(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The American nightmare

San Francisco should serve as a cautionary tale as to what can happen when “progressive” far-left ideology dominates politics

California. For decades the state has been eulogised in contemporary culture as the embodiment of the American dream. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck paid homage to the sunshine state as the Joad family headed out west to search for a new land of opportunity. But the political birthplace of Ronald Reagan is slowly evolving into something that resembles a failed state. San Francisco should serve as a cautionary tale as to what can happen when progressive far-left ideology dominates the political landscape.

The Golden Gate City has a massive homelessness problem: over 8,000 people are homeless in San Francisco — the highest of the nine counties making up the Bay Area. The city also suffers from a devastating drug epidemic. There were twice as many deaths by drug overdose last year than there were from coronavirus. Public resentment and frustration is growing and local residents are looking to the chief prosecutor to step up and restore order.

The seeds for San Francisco’s decline were sown long ago

Chesa Boudin is the city’s District Attorney. His softer, more liberal approach to law and order saw him elected in November 2019. Boudin promised to “reimagine” criminal justice and reduce the size of the city’s prison population — a promise he kept. Within a few months of taking office, the 40 year old New York native released 40 per cent of the city’s prison population. So far under his tenure, homicide has seen the largest one year increase since 2008 — a 35 per cent rise. Meanwhile prosecutions are down. Boudin tried just 23 cases between January 2020 and March this year. It’s no wonder that, less than two years into the job, he is facing a recall petition from frustrated voters fed up with his utopian vision for San Francisco.

But the seeds for San Francisco’s decline were sown long ago. The city’s descent into chaos stretches back some time before Boudin took office.

The Criminal Sentences Misdemeanor Penalties Initiative Statute, otherwise known as Proposition 47, was a referendum passed by voters in California in November 2014. The ballot initiative reduced the classification of most nonviolent property and drug crimes — including theft of anything worth less than $950 — from a felony to a misdemeanour.

An aerial view of San Francisco’s first temporary sanctioned tent encampment for the homeless on 18 May 2020 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On 14 June, Lyanne Melendez, a local KGO news reporter, posted a video from a San Francisco Walgreens. In the video a young man can be seen shoving items into a bin liner then cycling out of the shop without paying for them. The footage captures the store’s security guard filming the event while customers look on in confusion and bewilderment. The video — which has now gone viral with over 6 million views on Twitter — perfectly encapsulates the effects of Proposition 47.

The American Civil Liberties Union backed the ballot — contributing $3.5 million to the campaign. Meanwhile, noted individuals who supported the initiative were the Republican Senator for Kentucky Rand Paul and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

Citizens effectively voted away the property rights of its fellow Californians

There’s a part of me that understands why someone would steal. With the coronavirus pandemic impacting the financial lives of millions, I could perhaps sympathise if people were taking food to feed their family. But when I see people ransacking a Walgreens I can’t imagine these real-life Jean Valjeans are all that interested in fresh bread. Commonly stolen items include electrical goods and beauty products. To combat the problem some stores have taken to locking away expensive goods that are often targeted by shoplifters. With goods being lifted quicker than they can be replaced, empty shelf space becomes cheaper than restocking it.

So pervasive has shoplifting in San Francisco become that Walgreens have shut 17 stores in the past five years. This has left many elderly and vulnerable residents unable to get much needed prescriptions and medicines. Of the remaining 53 pharmaceutical stores in the area, theft is four times the national average. It is not just affecting Walgreens: according to Brendan Duggan, director of organised retail crime with the CVS chainstore, 42 per cent of losses within the Bay Area came from just 12 San Francisco stores. 

The security guards can do little — even though the city spends 35 times more on security guards in its Walgreen stores than the rest of the country. The company adopts a “hands off” approach as any intervention with a shoplifter can lead to assault charges and insurance liability. Guards are encouraged to call the police once the suspect has left the store.

The lawlessness that is engulfing San Francisco is not something that can be blamed entirely on California’s DA. Unfortunately its residents are equally complicit. Proposition 47 is an example of what’s known as an initiative statute. These are citizen-initiated ballots that seek to amend state law. In order to get this to get to the state legislature, all it took were signatures from the public. To be precise: 504,760 signatures — equivalent to 5 per cent of the votes cast at the preceding gubernatorial election. It got on the ballot on 4 November 2014 and was passed with 60 per cent of the vote share. Citizens effectively voted away the property rights of its fellow Californians.

According to data from San Francisco Police Department, larceny theft is the most common crime in the Bay Area — 13,804 crimes were reported in 2020. So far, as of 27 June 2021, 12,194 have already been recorded. As for the arrest rate the year Proposition 47 was passed, 60 per cent of thefts ended in arrest. It is now just 17 per cent — the lowest arrest rate of any police department in California.

I am fully aware that correlation does not equal causation. A number of different factors impact crime rates — supporting a drug addiction is a common example. And with drug addiction also ravaging the city, it is certainly a plausible factor.

Repeal Proposition 47 and let California breathe

Even if you take the position that shoplifting criminalises the poor, or are concerned about the wider effect this has on the community, big franchises keep the economy moving by employing local people. They also operate on a small profit margin. These stores can only tolerate a minimum amount of theft before they go out of business. Smaller “mom and pop” stores will have to raise prices to compensate for the loss. When the government fails to protect property rights, theft becomes normalised and business owners become the victims. The end result impacts everyone through higher prices or closure.

While large stores have insurance that’ll cover the cost (for now), smaller stores often can’t afford to lose stock. They often confront shoplifters. One Chinatown store owner was attacked with pepper spray over a few stolen iPhone cases.

This all comes during the coronavirus pandemic. With almost $400 million owed in rent, businesses are already facing an uphill struggle to survive. Factor in increasing insurance premiums and you have a recipe for economic suicide. According to data by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, nearly half of the city’s small businesses remain closed. With Proposition 47 still on the books, I fear that number will grow higher.

Repeal Proposition 47 and let California breathe.

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