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Politics as Usual

A Rudy awakening

San Francisco is not becoming Berkeley; it is becoming Manhattan, circa 1993
In the early nineties, weary of crime and homelessness, frustrated New Yorkers elected a law and order mayor. Photo: Dietmar Rabich/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

He was a homeless veteran, suffering from mental health and drug problems. And he was a danger to his neighborhood. Arrested time after time for assault and public nuisance, he headed right back to the same tony neighborhood and started all over again. The people living there wanted him institutionalized as a threat to himself and to them, but it couldn’t be done. I saw his story on an episode of 60 Minutes, and I’ll never forget it. Maybe you saw it, too.

San Francisco 2021? No, it was New York City 1992, and the man in question was known as “The Wild Man of West 96th Street.” You can still find New York commentaries citing him nearly 30 years later as a symbol of how the Big Apple had been a violent, out of control, and ungovernable city. 

And notice something else. The 60 Minutes piece first aired in December 1992. Eleven months later, Rudolph Giuliani defeated incumbent David Dinkins to become the first Republican mayor of New York City since John Lindsay left office in 1973. Giuliani had made public safety and nuisance crimes a centerpiece of his campaign.

There’s a type of San Franciscan who responds to any attempt to erect a building here taller than three stories with a complaint that “We don’t want to become like Manhattan.” But oh, we are. Just shorter.

UP TO A POINT, LORD COPPER

The battle over conservatorship has been fought long and hard here, but even with the passage of legislation allowing it, there are so many strictures and hurdles that it’s not going to make much of a dent in the problem of severely mentally ill people causing harm to themselves and others on our streets. 

Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan is often blamed for causing our mentally ill homeless problem, because he closed the mental institutions and released people onto the streets. But the truth is more complicated and the blame more widespread, because Reagan was part — a high-profile part, yes, but a part — of a national movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill and move patients into the community, where they would receive services in a more humane manner. Conservative advocates loved it because it meant less tax money for the hospitals; advocates on the left loved it because it meant people weren’t involuntarily institutionalized. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and all.

But the institutions were closed, the patients moved into the community, and those services never materialized, at least not in any volume necessary to meet the need. It was a plan that sounded good, even humane, but they put the cart before the horse. They should have created the services and community support and then reduced institutionalization.

It’s interesting to note the intersection of mentally ill, crime, and homelessness today, because the same pattern is being followed. 

At the moment of greatest progressive power in decades, the people of San Francisco elected Chesa Boudin district attorney. Yes, he only got into office thanks to the political moment and a little thing called ranked-choice voting. Regardless, he became district attorney and rapidly put into place his ideas for undoing the incarceration state, choosing alternatives to prosecution and prison seemingly wherever possible.

Even critics (and sometimes I’m one) can probably agree with his ideas up to a point. Does this country really need to be a global leader of incarceration? Are there people whose crimes can be punished without confining them to a prison? 

But if you are going to release to the streets people picked up for violent crimes, trusting that an ankle monitor will keep them from doing anything else and that noncarceral options will take care of punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation  — well, then those systems need to be in place before you release the person. And they have to work. Like Reagan with the mentally ill, Boudin has implemented one part of his plan without having the systems in place to make it succeed and to avoid further human tragedy.

NEWTON’S THIRD LAW OF POLITICS

Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The same is true in politics. Reaction against the excesses real and perceived of the New Left swept Reaganism and later Rudy Giuliani into power.

The inevitable reaction to political malpractice by the resurgent left today will be focused on the shortcomings and failures of the progressives’ grand plans. It is conservatives who usually benefit on matters of crime and public safety, and if the left and the center cannot assure people that they are safe, the right will. However, the right today has gone off the rails and poses a serious threat of its own.

Many on the left consider Reaganism beyond the pale. But today, even the Reaganites have been exiled from the GOP in favor of nationalist radicals who think nothing of overthrowing an election or storming the national legislature. The My Pillow guy should be a late-night punchline, not attorney general. Letting them get more power will be an unforgivable political act.

People in power making radical changes without thinking through the processes, pitfalls, and inevitable reactions should remember Oscar Wilde: “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

Send feedback to [email protected]; author email: [email protected].

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