Not long after Thanksgiving this year, I went to San Francisco’s Japantown (“Jtown” to locals). Surrounded by commodities for sale and in a high rent district I was reminded of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous remark, “La propriété, c’est le vol!, which is usually translated as “Property is theft.” That’s the kind of remark I’d expect from a nineteenth-century French anarchist, though I can imagine Vittorio De Sica, the director of the 1948 classic film The Bicycle Thief, saying something very similar, if not the same. You might remember that the Italian worker whose bicycle is snatched by a thief becomes a thief and steals a bicycle.
On the post-Thanksgiving expedition to Jtown, I was accompanied by two Japanese-American sisters, Tomoko and Atsuko, both of whom were born in Japan after World War II and who have lived most of their adult lives in the U.S. Both of them are married to American men. Their husbands were at home working. Atusko’s teenage daughter joined us and did the driving. She wanted to shop and so did her mother and her aunt. I went along for the cross-cultural experience. The sisters sat in the backseat on the ride to Jtown and conversed in Japanese the whole time. “Are they talking about us?” I asked Atsuko’s daughter. “No, she said. “They’re talking about my grandparents in Japan who are now in their 90s.”
Theft and robbery are a big deal in San Francisco these days. The daily paper, The Chronicle, writes about the “mass heists” and adds that they have made merchants jittery. The heisters are definitely organized criminals. They have plans of attack and plans to get away. As one friend tells me, “I’d hate to be an unorganized criminal.”
I didn’t notice any sign of merchant jitters in Jtown. Thieves would have been dumb to try to rob any of the Jtown stores and restaurants on the day I was there with Tomoko and Atsuko. There were too many people crowded closely together with no easy, obvious escape routes.
Some of the heisters have hit high-end stores like Louis Vuitton and Nordstrom’s and made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise. But the most popular targets for the heisters in the city have been stores that belong to the Walgreens chain, which are in nearly every neighborhood. SF cops have been stationed at the entrance to many of the Walgreens, including the one on Montgomery Street in the Financial District, an area that bulges with banks, sleek glass and steel office buildings and high end boutiques aimed at tourists.
Sgt. Ciudad was on duty on the day I stopped to buy a charger for my smartphone. He wore a spiffy bright blue uniform and he had a gun in his holster. What’s more he was eager to talk. “Why is it that thieves hit Walgreens more often than any other chain?” I asked. Ciudad had a ready answer.
“Easy access for one,” he said. “The people who work at Walgreens aren’t trained to deal with thieves and there are usually no private security guards in the stores. Thieves get in, clear the shelves, dump the merc into bags, exit fast and get together with hooks, who dispose of the goods. The people who buy the loot don’t itemize. They look inside, see there’s shampoo or toiletries, estimate a dollar value, hand over the cash and usually sell the stuff out of town.”
He added, “I’m an immigrant. I came to this country because there’s freedom here, but we can’t allow the freedom to steal stuff and then sell it. If we did, society would fall apart and we’d be like the country I came from.”
Ciudad said that he’d been on the police force for 24 years and that he’d never seen crime this bad. On another day, a different cop stood guard. He told me he’d been on the force for 30 years and that it was worse now than ever before.
SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whom the cops strongly dislike, promised to prosecute the heisters. “These are not petty thefts,” he was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Examiner. “This is not misdemeanor conduct. This is felony conduct and we are charging felonies.”
Boudin has made a name for himself by eliminating cash bail, which for decades has favored folks with money over folks without it. Post bail and you walk. Don’t post it and you remain behind bars, whether you’re guilty or not. Boudin knows a lot about the law, bail and felonies not only from law school, but also from his own family. His mother, Kathy Boudin and father, David Gilbert, once members of the Weather Underground, were arrested for an attempted robbery of a Brinks Armored Vehicle some 40 years ago. Neither of them fired a gun, though the State went after them big time. Chesa was a child at the time of the “botched” Brinks robbery and had no idea of his parents’ plan to “liberate” some cash. Police officers and their families vowed that the wanna-be thieves would never see daylight again, but Kathy and David’s friends, families and lawyers waged a campaign to secure their release.
After serving long prison terms they were both released, first Kathy and then David, who wrote books while behind bars and helped educate inmates about HIV/AIDS. He survived his long ordeal with dignity, and was often visited by Chesa. At one time, Gilbert, like many in the radical movements of the Sixties, believed that “property is theft,” and that true revolutionaries might liberate stuff, including money, and not be guilty of committing an ordinary felony. He and Kathy Boudin saw themselves as motivated by political ends and not as criminals who wanted cash for themselves. New York State didn’t see it that way and prosecuted them to the max.
Gilbert was released in part because he expressed remorse for his actions.
I didn’t see any cops in Jtown, and no security guards neither, not in Benihana, where one of the chefs was making beautiful fried rice, not in Kinokuniya, the bookstore and more, where they sell glossy Japanese magazines, guidebooks to Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa, and historical tomes about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, nearly eighty years to the day before we wandered in and out of the Jtown shops. In Mai Do, where pens and paper were for sale, a sign at the cash register read, “We are not accepting new hundred dollar bills because there are so many of them in circulation. Sorry.”
There are many ways for thieves to steal.
The last store we visited was Nijiya, the ultra modern supermarket, where the two serious ladies from Osaka bought products imported from Japan, which they couldn’t buy in the U.S. My head was still in France, with Proudhon so when I saw that the new batch of Beaujolais Nouveau was on sale, I bought a bottle.
On the way out of Nijiya, I picked up a copy of Nichi Bei Weekly, the free newspaper for the Japanese community. The front page carried a headline that read “Unprecedented Apology: University of Southern California to award posthumous degrees to Nisei.” On page three, the reporter explained, “The University of Southern California announced that it hopes to atone in the spring of 2022 for the discriminatory actions it took against Japanese-American students who had their college careers disrupted by the university when they and their families were expelled from the West Coast and imprisoned in concentration camps in World War II.”
The paper didn’t call those actions “theft,” but that’s what they seemed to me to be. The students were robbed of their education and their degrees.
Now, Tomoko, Atsuko, her daughter and I were hungry. For some reason, I don’t remember exactly why, we decided to go to a Chinese restaurant on Taraval that has great dim sum. We’re in the habit of going there. The food is authentic. The two sisters didn’t have proof that they had been vaccinated and weren’t allowed inside. So, we got food to go and ate in my backyard. Atsuko’s daughter knew Proudhon’s remark about property as theft. She’d heard it in school. But she told me that years after Proudhon lobbed his initial bombshell he talked about contradictions and added, “Property is freedom.”
Could it be both, I wondered? Theft and freedom.
Sgt. Ciudad would have none of it. “Theft is theft,” he told me when we next met. He was still on duty guarding the Walgreens on Montgomery Street. I had the feeling that he or another officer would be there through Christmas and New Year’s Eve to protect property.
On that same day, on my way to the Montgomery stop for the N-Judah streetcar I stood on the corner of California and waited for the light to change. An elderly albeit spry woman stood next to me. We both looked at a man on the corner opposite us. He had a shopping cart piled high with shiny shirts and shiny pants that looked like they might have been stolen.
“The city needs to do something about the homeless,” the woman said. “We need a new mayor and a new board of supervisors. We need people who care.”
In Union Square, the city’s big, luxury-item shopping center, merchants had boarded up windows and hired armed guards. Meanwhile, DA Chesa Boudin, who is fighting to keep his job, indicted thieves on felony charges.
The French novelist, Honore de Balzac, I remembered, once said, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” Mario Puzo used that quotation in The Godfather, his novel about the mafia.
Balzac had Paris and the wealth of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie in mind, but his comment applies not only to the mafia, but also to San Francisco, the city that was created by the gold rush, when precious ore was ripped from the mountains, and when the railroad tycoons—Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Henry E. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker—hijacked the State of California, fleeced its citizens, made millions, and established libraries and Stanford University in their names. Their great crimes created great fortunes, and gave them unprecedented freedom at the expense of the many. Too bad DA Chesa Boudin can’t nail them and their heirs. I suppose the statute of limitations has passed.