By Cynthia Hoang-Duong
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – In a column for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik, a business columnist, critiqued the reaction to the stabbing of tech entrepreneur and Cash App founder Bob Lee in a San Francisco neighborhood on April 4.
Hiltzik described how the murder contributed to the prevailing narrative about the city’s “dirty, dangerous, (and) unlivable” conditions.
Quoting tweets from venture investor Matt Ocko and Elon Musk, the author revealed how Lee’s business companions attributed the crime to liberal politicians in San Francisco.
Ocko tweeted—targeting the progressive former district attorney— “Chesa Boudin, & the criminal-loving city council that enabled him & a lawless SF for years, have Bob’s literal blood on their hands.”
Similarly, Musk addressed San Francisco’s current district attorney, Brooke Jenkins, regarding the city’s agenda to remedy its violent crimes, tweeting, “Many people I know have been severely assaulted. Violent crime in SF is horrific and even if attackers are caught, they are often released immediately. Is the city taking stronger action to incarcerate repeat violent offenders @BrookeJenkinsSF?”
Concerned with the sensationalization of news organizations about the murder, Hiltzik critiqued how media outlets “exploited the killing to remind readers and viewers of the “concerns” that had been aired over violent crime in the city, and how those had ostensibly led to Boudin’s recall.”
The author corrected this narrative, noting the relationship between the alleged assailant, Nima Momeni, and Lee. The two men were reportedly engaged in an altercation over Momeni’s sister, hours before Lee’s fatal stabbing.
This relationship between the two men, Hiltzik emphasized, contributes to the fact that most violent crimes are committed by individuals the victim knows, rather than strangers.
Evidently, he confirmed, the crime committed against Lee had no connection to San Francisco’s street crime, the DA’s office’s lenient policies toward criminals, nor Musk’s claims of “repeat violent offenders.”
Using the words of American journalist A.J. Liebling, the author criticized the media’s coverage of Lee’s murder as “the futility of flapdoodle.” In other words, relying on conventional wisdom, such news sources are uninformed and/or report misinformation, he noted.
Hiltzik wrote, “That San Francisco was overrun by violent criminals was taken as gospel; a predawn killing in a deserted part of town was shoehorned into the prevailing narrative.”
Contrary to this narrative, Alec Karakatanis, a civil rights lawyer, claimed the city is one of the safest in the U.S. for its large population size.
This is evidenced by a report conducted by Hiltzik’s colleague, Summer Lin, regarding the city’s violent crime numbers, including homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. From 2013 to 2020, reported Lin, violent crime cases had drastically dropped by 32 percent.
The Major Cities Police Chiefs Association corroborates this finding on San Francisco’s crime. According to the organization, in 2022, 56 homicides were recorded. Hiltzik noted this number is fewer than other U.S. cities with similar population sizes, such as Denver with 88 homicides, Nashville with 108, and Columbus, Ohio with 140.
Despite these statistics, media coverage continues to perpetuate the narrative about San Francisco’s public safety issues related to crime and homelessness, explained Karakantanis.
He informed Hiltzik, “Once a news theme is generated, reporters and editors see everything through the prism of that theme. There’s a theme about disorder and drugs and homelessness in San Francisco which is not about whether those things are objectively true, but more about how our brains are processing discrete actual examples.”
Thus, Hiltzik wrote, beyond the mischaracterization of Lee’s high-profile murder case, such incorrect crime reporting is the product of a prevailing phenomenon in which pro-police advocates uphold law enforcement as the sole “bulwark against a perilously unpredictable world.”
In effect, the U.S. has witnessed a period of militarization of law enforcement as police officers and SWAT Teams are equipped with military supplies and fleets of armored vehicles, according to Hiltzik.
Rather than unearthing the truth behind San Francisco’s conditions, the “stranger danger” theme is perpetuated by the media, leading to serious implications highlighted by the author. Had the narrative centered around the fact that most violent crime occurs between non-stranger individuals, it would have been difficult for pro-police advocates to insist that law enforcement require more military and surveillance equipment, he said.
As Karakantanis summarized, “It starts to feel like a social problem that requires a very different public health intervention.”
Arguing that the harmful narrative about San Francisco is the result of opposition to progressive reforms of the criminal justice system, Hiltzik wrote, “Depictions of American cities as hives of remorseless human predators have taken on a distinctly ideological cast in recent years.”
He used the media’s warped coverage of Boudin’s removal from office to exemplify how such events can be misconstrued to feed into claims that San Franciscan voters disapprove of the criminal justice reforms and the associated crime and disorder.
The columnist provided an example using the comments of Daniel Henninger, a Wall Street Journal journalist, who asserted, “Most San Franciscans just realized that doctrinaire progressivism had become a suicide pact,” and denounced the “major city’s long transition to flowers-in-your-hair progressivism.”
Despite such narratives, Hiltzik stated there are few indicators that San Franciscans disapprove of progressive reforms, citing the success of several liberal politicians and policies despite Boudin’s recall.
For example, he noted, in Alameda County, Pamela Price and Yesenia Sanchez were elected as district attorney and sheriff, respectively, despite their progressive platforms.
Similarly, he added, Brandon Johnson was recently elected as mayor of Chicago despite his solutions to crime that targeted its “root causes,” including employment of youth, re-establishing mental health centers, and financing violence prevention — instead of the traditional solutions to employ more police officers.
Further, Hiltzik argued, polls conducted after Boudin’s recall regarding his primary policies — protection of worker rights, review of wrongful convictions, and the elimination of cash bail — revealed the public approved of his progressive reforms.
Therefore, Hiltzik attributed the former district attorney’s recall to the targeted campaign against him, funded by real estate developers and agents.
Further, the columnist discussed the development of urban crime as a partisan issue — evident in Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)’s attempts to perpetuate this narrative through a hearing on violent crime in Manhattan.
However, undermining Jordan’s attempts, Hiltzik noted Jim Kim, the Vice President of Policy at Third Way, testified, “New York City’s murder rate was 18 percent below the national average. Meanwhile, in red states such as Ohio, the murder rate was 59 percent higher than in New York and 251 percent higher in Louisiana, another red state.”
Kessler added, “If we wanted a hearing about the ravages of crime, why aren’t we in Baton Rouge or Louisville, where five people were murdered in the blink of an eye in a mass shooting at a downtown bank?”
Media outlets and politicians, such as Jordan, often fall into error by defining crime as occurrences that involve strangers, elaborated Hiltzik. And avoiding the label “soft on crime,” politicians seldom downplay the urgency of the alleged crime waves.
Thus, writing in his article, Hiltzik critiqued politicians like Jordan who incorrectly define “crime waves” in a way that allows them to be “blamed, in the public mind, on a predatory underclass largely of Black perpetrators” and thus, “ignor(e) crimes that are more commonly classed as “white collar” offenses — the victims of which are often low-income and minority people.”
The writer added notions of “crime waves,” as the alleged phenomenon occurring in San Francisco, exploit the separate crime incidents, such as Lee’s murder, without regard to the harm towards the victims and their families.
Referring to the hyper-focus on homelessness and drug addiction, Karakarsanis maintained, “In the elite liberal mind, when people talk about ‘crime,’ what they’re talking about is disorder in the form of homelessness and schizophrenia on the street and drug selling.
“They’re not talking about child sexual abuse or tax evasion or environmental pollution. Whenever there’s a toxic dumping story, it’s not seen as part of a crime wave.”
Fortunately, in rare occurrences, Hiltzik described San Francisco politicians were able to combat the dangerous and violent narrative about the city that was exacerbated by the fatal stabbing of Lee. The author suggested this is because such reports originated from external sources rather than the concerns of their own constituents.
One politician, state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said, “I do think it’s unfortunate that we’re seeing this narrative that San Francisco is some exceptionally violent place. That’s not true.”
And San Francisco’s Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto corroborated, “Overall, if you look at the last five years and 10 years on a longer-term scale, crime is at a historic low.” San Francisco, he remarked, “is unfairly portrayed as being in the midst of a crime wave that isn’t borne out of the data.”
However, although the narratives surrounding Lee’s murder were refuted by the arrest of Momeni, a non-stranger, the columnist expressed his concerns about false crime reporting.
“It’s unlikely that it will eradicate the impression that San Francisco has descended into chaos. The impression is too often repeated and too colorful. From the standpoint of public health and safety, that’s too bad,” Hiltzik wrote.