, The Weathermen on Trial (2018). Chesa Boudin’s background is a dubious foundation for an office that protects public safety.
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Boudin was named Chesa by his parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, to honor convicted murderer Joanne Chesimard. She led the Black Liberation Army when it was a cop-hunting group that assassinated at least six police officers in the early 1970s. Now renamed Assata Shakur, she escaped from prison in 1979 and lives in Cuba, which refuses to extradite her. Kathy Boudin assisted in the armed robbery that funded Chesimard’s jail break.
Boudin’s parents took part in dozens of bombings with their white Weatherman terrorist group in its declared war on the United States from 1970 to 1975. These were the folks who bastardized the cry of “peace now” in the Vietnam anti-war movement into “piece now!” (Piece was slang for a gun.) Their war’s avowed purpose was to aid black revolutionaries in creating a communist government. From 1980 to 1981 Boudin’s parents aided the Black Liberation Army as it carried out a string of “expropriations,” meaning armed robberies.
Boudin was adopted by the former leaders of the Weathermen, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, after his own parents left him with a babysitter while they took part in the robbery of a Brinks armored car. Dohrn and Ayers had similarly saddled their own sons with revolutionary names: Zayd Osceola, to honor Chesimard’s Black Liberation Army partner in cop-killing and the Seminole Indian leader, and Malik Cochise, combining Malcolm X’s Arabic name and an Apache war chief.
You get the picture: white children must be validated with the names of people of color who attack whites. This fundamental sense of white guilt can be seen in Dohrn leading discussions in 1969 about the need to “off (kill) white pig babies” before they can grow up to be unworthy oppressors, and in her later use of white children as “beards” to keep suspicion off her as she cased sites for bombings.
To understand how Boudin’s approach to criminal justice has been influenced by his four parents’ narrative, let’s parse his own words, from his campaign website:
Chesa’s Boudin’s parents were incarcerated when he was just fourteen months old for driving the getaway car in a robbery that tragically took the lives of three men. Chesa’s father is still in prison. Chesa knows first-hand the destructive impacts of mass incarceration — he had to go through a metal detector and steel gates just to give his father a hug.
There are three problems with this story. First, Boudin’s parents were not convicted “for driving the getaway car.” They were convicted of felony murder because they were an integral part of a robbery plot for a group that they knew had murdered a guard in a recent “expropriation.” Their role was to be beards — white motorists unlikely to be suspected of a reported robbery by black men. They played it to a lethal T, successfully pleading with officers at a roadblock to put away their guns, just before their comrades burst out of the back of the U-Haul and murdered them. Boudin, though, passes over this act, offering a laconic exculpation: “That truck was stopped at a roadblock before getting on the highway, and the people got out of the back of the car shooting.”
Boudin’s mother refused to testify for the prosecution in exchange for a robbery plea, but did take a deal for one count of felony murder and was paroled after 22 years. His father declared himself a revolutionary prisoner and refused to acknowledge or interact with the court system. He was found guilty on three counts, as were two other participants: Jeral Williams (renamed Mutulu Shakur) and Samuel Brown. All will die in prison, unless they are pardoned.
Felony murder has been a crime since an English lord was hanged in the 16th century for being part of a group that agreed to kill any gamekeeper who opposed its hunting raids, even though he wasn’t present at the subsequent murder. It first became a state law in America in 1794, and now is on the books in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and in federal law.
In 2018, California slightly softened its felony murder standards, but Boudin’s parents could still be charged if they carried out their crime today in California, based on any of three separate judgments by the prosecutors: being major participants in the planning of the robbery, being present at the scene of the murders, or a police officer being killed. Will Boudin be able to make the same determinations that sent his parents to jail, when for his understandable personal reasons he thinks the concept of felony murder is unfair? Would he have to recuse himself and turn the charging decisions over to someone else?
The second problem is that, contrary to Boudin’s statement, a “robbery” is not a being that can take the lives of others. The Black Liberation Army, aided by his parents, murdered the three people. Both of Boudin’s parents now accept responsibility for the murders, but apparently he’s still stuck in their initial attempts to minimize their accountability.
Finally, and most important for a candidate for district attorney, the case of Boudin’s parents has nothing to do with mass incarceration. Most anti-war protesters never became violent, let alone joined gangs of bombers and murderers. Yet the campaign website tells us that his parents’ case “caused Chesa to dedicate his career to making our country safer by reforming our criminal justice system. … Chesa will work to end mass incarceration.”
In a recent interview, Boudin channeled his parents’ narrative, which considers the tripling of prison rates from 1980 to 2000 as a racist and political act:
It’s not a coincidence that the prison population exploded around the same time as working communities, black and brown communities were organizing in the Civil Rights Movement and against the war in Vietnam. Folks like Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and Christian Parenti have excellent books contextualizing the prison boom as repressive response to social changes.
Ah, but it absolutely is a coincidence. Crime exploded in America from 1960 to 1980, with overall rates tripling, murder doubling, rape and violent crime quadrupling, and assault growing sixfold. Crime stayed at these levels until the mid 1990s before falling back toward 1960 levels today. The pattern was the same for all types of crime, from armed robbery to property crimes, like auto theft and burglary. The very communities Boudin claims were unfairly hammered actually clamored for action against crime, including more and longer sentences.
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For Boudin, like his parents, being locked up makes the criminal a victim: “It punishes people in a way that teaches them to be institutionalized and dysfunctional in society. That’s why we see high recidivism rates.” No, we see these rates largely because incarcerated people are already, obviously, institutionalized with a proven propensity for crime. Boudin’s claim trivializes the challenges of rehabilitation. It doesn’t always work, but not just because of the system. Prisoners have low school achievement and high rates of mental illness. It’s no easier to educate them inside than it was outside. Every single successful outcome is a victory for them and for us.
Boudin is against “harsher convictions and longer sentences” and generally wants people let out of jail as soon as they pose no clear threat to society. People of color would get additional breaks because he wants to “end racist disparities” and they’ve been the victims of discrimination. But criminal justice is about more than rehabilitating the criminal. What about punishment for destroying lives and neighborhoods? What about the rights of communities to have their tormentors “go away” for a while and give them some peace?
Boudin endorses “restorative justice” with this example: “I spray-painted your garage and I’m sorry for that and I want to help make it right by repainting your garage.” This is wishful thinking. We’ve all been conditioned against admitting guilt. But if the vandals here did admit to trashing your garage, they probably won’t show up enough to finish scraping and painting, and indeed may not have the slightest idea about how to do it right. Then where are you? And how do you “restore” for more typical crimes, like assault and robbery? We have incarceration for a number of reasons — not just safety and deterrence, but also a sense of justice.
Boudin applauds the First Step Act, a new federal law that reduces time served, mostly for “nonviolent” offenders. That category, though, is fraught with problems. Alice Marie Johnson, the Trump-pardoned poster child for the Act, ran region-wide money and drug operations for the Cali cartel when it was murdering dozens and devastating neighborhoods. For her advocates to call her crime nonviolent is misleading.
Dohrn and Ayers similarly still present their 1970s bombing campaign as “armed propaganda” against symbolic buildings that was never intended to hurt anyone. That claim is false on its face, since the initial spate of bombings in early 1970 were intended to, and did, cause casualties. Kathy Boudin’s bombing cell was arming a nail-bomb for an army sergeants’ dance when it blew up, killing three Weathermen and nearly killing her, three floors up in the bomb factory. But more fundamentally, to plant any bomb is to make a judgment that innocent bystanders and even first responders to a called-in warning are acceptable casualties for your glorious cause.
Perhaps the most troubling of the proposals Boudin has developed from his parents’ narrative is his pledge to prosecute ICE agents for arresting illegal immigrants. This would nullify federal law under the guise of states’ rights, the core doctrine of segregation. Let me ask San Franciscans what President Andrew Jackson, in an 1832 proclamation, asked South Carolinians and their great tariff nullifier, Sen. John Calhoun. Armed resistance to federal authority as proposed by Boudin “is treason. Are you ready to incur its guilt?” South Carolina backed down. In 1860, though, it changed its mind, starting the Civil War.
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There is a poignant picture on Boudin’s campaign website of his father, in prison scrubs, smiling and playing with him as a child. I wrote my Weathermen novel precisely to try to understand how someone like David Gilbert, a nonviolent anti-war protester at Columbia University who by all accounts was a sweet and gentle man, could become a killer for his cause. I came to see that the Weathermen were a cult typical of the era, like the Symbionese Liberation Army and the 900 people who died after drinking cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at Jonestown. The leader of the cult was the charismatic Dohrn, who used classic techniques like enforced group sex and rapid changes of ideology to enforce her rule. Only people who were prone to cult-like domination stayed with her, which explains why only a tiny fraction of the anti-war movement became Weathermen.
The San Francisco police union has accused Dohrn’s cell of planting a bomb at the Golden Gate Park police station in February 1970 that killed Sergeant Brian McDonnell and wounded nine other officers. It’s certainly possible: just four days before, her cell had bombed cruisers in the Berkeley police station parking lot. There was one casualty; a slight delay in the scheduled shift-change saved lives. How would Boudin handle the Park Station murder if DNA evidence against his adoptive mother comes to light? I think that’s a fair question for someone who wants to be San Francisco’s district attorney.
A former professor of both statistics and international affairs, Caleb Stewart Rossiter is the director of two organizations, each drawing on one of these areas: the CO2 Coalition of unalarmed climate scientists and energy economists and the anti-imperialist American Exceptional Media Project. He has published a number of books on politics and foreign policy, most recently a novel about the 1970s terrorist cult the Weathermen.