More than 20 years ago, sociologist Barry Glassner wrote his bestseller The Culture of Fear, where he explains why Americans tend to be unreasonably afraid of things like crime, drugs, people of color, immigrants, teenagers, etc. He writes, “The short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.” This week on Sea Change Radio, the second half of our discussion with San Francisco deputy public defender, Peter Galloway. We delve further into the danger of cherry-picked crime statistics, look at the upcoming recall election of San Francisco’s relatively new District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, and examine the recent recall trend in the nation’s most populous state.
Narrator: This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability Alex Wise.
Peter Calloway: So their support of all of these things that chase dean has done yeah there’s a contingent that does not support him generally because they’ve been misinformed right they’ve been told that he’s responsible for increasing crime but we know that increase isn’t even happening we know that he’s also not responsible for the decrease in crime that I’ve described in in that thread and on the show.
Narrator: More than twenty years ago sociologist Barry Glassman wrote his best seller the culture of fear where he explains why Americans tend to be unreasonably afraid of things like crime drugs people of color immigrants teenagers at cetera he writes the short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral in securities and supply us with symbolic substitutes. This week on Sea Change Radio the second half of our discussion with San Francisco deputy public defender Peter Calloway. We delve further into the danger of cherry picked crime statistics look at the upcoming recall election of San Francisco’s relatively new district attorney chase a blue gene and examine the recent recall trend in the nation’s most populous state.
Alex Wise: I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Peter Calloway – Peter is a public defender in San Francisco. Peter, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
Peter Calloway: Alex, thank you so much I’m happy to be here.
Alex Wise: So as a public defender in the city the size of San Francisco Peter you work with people who have crimes perpetrated against them and perpetrate them and the idea that you would be quote unquote soft on crime I think it’s pretty preposterous and as you mentioned but we can’t be offended if we want to change hearts and minds can we own.
Peter Calloway: No certainly not and I don’t I I really don’t let it bother me I was actually somewhat pleased by the extent to which the responses to this thread you know which were which were numerous right I got much more attention than I ever would have predicted but that the responses to this even the ones that were sort of hateful and not in good faith didn’t affect me I wasn’t sure that that would be true but it was and maybe part of that is because I’m sort of as a public defender and somebody with politics like I do around these issues I’m used to. As a starting point having people react negatively to some of the positions that I hold right and I’ve spent a long time with family and friends and others having conversations around these issues and with some time I think people who are acting in good faith will come to understand the realities that those of us who have studied this have come to learn right which is again that you can’t prosecute or jail or imprison your way out of a mental health or poverty or trauma crisis almost all of the people who commit crimes as defined right by again by society setting aside that whole conversation about who gets the call what crime but almost everybody who is accused of crime has been a victim themselves right it is frustrating that there are a lot of people who are really vocal about what they’ve identified as problems in this city and beyond it, who have not spent the time to sort of interrogate whether the things that they want to do in response to that are likely to make the problem better or worse.
Alex Wise: So Peter you mentioned that the thing that kind of sparked your ire online was this Washington post piece by Scott Wilson you and Scott went back and forth after your thread when you kind of encapsulate that exchange.
Peter Calloway: You know as I told him in in our sort of back and forth on Twitter I’ve nothing against him but I I do think that his his piece in the way that it wrote about particularly this issue. You know he responded initially sort of demanding that I tell him where I said that where he said the crime was out of control in the lake and I responded you know screen shot in the part where he said that it’s jumped by double digit increases and he was kind and sort of well. He reached out the following day I think also on Twitter and you know I’ve called the sort of apologize for the way he reacted but defended the reporting and set. And said you know if you’d be interested in meeting I I would like to do that. And so at some point you know when he’s back in the city he and I will meet which I think will be great she out W. on us I probably should have done this by no I haven’t gone and read the rest of his writing on this sort of subject in San Francisco and elsewhere so I don’t know if this decision is sort of representative of a pattern of that type of reporting so I won’t speak to that but what I will say is…
Alex Wise: What does it say about this type of reporting in general and how can journalists do better?
Peter Calloway: One thing it says about this type of reporting is I think journalists often have a tendency toward the sensational right. Perhaps it’d be more interesting to write an article about the tenderloin or some other neighborhood in some other city where you’re talking about you know crime being out of control people are going to want to read that you know fear generates headlines that’s a pretty cynical view right.
Alex Wise: But it’s similar to what we’re talking about with the political process with the low hanging fruit of being soft on crime in a Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Peter Calloway: Right right.
Alex Wise: If it makes people feel better about themselves or and it’s also it’s the sensationalist side of human nature that the curiosity to want to be able to be outraged about something.
Peter Calloway: Right and also you know a lot of these papers are owned by very wealthy people or owned by corporations more and more right and so I think there are I think there’s probably individual level bias sees by reporters but also their editorial choices made all the time right and those are those are more political those I think are more designed at entrenching this status quo that attacks you know. The sort of inequality that we’ve allowed to emerging in this society that protects the sort of property wealthy against the sort of dispossessed masses and it you know although a name that friend again because he’s done some really great work on Twitter, Really doing deep dives into a lot of crime reporting and he’s usually starts by listing in order in which they appear the sources used in these articles and it’s really horrific I noticed somebody ship so again a list the sources right now it’s like store owner who wants people prosecuted more and police spokesperson and beat cop and politician pushing traffic tough on crime policy and you know almost never do you have somebody giving a different perspective and this is in the New York Times it’s in The Washington Post it’s in The Chronicle.
Alex Wise: If you were going to label these different perspectives, what would be some good examples?
Peter Calloway: Of alternative perspectives?
Alex Wise: Yes so like as opposed to the beat cop or the industry spokesperson or the person who witnessed the crime let’s say.
Peter Calloway: Well, there are a lot of community organizations who are doing work at reducing harm you know in in cities across the country they feature office so you could you could you know if you’re going to invite a police officer to comment on what they see is the right solution you could also invite somebody who has a another solution you could instead of only inviting sort of criminologists who push pro police narratives and literature you can invite any of the number of well respected scholars who have who have conducted some of the studies I referenced earlier about the connection between imprisonment and lower life expectancy in the general population.
Alex Wise: Or a public defender.
Peter Calloway: Or a public defender, right, and that’s one of the things actually the Washington Post article had come in from the mayor and the district attorney it did not have a comment from Manno Raju who’s the public defender in San Francisco – one could imagine you know such commentary being somewhat illuminating and you would think that it be pretty basic to see that okay we have this adversarial criminal legal system and on one side you have the DA I’m gonna invite that person on but I feel like there’s someone on the other side I can’t quite put my finger on it but if I could identify that person maybe I should have them on to you know.
Alex Wise: But if you watch the local news they’re trying to turn these things over quickly and it’s become a formula get the witness get a spokesperson maybe one other person and and run with it what you’re talking about takes a like an extra step and it’s so critical to take that extra step but it’s so often overlooked.
Peter Calloway: I think that’s a good point and that probably some of this can be explained by you know the path of least resistance or less charitably laziness but this existing deeply reported pieces as well right.
Alex Wise: That’s true yes.
Peter Calloway: So I really do think it’s a bit of both right. So it’s you know it is that is the explanation you offer but it’s also a political choice driven and sometimes by the personal biases of the reporter and sometimes by the biased sees of the news room.
Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise and Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to San Francisco public defender Peter Calloway in the time we have left I wanted to touch briefly upon the concept of recall elections you mentioned San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin how he was elected in 2019 started serving in 2020 and he’s already up for a recall election and we saw this recently a lot of the country tuned in to Gavin Newsom’s recall election for governor this is how Arnold Schwarzenegger rose to the role of governor when Gray Davis was recalled back in the early two thousands it’s not a system that every state has maybe you can kind of explain how it’s become used as a cudgel by loud vocal minority in this state.
Peter Calloway: Sure you know so you know I didn’t follow the gubernatorial recall super closely nor the school board recall but closely enough to know that you know in the district attorney recall. All campaign right one of the biggest funders is a right wing billionaire hedge fund manager name William Oberndorf – there’s an article I think today in the in SF Gate about this who’s donated more than a million dollars to the Republican Party to keep Republicans in power input following the power of the Senate he was also one of the largest donors is I understand it to the school board recall right I don’t know about his involvement in in the recall campaign against governor Newsom but it’s a technically legal process that I still think is sort of subversive to true sort of representative democracy.
Alex Wise: Maybe I I’ll summarize it for our listeners and and correct me if I missed something but my understanding is that I forget the percentages but it’s pretty low in terms of signatures it’s a fairly C. insignificant hurdle to get over and if you pay a lot of these for profit signature males if you will are out there people who you’d find in front of a grocery store trying to collect recall elections they don’t necessarily believe in the issue that they’re campaigning for but they’re just collecting signatures in there getting let’s say four dollars a signature I think is what I’ve had conversations with people in front of grocery stores are just trying to get signatures so that they can get these new elections which are quite costly and kind of anti democratic in that were constantly in a state of election here and in California if it were in San Francisco there’s always an election every four to six months it’s not every two years anymore by any means.
Peter Calloway: Correct yeah I mean I I think it’s I think it’s really problematic and to your point right we we know that you can you can sort of buy your way into a petition into our onto the ballot right because like you said if you give people financial incentive to go out there and raise I think that dean recall got something like eighty thousand petitions right so that’s not nothing right there’s no denying that but a number of those people signed a thing that they probably didn’t quite understand and often they’re sort of hurried and given this you know the more sort of innocuous petition about as an unrelated issue and then asked to quickly sign this other thing to write so and it is extremely costly but then of course the the recall proponents will point to the petition number is this some sort of indicator of future support which again even among people who are making the conscious decision to support this recall effort a huge number of them have been duped frankly right because they’re reading reporting that says crime is up crime is out of control police are the solution to crime and the rest and they’re ignoring were having obscured the reality which again was the sort of reason I started to write about this I mean I I don’t know if I cited these earlier right but the numbers are. What is it…. violent crime decreased by nineteen percent since the start of the pandemic And since 2019, rather, property crime down eleven percent. So these are just not the numbers that your average listener or your average reader of certainly of establishment media would understand.
Alex Wise: And it can be cherry picked to mean the opposite as you demonstrated earlier when you’re talking about The Washington Post piece.
Peter Calloway: Right yeah and it often is but so one thing that I think is important in response to the this this recall effort particularly is to say even on your own terms right even in a world where we credit the definitions of crimes that we use sort of historically and where we assume that the responses to them that we’ve most commonly employed could have some impact. Even in that world on those terms the numbers are not what you say they are right the numbers are not what the recall people say they are and this is of course the setting aside also the question whether there’s any evidence to show that the district attorney has any impact on crime rates and there isn’t in fact there’s a study. I forget that the authors of name but it’s referenced in a recent article in the chronicle by Suzy Neilson who’s there data reporter showing that there’s no connection between the DA’s politics or policies whether there’s somebody who would be categorized as a as a progressive prosecutor or not and rates of crime in their jurisdiction.
Alex Wise: And we’re talking about within six months of booting serving there was a hearty a recall petition circulating I mean this is this was not based on data by any means this is much more of a red versus blue type framing.
Peter Calloway: Yeah I think that’s right I mean if you look at the policies that gene ran on and the policies that he’s put into place and since coming to office by and large these are very popular right I don’t remember off hand the numbers but people are supportive of ending cash bail people understand because of great work by organizers to sort of combat these issues and some lawyers who challenged them across the country the fundamental unfairness between conditioning a person’s ability to be free while they’re waiting for trial on inability to pay an amount of money. Full our support of a policy where we don’t prosecute kids as adults because of the brain science showing that until you’re basically twenty five your brain is still developing there’s impulse control issues in the way people are supportive of policies to reduce racial disparities in the system right so so their support of all of these things that chase dean has done yeah there’s a contingent that does not support him generally because they’ve been misinformed right they’ve been told that he’s responsible for an increase in crime but we know that increase isn’t even happening we know that he’s also not responsible for the decrease in crime that I’ve described in enough threading on the show.
Alex Wise: Because we talked about how criminals are not committing crimes based on who the prosecutor is of these crimes.
Peter Calloway: Right there is that like people are making decisions before the fact based on those sorts of factors.
Alex Wise: Right though the person who is committing that crime in the Walgreens wasn’t looking at the election returns on election night and set up just a blue jeans in there it’s going to be great shoplifting at Walgreens next week that that’s just not how they wanted to get some stuff out of Walgreens thought they could get away with it and they weren’t prosecuted for it but the district attorney was not a part of their calculus let’s just say.
Peter Calloway: Right and it’s not gonna be part of the calculation you know if there’s a next time either I mean the the the notion also that he’s somehow ignoring these issues right I suspect he understands that prosecuting petty theft by poor people is not going to resolve the problem of people committing petty thefts but he’s doing it because there’s a allowed segment of the city that seems to want that and it’s it hasn’t changed anything and it won’t right and of course we’ve also learned that these stores right who claim that they’re so impacted by this stuff problem that they have to shut down their locations have been revealed to have been lying about that too right there’s an article and I think the examiner and also an online publication called the appeal which after this whole farcical kind of hearing and the board of supervisors were these corporate representatives were allowed to come in and say the theft has has really hurt them in and cause them to have to move it was uncovered that I think it was Walgreens and perhaps others but had planned these closures as part of a sort of restructuring to increase profits right so they conveniently used with the help of supervisors to fight and others this cover this crime cover to obscure the fact that they were making a financially motivated decision to shut down stores knowing that it would impact people in those communities and their ability to get their medicine in there and the necessities but Hey let’s blame it on the poor folks.
Alex Wise: He’s a public defender in San Francisco Peter Calloway Peter thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
Peter Calloway: Thank you, Alex.
Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and with the additional time that we have on this week’s show I thought I would read an opinion piece from the San Francisco Examiner talking about the Chesa Boudin recall election is by the paper’s editor guild Iran that’s entitled Chesa Boudin derangement syndrome grips SF politics scapegoating San Francisco D. A. Boudin won’t reduce crime but voters may do it anyway. Skipping to the second half of this piece, “I support holding politicians accountable and I believe that people who depend on public approval for their jobs tend to get what’s coming to them but the local outbreak of what some call Chesa Boudin derangement syndrome is on another level it’s absurd because one relatively green politician whose only held office for two years cannot logically bear responsibility for decades of societal failure addiction crime and poverty existed here a hundred and fifty years before Boudin ascension and will persist after he fades into history. In today’s San Francisco however everything seems to be the fault of blue gene that’s because Putin is more than a public official he’s a symbol born to parents with information weather underground roots educated at elite universities he’s a bit like radical royalty. This pedigree might normally help them in a progressive city but he’s an outsider here. His narrow victory upset a local political establishment with cliquish manners and a long memory he benefited from the city’s convoluted rank choice voting process beating the mayor’s hand-picked favorite Suzy Loftus by just over one point. His close win signaled a key victory for the national movement to elect more progressive DA’s but timing is everything the covert pandemic a national spike in violent crime and surging drug overdose deaths all provide his opponents with plentiful fodder to use against him he also are in the ruthless scorn of the police union when he righteously decided to uphold his pledge to prosecute police brutality of course the police union also despised his predecessors. Today the DA gets blamed for everything in addition wealthy donors like Republican billionaire William Oberndorf a main funder the booting recall have taken an increasingly active interest in manipulating the city’s politics they see Boudin as an easy target and maybe they’re right but what his defeat be a victory for good government or propaganda.”
And then skipping to the end….”in two thousand twenty two polls show Californians are worried about crime a recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll found sixty five percent of Californians believe crime is increased in their area with fifty one percent saying Newsom has done a poor or very poor job on the issue wait a second if this is a statewide sentiment how does it make sense to hold dean in particular accountable the answer is that it doesn’t have to make sense – politics ain’t fair. Disgruntled San Franciscans will saddle booting with blame and put him out to pasture unless he finds a way to change the narrative. Toppling Boudin wouldn’t solve our problems, of course. Drugs, robbery and crime will continue in our wonderful bastion of extreme economic inequality as always. We’ll just need someone else to blame. This complicates things for Mayor London Breed the most likely future target of our collective wrath surely she must grasp the peril she will face if we don’t have dean to kick around anymore.”
So that’s from Gil Duran the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Examiner and it’s worth noting that since my discussion with Peter Calloway, the San Francisco Chronicle has also endorsed Boudin in his recall effort. Thanks again for joining us and Sea Change Radio please tune in next week.
Narrator: You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio are intrinsic is by Sanford Lewis outro music is by Alex why additional music by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, War and Stevie Wonder. Check out our website at seachangeradio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast visit our archives hear Bill McKibben, Paul Hawken, Van Jones and many others. Tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.