News Brief: “Organized Crime” “Shoplifting Epidemic” Panic Hits San Francisco Media
Citations Needed | May 26, 2021 | Transcript
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes when there is something that we really feel like we need to discuss. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you are not already, consider becoming a supporter of our show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded, and so what you are able to give goes such a long way. But today, Adam, we’ve been hearing extremely frantic reports from the west coast, namely the Bay Area. We’ve been hearing, Adam, that San Francisco has an out of control shoplifting epidemic.
Adam: Yeah, so The New York Times ran a headline on May 22, with the headline, quote, “San Francisco’s Shoplifting Epidemic,” in which they detailed the out of control rise of shoplifting in San Francisco, with the subhead, “The mundane crime of shoplifting has spun out of control in San Francisco, forcing some chain stores to close.” And the article would go on with some anecdotal tale about the person writing the article of being in San Francisco in 2016 at a Walgreens in North Beach watching people just grab beef jerky and walk out and then he said he went to a Safeway next door and, quote, “For some reason, I saw a man stuffing three bottles of wine into his backpack and walking casually towards the exit.” It all sort of paints an impression that shoplifting in San Francisco is just sort of casually done.
Nima: The article, written by Thomas Fuller in The Times, goes on to say this, that in the time since he moved to San Francisco, quote:
“…the shoplifting epidemic in San Francisco has only worsened.
“At a board of supervisors hearing last week, representatives from Walgreens said that thefts at its stores in San Francisco were four times the chain’s national average, and that it had closed 17 stores, largely because the scale of thefts had made business untenable.
Brendan Dugan, the director of the retail crime division at CVS Health, called San Francisco ‘one of the epicenters of organized retail crime’ and said employees were instructed not to pursue suspected thieves.”
The article would continue:
“The retail executives and police officers emphasized the role of organized crime in the thefts. And they told the supervisors that Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified nonviolent thefts as misdemeanors if the stolen goods are worth less than $950, had emboldened thieves.”
Now this article in The Times is like a number of other articles that have been seen across local San Francisco media. So for instance, The San Francisco Chronicle on May 13, 2021 ran this headline, quote, “‘Out of control’: Organized crime drives S.F. shoplifting spike, closing 17 Walgreens in five years.” And in that article, it says this, quote:
“Although the majority of CVS shoplifting incidents in the city are by opportunists, Dugan [Director of organized retail crime and corporate investigations at CVS] said, professional crime accounts for 85% of the company’s dollar losses.
“He said San Francisco is one of the “epicenters” of organized retail crime, pointing to an $8 million state bust in the Bay Area last year.”
Adam: Yeah, so here we have this claim that 85 percent of the shoplifting comes from organized crime. Now, this is a very convenient thing that cops always say, we saw it during looting of cities last summer, they said that it was mostly driven by organized crime who were sort of given Black Lives Matter a bad name, this is something you hear all the time. The reason they say it’s organized crime is that it’s a way of marketing carceral crackdowns to liberals.
Adam: Because if you’re going after the Gambino family, it seems less unseemly than going after Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread and so we wanted to kind of interrogate this narrative because it seemed a little dubious to me on its face, especially because there’s three major contexts here that one needs to know in the context of San Francisco, which is just a general effort to defund the police at the City Council level and among activists that carries over from the George Floyd protest of last summer, that’s one. Number two is Proposition 47, which passed in 2014, which as Nima mentioned, lowered the threshold of when something becomes a felony from $450 to $950. There has been an effort to repeal that or to quote-unquote “reform” that several times, there’s a ballot initiative in 2018, 2020, there will no doubt be one in 2022, and that police organizations and retail stores via the Chamber of Commerce and other retail lobbying groups have been pushing to overturn Proposition 47 for a long time. The third is the quote-unquote “reformed” DA Chesa Boudin, who has been subject to pretty much every, there’s an effort to recall him.
Adam: He’s been subject to a ton of bad media coverage largely driven by capital and sort of pro-carceral forces, including increasingly liberal pro-carceral forces who do the ‘I care about Black Lives Matter but — ’ routine before they promote more policing. So that’s the sort of broad context of the story and why we have to talk about it.
Nima: Undergirding this is the fact that San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, is one of, if not the most, unequal metro areas in the United States. It has the most wealthy people living there than any other city in the country and rent is exorbitant, the cost of housing is exorbitant, and even just a few years ago, even before the COVID pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis, the number of San Francisco residents living in their cars had already increased by 45 percent because of just how painful living expenses are in the city. And so, you know, undergirding all of these other issues, is the fact that you have this area that is the most expensive US city to raise a family in, that basically you need $150,000 minimum just to get by.
Adam: And so we’re told that this increasing inequality compounded by the doubling and sometimes tripling of hunger and housing insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re being told that this is actually not the reason there’s a shoplifting epidemic, that it’s actually separate from that, that it’s actually a band of organized crime. Now, I looked it up. There’s a case in October 2020 about an organized crime ring targeting CVS, Walgreens and Target that allegedly stole $8 million worth of items, $1 million worth of medication, sort of over the counter medication they stole and they repackaged it and sold it on this guy’s website. This is the only kind of evidence I’ve seen of an organized crime ring and certainly not enough to make up 85 percent, and of course, that was disrupted in October of 2020. So that obviously can’t be the case. Now, there’s supposedly some other organized crime rings. That 85 percent number, I asked the journalist at The San Francisco Chronicle a series of questions, I asked her where that 85 percent number came from, I didn’t have an answer, and there’s been tons of reporting about the connection between the rise of shoplifting with the COVID-19 recession. The Washington Post reported in December of last year in an article headline, quote, “Stealing to survive: More Americans are shoplifting food as aid runs out during the pandemic. Retailers, police departments and loss prevention researchers are reporting an uptick in theft of necessities like food and hygiene products.” The article goes on to say:
“With Americans being advised to brace for a difficult winter amid skyrocketing coronavirus infection rates and the economic recovery nearly stalled, the near-term outlook is grim… an estimated 54 million Americans will struggle with hunger this year, a 45 percent increase from 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With food aid programs like SNAP and WIC being reduced, and other federal assistance on the brink of expiration, food banks and pantries are being inundated, reporting hours-long waits and lines that stretch into the thousands.”
We’ve seen these viral videos of Food Bank lines being really long, of course, Nima. Now, we are told though, in all these articles in The San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times that is in fact not COVID or pandemic or poverty related or inequality related. It is in fact organized crime.
Nima: Retail lobbyists and law enforcement. They know what’s going on.
Adam: So there’s a problem though with the basic premise of these Walgreens stores closing is one of the lines they’re using is that they’re having to close these drugstores. This has been an article written by CBS News, NBC News, local news, San Francisco Gate, San Francisco Chronicle, both of which are owned by Hearst, that this is affecting seniors ability to get medication.
Nima: The real victims are the people in the communities who then won’t be able to get their drugs.
Adam: Right. So there’s a problem with this narrative. So this is The San Francisco Chronicle headline, the headline read, “‘Out of control’: Organized crime drives S.F. shoplifting spike, closing 17 Walgreens in five years.” Now, there’s a couple things wrong with this narrative, which after only a few hours of research sort of revealed themselves, which is that in the timeframe we were given, several articles talked about ten Walgreens closing in the last two years, San Francisco Chronicle says 17 in the last five years, is that why did only two, if this alleged shoplifting epidemic, as New York Times calls it, if it’s affecting both Walgreens and CVS equally, why did CVS only close two stores which they announced they were going to close because they were quote “underperforming” in March of 2019, they closed 46 stores throughout the country, two of them in San Francisco. So they didn’t claim, when they announced this, that it was anything related to shoplifting, and they closed CVS’ in Springfield, Missouri, and, you know, in the middle of nowhere, so it would logically follow that if they’re going to close 17 Walgreens due to the spike in shoplifting, they would also close some comparable amount of CVS,’ but they didn’t. They haven’t closed any CVS’ in 2020 or 2021 and so there’s another problem with this, which is that in August of 2019, Walgreens announced they were closing 200 stores nationwide. Fast Company wrote, quote, “Walgreens is closing 200 stores across America. That’s 3% of its total stores — but the company isn’t revealing which ones will go.” Even CBS San Francisco, which has demagogue these Walgreens closures, reported on this in August of 2019, quote:
“In June it reported a 24% decline in quarterly net income and predicted that annual earnings would be roughly flat with the prior year. Walgreens has been hit by challenges including reimbursement cuts and lower price increases for branded drugs. There are more than 600 Walgreens in California, more than 60 are located in San Francisco. Walgreens has already shut down 195 stores so far this year.”
So, Walgreens was planning on shutting down stores, and they shut down 17 stores in Walgreens, another article, I guess it depends how you define San Francisco, another article in The San Francisco Chronicle said 70. They said 17 of 70, there’s 53 left. Okay. So I did a little comparative analysis, because I said, well, if Walgreens is planning on closing stores in urban areas, why don’t we see how many they closed in New York City. So during the same roughly two year timeframe, Walgreens closed 70 out of 247 stores in New York City, which is roughly 28 percent of the Walgreens stores, which is more than the 24 percent, 17 out of 70, that they closed in San Francisco. So they actually closed way more in New York. And then I said, well, holy shit, there must be a crime, shoplifting epidemic in New York and spent many, many hours trying to find evidence of this shoplifting spree in New York and you’ll be shocked to learn there was none. So what seems obvious to me is that Walgreens was planning on closing these stores anyway, because they were consolidating their footprint in urban areas to save money and to reduce on real estate and labor costs, and that, so they closed these stores anyway, and this may have an expedited somewhat by COVID — it probably was, it certainly was in New York — but then they go and say, ‘Oh, no, it’s the shoplifting, it’s shrinkage due to shoplifting.’ Now, so either two things are happening here, they’re lying about the motive for closing the stores because they want to push back against Proposition 47, Chesa Boudin and the police reform movement, or there is a shoplifting epidemic in New York no one’s telling us about.
Nima: Right. Now, meanwhile, Walgreens and CVS both have been making a lot of money lately. So Walgreens itself is a nearly $140 billion a year enterprise. CVS, a nearly $270 billion a year enterprise. And because they house drugstores, because they have pharmacies, they are also now retailers of COVID-19 vaccines, right? And so as a result, just in the past six months, there’s been a rise in stock price for Walgreens by over 40 percent. Meanwhile, CVS’ stock has risen over 32 percent in the last six months, and nearly 40 percent in the past year alone. These retailers, the model of their business is also based on absorbing some percentage of defective merchandise, lost merchandise and stolen merchandise, they clearly are not hurting so much that they are needing to close these stores.
Adam: Because of course, the narrative is that if they’re closing these stories anyway, or let’s say they’re closing them because of increased rent or real estate costs, or they just want to consolidate, cut back on labor because they, you know, may get involved in an IPO or merger, whatever it is. A skeptical journalist would say, ‘Well, maybe they have an ulterior motive?’ Walgreens doesn’t disclose their political donations, but CVS donates, the largest donation that they’ve made in California is to the California Chamber of Commerce, who actively lobbies against Proposition 47, for obvious reasons, because it’s a huge, they believe it’s a huge vector of shrinkage for them, right? It costs them a lot of money. I think any reporters reporting this alleged epidemic of shoplifting by some kind of shoplifting gang, sort of, I guess one of those sort of Walker Texas Ranger gangs that kind of gets together in the middle of some sad warehouse and decides they’re going to do this, that there needs to be some skepticism about that, and well, where’s the evidence, and to the extent to which there is an uptick in shoplifting maybe it’s largely driven by the obvious fact that the fucking economy, the bottom fell out of the economy, and people were, there were 20 minute long waits, two hour, three hour long waits at food lines throughout the country, for people who didn’t qualify for the UI extension, which was, you know, millions of people, for undocumented people, etcetera, that this would be the cause, but these pieces and there’s dozens of them, are just press releases, and we didn’t have time to do a full robust analysis of all the crime wave media in San Francisco. This is just, you know, 1 percent of it, because it’s non stop.
Nima: Yeah, exactly. I actually, I was talking to Steven Renderos out of Media Justice, who is out in Oakland, and he actually, I think, put it really well when he said that the current media coverage of the shoplifting surge, really kind of gave him quote, “‘90s Super predator vibes,” end quote, right? That the type of terrible journalism that emerged during the war on drugs in the 1990s, and that obviously we’ve seen since, we talk about a lot on Citations Needed, but this idea that even if you can point to certain crimes, certain theft, certain metrics, increasing the media coverage is actually geared toward one solution.
Adam: Well, yeah, but let’s look at the statistics here. So we’re going to read directly from the FBI in San Francisco data set and it shows that Part 1 Property Crime in San Francisco is down 15 percent since 2020, 22 percent since 2019, down 29 percent since 2018, and down 35 percent since 2017, it depends on which one you’re looking at. So crime in general in San Francisco since Chesa Boudin took over, in 2021, relative to 2020, crime decreased 23 percent. So far year to date as of May 16, 2021, relative to year to date 2022 crime is down 14 percent. This year, rape is down 27 percent, robbery is down 17 percent, assault is about even. Now, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson are up 20, 11 and 24 percent, respectively, but other crimes during 2020 during the pandemic like robbery and assault were down 20 to 14 percent and human trafficking was down 54 percent and larceny theft was down 40 percent. So crime fluctuates. With crime trends, you can always sort of find the statistics that meet your criteria. The objective reality is that overall crime is down in the last few years. That is an objective fact. Now certain crimes are up, certain crimes are down, you can sort of pick and choose which ones you sort of want to look at, but you can go to the San Francisco Police Department’s own crime data, but don’t worry, The San Francisco Chronicle has a way around this inconvenient fact. So if you read the article, it has a somewhat interesting sentence, which I think is worth looking at, which is where the data contradicts the premise of the article.
Nima: Which is really pushing for more police, more funding, pro-carceral solutions.
Adam: So it’s hand waved away and then the writer moves on. So here’s a paragraph from The San Francisco Chronicle article by Mallory Moench in The San Francisco Chronicle on May 13, 2021. Buried in paragraph five is, quote:
“Last year, burglaries increased in most San Francisco neighborhoods. Shoplifting decreased under pandemic lockdown and dropped slightly the year before, but incidents are often underreported and have become more violent and brazen, police said.”
So shoplifting is actually down this year. It is down the previous year from the prior year. And then the writer says, ‘Oh no, but the incidents are underreported.’ Well, okay, then how do I know they weren’t underreported before? What does that mean? You know what I mean? I don’t know what to do with that information. And they’re “more violent and brazen,” police say. Now, of course, there is violence there, you can go to me these anti-Prop 47 groups, anti-Chesa groups, and they’ll show you videos of people attacking CVS employees and these tech billionaires like David Sacks, you know, their hearts bleed for employees of CVS and Walgreens, and of course, that’s unfortunate. The District Attorney’s Office is taking organized crime or any kind of threat seriously, as you know, that seems totally reasonable. But there is a weird thing where, to the extent we have evidence of an increase in shoplifting, there’s a very concentrated media effort in this one specific area of creating a narrative where it’s so bad drug stores are closing, right? This is sort of a concrete way you measure: 17 Walgreens closed because of shoplifting. And then when you actually look it up, and you find out what they were closing those stories anyway, it kind of takes the wind out of the sails a little bit, and it’s like, well, okay, and it’s down, but it’s sort of, it’s not really down and supposedly it’s not reporting and there’s this effort to sort of cement a narrative and then when the data contradicts the narrative, the reporter says, ‘Oh, well, that doesn’t matter anyway.’
Nima: ‘Well, it’s probably just underreported.’
Adam: Yeah and it’s like, well, if it’s under reported, then, you know, what is knowable?
Nima: Because basically, the entire gist of so many of these articles, as we mentioned before, but I actually think it bears repeating, is there’s the framework that shoplifters, big shoplifting organized crime rings, are destroying the neighborhood pharmacy, and therefore, elderly folks in the Bay Area can no longer get their, you know, vital medicine, people can’t get their kind of daily household items, because the mom and pop pharmacy on the corner, the Walgreens or the CVS, are closing down and who’s to blame? The shoplifters, right? And so therefore, what is the solution? More police, more security, closing the retail stores and blaming the people in the community who don’t have jobs, who can’t afford to feed their families, who even if they’re not stealing directly to put food on the table, they’re stealing to then resell and get money.
Adam: Yeah, because one of the things it’s important to note here, as we’ve talked about, when people say organized crime one of the things I think they’re kind of doing to pad these numbers, although I still don’t think even with is it goes anywhere near 85 percent, is there’ll be a like a loose band of homeless people who will go in, steal razors, medicine and then fence them for, you know, substance — substances which shall not be named — and this is their idea of organized crime. We’re not talking about the Yakuza here. I mean, this is organized in only the most liberal sense of the word.
Nima: Right. If like fucking, you know, Tony Soprano is sticking up delivery trucks on the highway, that’s not going to —
Adam: It’s not a particularly good ROI to steal from CVS. I mean, the one network they unpacked or whatever, they were stealing drugs and reselling them, but you’d have to have a connection to an OTC drug reseller for this to make any sense at any scale. And so it’s like, clearly, if you’re gonna steal, you’re gonna steal from high end fashion stores, I mean, it’s just not a great ROI. What are you going to sell? Beef jerky, and TIME magazine? It doesn’t really make a ton of sense that this would be a huge hotspot for organized crime. So, but again, the idea that 85 percent comes, just sort of basically 100 percent, right? It kind of sounds true, is that it’s clearly marketing to liberals, which is what they’re doing. They’re marketing carceral solutions to liberals, they’re marketing the reform or the abolishment of Prop 47, they’re marketing more severe DAs when the election comes up, they’re marketing against these police reform and police abolition and police defunding efforts, is that if you say it’s organized crime, you make it more palatable to liberals because nobody wants to be Inspector Javert, right? You don’t want to go after the person stealing bread to eat even though we have, again, the report in Washington Post, we have a ton of other research that’s been done that shows that when the economy tanked in 2020, shoplifting increased proportionate to that, but we can’t have that narrowed, because then you have to address the underlying social issues and that makes it unseamly to sort of unleash the cops on poor people. So what we do is we hype up this idea of organized crime, and it’s spurious at best, there’s been basically one example in California with respect to just CVS, now obviously organized crime, they’ve had organized crime rings and stuff from other things, right? Amazon, credit card, whatever, but specifically, primarily driven by pharmaceutical thefts of pharmacies, there’s really only been one since the timeframe we’re talking about here and that just posit can’t possibly account for 85 percent of the thefts. It just doesn’t make sense.
Nima: Right. And yet, we hear that, you know, over five years 17 stores close, let’s get a newsworthy hook for the reason why and it’s not because of capital downsizing. No, it’s not that, it is rather shoplifting.
Adam: And to be clear, when they announced they were closing 200 stores, they didn’t mention anything about shrinkage or shoplifting, they said they were just underperforming. So again, if it was driven, which is what the headline says basically entirely by I think The New York Times does this bullshit weasel word of “largely by,” but if it was largely or entirely by shrinkage, then there would have been a comparable amount of closures on the side of CVS and there wasn’t because Walgreens had different economic motives for doing it, because they were losing money and they had too much fucking overhead. So anyway.
Nima: To discuss this more, we are now going to be joined by Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, Director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Fred Sherburn-Zimmer. Fred, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Thanks for having me.
Adam: Detractors from reform insist that the economic precarity and housing and food insecurity aren’t the real issues. They claim that crime is driven by so-called organized crime, not economic needs. There is some anecdotal evidence that can be the case sometimes, but broadly speaking, we’re kind of skeptical on this show. I want to begin by getting an activist perspective on the state of poverty and housing precarity within San Francisco, since the beginning of COVID and how you feel maybe this relates to the so-called crime wave, although again, some crimes are down, some crimes are up, but we will sort of grant that there is a crime tic up. Can we begin by talking about the state of poverty and precarity and housing insecurity within San Francisco just to kind of give our listeners some context here?
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: To start with, San Francisco is a city of extremes. You have a lot of wealth in San Francisco, especially with the big upturn in the tech sector in the last ten years, and you have very, very extreme poverty and housing insecurity, high levels of homelessness, and I think this is pretty well known. Once you hit COVID, everything doubled down and so you have whole sections of the city sitting empty, high rise condos that either no one moved in or everyone left or a lot of them were second homes or investment housing anyways, and at the same time, homelessness just started to get moved around during a horrible, I mean, what we’re all dealing with that. The biggest employer in San Francisco is hospitality. So hotels, restaurants, an entire industry that closed down so we ran a tenants rights hotline, we have been getting between two and three times as many calls during the pandemic. Usually these are people who have no way to pay rent and so we’re seeing sometimes upwards of 300 calls a week of people who don’t know, whose landlords are harassing them to get out, that they’re in massive debt, sometimes they have COVID and can’t go to work, really extreme cases in a city that already had really extreme poverty.
Adam: And this is borne out by both, I mean, I guess when you’re seeing this sort of human suffering. I want to take some time, not to be too exploitative here, but can we talk about some of the cases that you see, what’s the sort of common case — you don’t have to, obviously, you don’t have to name names — but what’s a common case of someone who is seeing housing insecurity in San Francisco because I think the way the media covers it is that there’s this permanent homeless population that we can kind of dehumanize and then there’s the quote-unquote “homeowner” or every person who we’re supposed to sort of center and I want to talk about the kind of gray area. Where do you most commonly see this kind of transition from month to month covering rent to, ‘No, we’re out on the streets,’ what does that look like, what’s the racial makeup of that and what are the human stakes there?
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Well, first, I want to start off with saying that San Francisco is a city that is almost 70 percent renters and so that is the every man in San Francisco and that is a wide swath of San Francisco and we have rent control. So a lot of people were really well protected before the pandemic, if you already had decent housing, if you didn’t, we’re not allowed to have protections on new units, and so, right now, there’s a huge campaign around low income and affordable housing where the average resident pays 70 or 80 percent of their income in housing and that’s big neighborhoods downtown, that a lot of the calls we get are service workers, are new immigrants, the most common call would be from Latina mom who’s lived in the US for under 15 years, has children, who was working, it might even be two families to a household and before the pandemic could barely make do and people were pretty overcrowded and now when you can’t work, and you can’t get benefits what that means is that people making the choice of feeding their family or paying rent, and often people borrowing rent money from their families, are going into massive debt, and some people owe months and months and months of back debt and landlords are calling or harassing them, even though they’re protected by the law and a lot of people are moving in with family. So in the COVID, doubling up households again, and so that there isn’t a room someone can go into if someone gets COVID, that there’s already only one bathroom, only one bathroom on the floor. But we’re also seeing a lot of elderly people who are on Social Security, but also worked part-time at a job because they couldn’t afford rent alone and they lost their part-time job and now are afraid they’re gonna lose their housing that they’ve lived in for the last 30, 40 years and that goes through all racial groups in San Francisco.
Nima: Yeah, I think, you know, when we have been talking about the recent uptick in shoplifting and how it’s being reported on, what we’ve done, and what you’ve so kind of helpfully laid out here is how petty crime, these low level thefts, and especially the way they’re reported on, so they’re made to look really outsized and then it’s not part of a quote-unquote “organized crime ring,” right? But how that really does connect to precarity, poverty, people being without homes, and yet, what we tend to hear is the perspective of say, the Silicon Valley Bay Area tech guy, the crime is on the rise and the property value is going down or whatever but, you know, at the same time, those same voices are claiming that rampant homelessness, or at least housing precarity, can’t really be the culprit here because, and we hear this I think, Adam’s good tech-bro buddies have said this to him —
Adam: I got yelled at on Twitter for two days. I have no tech-bro buddies.
Nima: Because housing has been offered to unhoused people in San Francisco, and that, quote, “70 percent of the homeless have turned it down,” right? That it’s this, they want to remain unhoused. Fred, can you kind of talk to us about this program in question, the kind of offering of housing, and what efforts have been made during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and also that are still going on.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: So, San Francisco actually does build a lot of affordable housing and does try to provide some housing but when you’re in a crisis as big as ours before the pandemic, there was never enough units for everyone who wanted them and so I can think of an example of a friend of mine who lived across the street from a park and during COVID there was a homeless encampment that set up. It was sort of like a side alley and the tents, they moved their tents six feet from each other nd because there was this brief period of time that they weren’t doing sweeps for once and so it became a pretty stable community for the first three months of the pandemic and the neighbors would bring them things, but one of the top questions that homeless advocates and anyone, even when people I knew bring them toilet paper or whatnot, would be like, ‘I heard you can get into a hotel room right now, do you know how to get into a hotel room?’ People didn’t want to go to a shelter during COVID, because you were likely to get COVID in a shelter. It’s not safe at all. And so there were these semi stable communities that set up and then the city started sweeps again and they sent police in, they confiscated people’s tents, they threw them in dump trucks, and a bunch of the places on that block ended up getting broken into because there wasn’t a stable set of people who kind of knew the community. During COVID, you can’t go to a drug treatment program, you’re probably not getting the mental health services you need to get, if you were panhandling downtown as a tourist, you can’t do that. The line for a food bank is four or five blocks long. I mean, people are really desperate right now, even housed people are really desperate right now, let alone homeless people. There’s a group called Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, and they did a survey sort of before COVID and during COVID where they interviewed thousands of homeless people to come up with, they call it the Compassionate Alternate Response Team, of what homeless people thought would help get them out of homelessness and clearly taking all of people’s personal possessions and medicine in a tent and throwing it in a dumpster isn’t really a particularly effective way to get people out of homelessness, or to throw them in jail for a fine. San Francisco, the majority of, even though San Francisco is only 3 percent black, the majority of the homeless population, the majority of the prison population is African American in San Francisco. You also have a very high level of folks in jail who have mental health issues and it’s a waste of resources, like if policing solved this problem, it would be working.
Adam: Well, I want to talk about that. So I know a lot of detractors, again, of the so-called police reform movement, Prop 47, which we talked about at the top of the show, in 2014, is really one of the primary motivating factors behind the kind of reaction to the so-called reform movement, and I want to talk briefly about this narrative that is shaped in the media, even among so-called liberal media, centrist media, that San Francisco is kind of a cautionary tale of the failures of liberalism, that it’s not about social services, that San Francisco provides plenty of social services, plenty of homeless shelters — you hear this all the time — that it’s actually that we need to sort of go back to this tough on crime narrative, and that is the current prevailing, I think it’s fair to say, emerging, even liberal consensus, supposed liberal consensus, that we actually do need to get rid of Prop 47, we need to get rid of these reform DAs, we need to start increasing penalties and putting people in jail, we’re sort of going back to the ’90s playbook and that San Francisco shows the limits of that. Obviously, a lot of bullshit, because these supposed social services are not as glorious and as robust as their detractors make them out to be, but I want you to address that narrative because we want to kind of make sure we’re steel-manning here, address that narrative, why you think it’s not true, and maybe even feel free to sort of speculate as to the underlying forces pushing this narrative.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s two parts of that. One is this sort of false narrative of San Francisco. San Francisco is capitalism on crack. The rich get to do whatever they want in San Francisco and people make money hand over fist and they don’t care and to dire consequences of a large part of the wider Bay Area community, including San Franciscans. So that’s the first part of it is that this, ‘Oh, our wonderful liberal city,’ whether it is Uber getting to do whatever they want, or you know, what programs we have is a desperate attempt of people’s movements, and trying desperately to get any social services for our communities in one of the richest cities in the world. But ultimately, if you let landlords displace thousands of people a year, you end up with mass homelessness.
Adam: And on the issue of homelessness, I mean, so one of the things they claimed ahead of CVS security, uncritically reported by numerous outlets, claims that 85 percent of shoplifting is from organized criminal rings. There’s evidence of pretty much one organized criminal ring. Some have speculated, and I’m being a bit weaselly here, forgive me, that when they say organized criminal rings, really what they’re talking about is basically a loose confederation of homeless people who steal razors and medicine to fence to other third parties in order to buy substance, which of course, I think, is not most people’s version of organized crime. We imagine sort of Bond villain-like boardroom meetings, word charts, right? I want to talk a bit about — maybe I’m veering a little bit off your wheelhouse here — but I want to talk a bit about the issues of substance abuse, which do plague housing insecure people, the issue of social services, and what a carceral response, because obviously, they’re all calling for a carceral response right now.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Yeah.
Adam: They’ll give you some liberal bullshit like, ‘Well, maybe no,’ but that’s really what they’re calling for. I want to talk about the issues of substance abuse, and what a carceral response will or will not do to actually fix that problem.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: First, I want to sort of start with the fact that headlines of organized crime do great to sell newspapers for The Chronicle, but the question is whether there’s actually any evidence of that, most of these, there’s been rumor that many of these drugstores were going to close for a while. I mean, most of them are in neighborhoods in COVID, that have high poverty, no tourism, because of COVID and had a lot of luxury housing that is now sitting empty. So I’m not surprised they’re closing after COVID and we have no shortages of drugstores in San Francisco, I mean, of Walgreens and CVS, they’ve basically driven every small one out in the city. But so that piece of it, but your real question was about drug use and addiction, and the question is, if we’re really looking at addiction, and what will help, if people are committing crime because they’re addicted to a substance and I think there’s probably lots of reasons people are committing crimes and that might be one on a list of them.
Adam: Sure. Yeah. I mean, people are also just stealing food a la Jean Valjean. Right.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Yeah or they’re stealing razor blades or selling medication because they need food.
Adam: You need food, right, right. I don’t want to overplay it, but it is, I think it’s probably fair to say that it’s one of the factors.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: No, I think it’s actually really important to talk about drug abuse and this is not my primary organizing wheelhouse, but I don’t see how putting people in the police system is going to actually help our local budget. A drug treatment worker in a drug treatment clinic and outreach workers and then if you add mental health workers for folks with dual diagnosis, are much cheaper than a third of that amount of police officers.
Nima: And far more effective.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Yes, and far more effective. And so the question is, do we want to have three times as many people in jail or do we actually want to stop crime? Or do we want to lower addiction rates? Because criminalization has no link to lowering crime. They didn’t do a particularly good job in the ’90s on that. They filled up a lot of prisons but crime rates didn’t go down.
Nima: Yeah, there really does seem to be a correlation here, and you know, we’ve talked about it a bit between the 1990s crime wave and then tough-on-crime backlash, obviously, the infamous crime bills that came out in the mid ’90s and even language used, right? In politics and also, of course, the press, stuff like super predators, wild out, you know, that kind of stuff, and we’re seeing it again as taking very real issues and yet having this solution always be fund more cops, harsher, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, there are always punitive and carceral solutions rather than humane solutions, rather than solutions that organizers who are most proximate to these communities, and the communities themselves, are calling for, right? That it’s this, you know, ‘Oh, well, let’s ask Silicon Valley what they think should happen in San Francisco,’ as opposed to asking the people that are actually dealing with precarity. You know, as you do your work at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, what do you see as being some of the most effective ways that really denied the false efficacy of say, carceral solutions over policing, of funding more things. What is the work that you are currently doing? You know, tell us about some of the positives.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: I mean, we work in a coalition and part of the reason we actually actively work on cutting the police budget in San Francisco is that we expect police officers to be a weird superhero, but if your sister gets addicted to pills her doctor gave her and now has an addiction you don’t want to throw her in jail, you want to be able to easily find her a program. If someone you care about is having a mental health breakdown, you want a mental health worker to be able to come and help and quick. It’s the same thing, it’s just sort of like, it’s always the same budget pot. So they’re always saying they don’t have enough money for after school programs, they’re always saying they don’t have enough money for real housing and we really believe that every San Franciscan, just like everyone, should be able to have decent housing, and that keeping people in their homes for us is the best way to stop homelessness and we also need to get people who are homeless into homes. But the amount of trauma people go, being on the streets, and the biggest growing group of homeless in San Francisco is seniors, that more than half of seniors in San Francisco make under $20,000 a year. This is a city with the average income is $100,000 but the average senior makes under $20,000.
Nima: Before we let you go, can you tell us a bit about what you are up to, how people might be able to support your work or the work of the Housing Rights Committee, and what may be some kind of key campaigns that folks can be paying attention to. There’s a, you know, attempted recall of Chesa Boudin, but what else is going on in the city that people might be able to get involved in?
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Yeah, a few other things. I think right now one of the important things is not to lift the eviction moratorium in California or in San Francisco, that if people have no income to pay rent come July, they shouldn’t be thrown out of their houses. We need to talk about debt forgiveness post COVID. And ultimately, beyond San Francisco, even San Francisco ourselves, we need to expand things like real rent control, that people’s rent shouldn’t be going up all the time, that rents across the board shouldn’t be, like our wages don’t go up with inflation, rents shouldn’t go up more than inflation every year and these are real solutions we can make to keep people in their houses, to keep rents down, and then ultimately, we need to ultimately decide what keeps our communities safe and these are real conversations we all need to have in our communities. What are the real problems and what will keep us safe? Extra police officers walking down the street I don’t think is a solution to the everyday problems we’re seeing that most San Franciscans are seeing as the problems that they identify and that includes homelessness. San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the world and we have a responsibility to take care of each other, and as communities, we need to organize to force the powers that be to do that because people are making a lot of money off of us, and the only way that we make this real change is by organizing together in our buildings, in our neighborhoods, on our blocks with all the other tenants of the landlord we rent from around not only things like housing issues, but other issues, and whether it’s San Francisco or whether some of our other partners, Right to the City, Homes For All, who are also doing amazing work in other cities around the country, we need to really fight for housing justice, because this whole media storm around whether some Walgreens are closing or whether there’s an uptick in a point of extreme poverty and shoplifting is a distraction and I think is actually a purposeful response to communities like San Francisco saying to police to stop killing them, and to make real reforms, and I think it’s a straw man, frankly.
Nima: Well, I think that wraps it up very, very nicely, can’t thank you enough, we’ve been speaking with Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, Director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, you can check them out at hrcsf.org. Fred, thank you again so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Fred Sherburn-Zimmer: Thank you all.
Adam:Yeah, so even the journalist we referenced from who wrote The San Francisco Chronicle article Mallory Moench, she wrote this article a week later, quote, “SF hunger remains at pandemic-crisis levels as officials push for food hubs,” and then wrote this article the day before she wrote the one we talked about, which is headlined, quote, “SF is rapidly losing care facilities for the mentally ill and elderly.” So here we have someone who acknowledged, it’s all siloed off, so we acknowledge there’s a massive hunger epidemic in San Francisco, we acknowledge there is a lack of social services, obviously there’s a housing crisis in San Francisco, but trust us when we tell you that the alleged uptick in shoplifting has nothing to do with that.
Nima: …is organized crime.
Adam: It’s the Gambino family who, I mean, it’s ridiculous. It just, it violates the most basic moral sense we have, and again, there’s a reason why they need it to be organized crime, because if it’s organized crime, then liberals can justify why they’re supporting the repeal of Proposition 47 and a harsh carceral crackdown while they go look at their Black Lives Matter flag and rainbow flag in their front yard.
Nima: Well, right and because it’s also then used for the anti-Prop 47, anti-Chesa Boudin campaign, for instance, in the digital outlet, Law Enforcement Today, which is a real thing, an article by Jenna Curren from May 18, recounts this San Francisco story with the headline, quote, “Countless stores closing shop in San Francisco thanks to law that effectively legalizes shoplifting up to $950.” That’s the headline and it’s referring obviously to Prop 47, which it claims in its words, it says this, quote:
“The City Council passed Prop 47, which is the ordinance that prevents police officers from arresting or even stopping anyone who steals less than $950 worth of goods.
“Now, organized gangs of thieves gather together and run into a store as a group to grab everything and anything they can carry out of the store knowing full well that the police nor the store owners can do a thing to stop them.”
Adam: Mm hmm.
Nima: So that’s how this is all working out.
Adam: Yeah. Those organized gangs of thieves, of course, also themselves aren’t poor, right? Yeah.
Nima: Yeah, well, right. Right, you know, and as a result, you know, you have the District 11 supervisor for CVS, Ahsha Safai, quote:
“…calling on police and prosecutors to do a better job at protecting these businesses, like in a large bust in 2020 that uncovered $20 million in stolen products.”
So, yeah, it’s always the same carceral solutions. It’s always more police. It’s always protecting the businesses. In this case, you can’t even hide behind small businesses because they’re gigantic national chains.
Adam: And here’s the thing, right? The last thing I’ll say on this is so many people, this is anecdotal, obviously, with so many people we mentioned where, ‘I’m a liberal, but — ’ ‘I’m a liberal, but — ’ I’m a liberal, but — ’ ‘I’m a liberal, but — ’ ‘I believe in police reform, but — ’ ‘This is different. This is different this time.’ Trust me when I tell you, it’s not different. Have you looked at the murder rate in New York City in 1991? It was over 2,300 murders. Now it’s just under 400 murders a year. What do people think was going on when a bunch of white reactionaries panicked and created the carceral state we have today where 20 percent of the world’s prison population is American. What do they think was happening? Crime spikes one or two percent in these places and everyone freaks out and all these liberals say ‘Oh, trust me, I’m Black Lives Matter but this is different. This is different.’ It is not different. It’s the same shit. It’s the same media narratives. It’s the same racialized panic. We have to push back against the instinct to reach for the carceral arrow in our quiver, we have to resist that urge. The media designs these stories to push that, to animate and to tickle that reptilian part of your brain that just goes ‘Oh, yeah, more cops. Oh, it’s organized crime. Yeah, that sounds good. Yeah, organized crime. They’re going to go after the La Cosa Nostra family.’ No, they’re not. Trust me when I tell you, they’re not going to do it. If you get rid of Prop 47, if you bring in harsher penalties, if you create more cops, you’re just gonna do what we always do, which is put tens of thousands of more faceless black people into the fucking carceral meat grinder in this country. It is not going to be this large org chart, like the gang raids in New York, right? It sort of sounds sexy. It’s not. It’s going to be the same poor black people it always is and there’s no way around that. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t be Joe Black Lives Matter who supports bringing in the police to crack down on shoplifting at CVS. You just can’t. So you need to choose which side you’re on in this thing.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded, and we will be back very soon with another full length episode of Citations Needed so stay tuned for that but until then, thanks again for listening.
Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks for listening again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.