Homeless people in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco earlier this month. (Tayfun Coskun via Getty Images)

San Francisco’s Mayor Apologizes for Telling the Truth

It is not racist to acknowledge that the city’s open-air drug market is dominated by Honduran drug dealers. Ignoring that reality hurts working-class families.

Earlier this month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed was asked in an interview about her pledge to crack down on the crime, drugs and lawlessness that have plagued her city for the last several years. In her response to the question, Breed asked in exasperation, “Why do people who deal drugs have more rights than people who try to get up and go to work every day and take their children to school?”

The line received some applause. Asked to elaborate, the mayor said this:

Let’s talk about the reality of this situation. There are, unfortunately, a lot of people who come from a particular country—come from Honduras—and a lot of the people who are dealing drugs happen to be of that ethnicity. And when a lot of the arrests have been made, for people breaking the law, you have the Public Defender’s office and staff from the Public Defender’s office, who are basically accusing and using the law to say, ‘You’re racially—you’re racial profiling. You’re racial profiling.’ Right? And it’s nothing ‘racial profile’ about this. We all know it. It’s the reality. It’s what you see. It’s what’s out there.

Breed’s comments did not go unnoticed. Soon after, the San Francisco Latinx Democratic Club put out a statement condemning her “racist and xenophobic comments.” The club described her remarks as “appalling” and demanded an apology.

That apology was, unfortunately, forthcoming

“In trying to explain what is happening in the Tenderloin,” Mayor Breed wrote last week, “I failed to accurately and comprehensively discuss what is an incredibly complex situation in our City and in Central America.” Breed described San Francisco’s drug dealers as “people of all races, ethnicities, and genders.”

The mayor shouldn’t have said anything of the sort. She said nothing offensive or inaccurate in her original comments. In fact, it’s her critics who are being dishonest about what’s happening in the open-air drug market of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District and who are doing a disservice to the poor, immigrant communities on whose behalf they claim to speak. And by conflating professional drug dealers with regular immigrant families, it is they who are being xenophobic and racist.

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In its story about Mayor Breed’s apology, the Los Angeles Times took the opportunity to further smear the mayor, who is black, with the allegation of racism. The article quotes Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, who heads a local non-profit advocacy group for Central American refugees, comparing Mayor Breed to L.A. City Councilmember Nury Martinez (who recently drew national attention for making disparaging remarks about blacks and other people) and, for good measure, Donald Trump. Dugan-Cuadra goes on to repeat precisely the disinformation about San Francisco drug dealers that Breed was trying to correct in her initial interview: “I think any young person with migratory status whose only option to survive is existing in an underground economy is a reflection of our society,” Dugan-Cuadra told the Times. “Young people should have more opportunities to fulfill their dreams, and shouldn’t be excluded and criminalized.”

This is a line that’s parroted quite a bit in San Francisco politics. The former District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, who was recalled last summer, said much the same thing. So did San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju, who, in a recent press release, described drug dealers as “individuals struggling with substance use disorders or trapped in an exploitative drug trade.”

Raju has used this sentimental characterization of San Francisco’s drug dealers to cast cops who try to enforce the city’s drug laws as bigots. Last March, in a motion in San Francisco Superior Court, Raju accused a police officer of racial discrimination against Latinos in his arrests. According to the motion, over a two-year period, Sergeant Daniel Solorzano arrested 53 people for drug sales, all of whom were Latino. He declined to arrest 43 others, all but two of whom were non-Latino. This, the public defender alleges, demonstrates that Solorzano, who is of Mexican and Nicaraguan heritage and whose first language is Spanish, is prejudiced against Latinos.

But there’s another explanation for why everyone Solorzano arrested was Latino, which is precisely what Mayor Breed was trying to explain: The professional drug dealers who work in the Tenderloin and the adjacent SoMa neighborhood are all Honduran nationals. This is because Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, which does not practice Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in its hiring practices, recruits the dealers from Honduras and smuggles them into the United States. So, if you arrest any number of these dealers, they’re all going to be Latino. This is not “racial profiling.” This is just a fact.

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I live in Oakland and report on the San Francisco drug trade. As every one of the cops, prosecutors, social workers, recovering addicts, homeless people, relatives of addicts and others I’ve interviewed could tell you, the Honduran dealers, who, on the street, are called “the Hondos,” are not people “whose only option to survive is existing in an underground economy,” as Dugan-Cuadra put it, or who would work as dishwashers if only given the chance.

These are young men who easily clear $1,000 a day in profits, according to a former San Francisco Assistant District Attorney, a current ADA, and two former Tenderloin street addicts I’ve spoken to. Nor are they addicts trying to support their habit. In fact, as former street addict Tom Wolf told me, if dealers develop a drug addiction, the cartel is liable to cut them off, because addicted dealers are bad for business.

These are also people who are capable of violence. They’re known to carry guns and machetes, and to threaten users who owe them money. Jacqui Berlinn told me that her son, Corey, an addict in the Tenderloin, was attacked by a drug dealer with a machete and hospitalized from his injuries. Another mother, Gina McDonald, told me that her daughter, a recovering addict, was threatened by her dealer with a knife over $100.  These dealers are not victims of society. They’re victimizers.

But in San Francisco, none of this matters if someone calls you a “racist.” It’s a trump card Mano Raju plays frequently to protect not only his drug dealer clients, but the entire Sinaloa drug dealing operation in downtown San Francisco.

It’s the public defender’s job to represent drug dealers, and to do so zealously. But in San Francisco, the office has gone far beyond that. Raju, who has declined to allow me to interview him, has pursued legal strategies aimed not just at defending individual dealers but at preventing the city from disrupting the drug trade at large. His motion accusing Daniel Solorzano of racism, which, if upheld, could lead to serious discipline including termination, was an unsubtle warning to police officers who are motivated to do their jobs. 

Recently, Raju gloated over the city’s decision to abandon its effort to impose stay-away orders on 28 known drug dealers in the Tenderloin, a move that was fought by his office and the ACLU. These stay-away orders would have prevented these dealers from peddling deadly poison that kills close to two people a day in San Francisco, and the dealers wouldn’t have had to go to jail. They wouldn't even have been on house arrest. Even though they’re undocumented, under the orders, they could have gotten jobs and lived normal lives. The only thing they couldn’t have done is hang out in the Tenderloin without advance permission from the court. Considering the dealers all live across the Bay in Oakland, that’s hardly a major inconvenience.

But the public defender, along with the ACLU, regarded this as the height of “criminalization” of “Latinx community members.” Again, there’s that same accusation: racism.

Does Mano Raju really believe that “Latinx community members” in San Francisco want him to protect Honduran drug dealers in the name of racial justice for Latinos? There are many Latino immigrant families in the Tenderloin, alongside Vietnamese families, Yemeni families, and families of myriad other nationalities and ethnic groups. They all face the same problem: Every time they walk out on the street, they have to shield their kids from people smoking meth and shooting heroin, and from groups of drug dealers with backpacks full of drugs and weapons. They face the ever-present threat of random violence, which is common in the neighborhood. 

These regular, working class people want normal lives. But the drug market, which the public defender fights so hard to keep open, makes that impossible.

The most racially offensive thing I come across in my reporting on this subject is this casual equivalence between professional drug dealers and working class Latinos. When Mayor Breed asked that question—“Why do people who deal drugs have more rights than people who try to get up and go to work every day and take their children to school?”—she was specifically making a distinction between the two. The public defender and his allies, on the other hand, take every opportunity to obscure this difference in order to cast any attack on drug dealers as an attack on the very people whose existence the drug dealers make into a daily walk through hell. It’s deeply cynical and, yes, racist. 

The apology Mayor Breed’s critics extracted from her was not for her “racism.” They were upset because she told the unvarnished truth. We live in a time when public debates are won not through empirical arguments, but through ideological brow-beating and moral scolding. That’s the only way to win when the facts aren’t on your side.

If you want to read more about San Francisco’s public policies regarding drug use and homelessness, don’t miss this story by Michael Shellenberger.

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