SF DA's truth commission pushed back, yet again

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday November 5, 2021
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More delays for a truth and reconciliation commission that San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced more than a year ago. Photo: Rick Gerharter
More delays for a truth and reconciliation commission that San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced more than a year ago. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The formation of the truth, justice and reconciliation commission announced by San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin last year has been pushed back yet again.

Boudin, whom the San Francisco elections department declared this week would face a recall vote on the city's June 7 primary ballot, announced the commission July 1, 2020, in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. The top prosecutors in Boston and Philadelphia joined him, saying they would form commissions in their own cities.

Boudin's office subsequently stated that the commission would be a "public-private initiative" between his office and the W. Haywood Burns Institute, an Oakland nonprofit that received $150,000 from the San Francisco-based Grassroots Law Project.

In October, the B.A.R.was told by James Bell, the founder of the Burns institute, the commission topic and format was to have been decided upon by a design team at a September 17 meeting.

However, that didn't happen, according to attorney Fania Davis, who is involved in the project, because not enough of the design team could be present for that meeting. Davis told the B.A.R. that "people are focusing on sharing the truths about systemic disinvestment and the Black disappearance we've seen in San Francisco since 1970," but that this would be finalized at an October meeting.

Bell previously said the design team was still figuring out what kind of format the commission should have — one based on what was formed on South Africa or Canada.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1996, as the country emerged from apartheid. A court-like restorative justice body, it consisted of three committees and ended in 2003. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which lasted from 2008 to 2015, looked into crimes committed against First Nations at the Indian Residential Schools. It concluded with specific calls to action to reconcile Indigenous and other Canadians.

On October 27, the B.A.R. reached out to the Burns institute and the DA's office to ask if the topic and format was finalized at the meeting that month, which was closed to the public and the date of which was not disclosed.

The Burns institute never did respond to multiple requests for comment for this report, but the DA's office did. Rachel Marshall, the office's director of communications, stated to the B.A.R. October 28 that "These topics have not yet been decided as more community members' input is being sought."

Marshall offered the B.A.R. the opportunity to speak with Demarris Evans, an assistant district attorney who is following the commission's formation for the office. Due to staffing issues, Arcelia Hurtado, a bisexual woman who is the managing attorney in charge of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the DA's office, had to be reassigned, Evans said.

When the B.A.R. spoke with Evans November 5, Evans stressed that while Boudin announced the formation of the commission it is a "community-led" effort.

Evans said that nothing was decided at the October meeting.

"The last meeting didn't really happen because there were not enough community members present," Evans said, referring to members of the design team, not the general public.

When asked what date the meeting was supposed to have been held, Evans said "I don't remember. A few weeks ago. What difference does it make what day it was?"

When asked when the theme and format will be decided, Evans said, "hopefully we'll have another meeting in early December."

When asked if the Burns institute has a deadline to make these decisions, Evans said no.

"I don't know if we can speak for Burns," Marshall said.

Evans said that "the community is looking for healing and accountability from systemic partners," and so therefore the systemic partners (such as the DA's office) shouldn't dictate the terms to the community.

"It's really just a matter of trusting that the process is moving along," Evans said. "Sure, we would like for it to have happened yesterday."

When asked how the wider community can find healing and accountability if the commission hasn't been formed yet, Evans said "if you're looking forward to this happening, there's a lot of community members looking forward to it."

The status of the commissions in Boston and Philadelphia is unclear.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's office has not responded to multiple emails and phone calls from the B.A.R.

Suffolk County (Boston) District Attorney's Office Communications Director Matthew Brelis did, however.

In October, Brelis responded to an email asking if the commission had been formed, had met, and if not, why. "The office under DA Rachael Rollins has always had a restorative justice approach in how we handle things," he stated.

"The global pandemic has required us to adapt and reallocate our attention to deal with the disparities in health care, education, housing, and public health and public safety in some of the poorest communities in Suffolk County and in our BIPOC communities," Brelis continued. "That said, we continue to explore how the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission may be able to help the community and we seek community input."

Brelis did not respond to a follow-up email asking him to clarify if there will be a commission at some point and, if so, when.

Updated, 11/10/21: This article has been updated to note that DA Boudin will face a recall election on the city's June 7 ballot.

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