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Bari Weiss debate on crime in the city draws hundreds, many from the suburbs

Is it even a debate if most minds seem to be made up?

Five individuals are seated on stage under a large sign reading "The America Debates," hosted by The Free Press and FIRE, engaging in a discussion or debate.
Lara Bazelon speaks as Kmele Foster, Bari Weiss, Micheal Shellenberger and Seneca Scott listen on stage at The America Debates at Cowell Theater in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

A spicy political event drew crowds to a northern neighborhood in San Francisco on Thursday. And it wasn’t focused on Donald Trump.

While venture capitalist David Sacks held a fundraiser for the former president at his Pacific Heights estate, about one mile away, the Cowell Theater’s more than 400 seats were packed to the brim for a debate revolving around the question: has criminal justice reform made our cities unsafe?

The affair was hosted by Bari Weiss, the former New York Times columnist who now runs the online publication The Free Press. Earlier in the day, Weiss tweeted that the Fort Mason event was sold out. In an email seen by The Standard, Weiss had personally also invited a who’s who of right-leaning tech personalities to the debate, including Elon Musk, David Sacks, Marc Andreessen, Palmer Luckey and Joe Lonsdale. None were spotted in attendance.

A woman with long dark hair and glasses is speaking passionately at a podium, wearing a black blazer over a white top, with a blue background behind her.
The Free Press co-founder Bari Weiss hosted The America Debates event on the topic of criminal justice reform. | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

When the show began, a narrator provided a wry trigger warning that guests may at times be offended by the panelists’ comments—if that disturbs you, take a moment to search for the nearest exit so you can see yourself out. 

Videos of brazen shoplifters and dirty San Francisco streets played on the screen, noting that many retailers have shuttered their stores in the city. The audience groaned at a clip of President Joe Biden insisting that violent crime has gone down in the U.S. 

The conversation felt old hat for a city that has become a poster child for post-pandemic urban decay. Even relative newcomers likely remember that voters recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2022. The brief mentions of Boudin led to some audible hisses from the overwhelmingly white crowd. 

But for all the consternation about San Francisco’s challenges—shoplifting, homelessness, feces on the sidewalk—the audience appeared to be…not particularly San Franciscan. In fact, many in the crowd seemed to have popped in from the suburbs looking to confirm their perception that something has gone wrong in San Francisco, and no one is fixing it.

Several attendees had dropped in from Marin County. A handful of others said they lived across the East Bay.

One attendee, Dalton Hirsh, 21, was from Indiana, where he currently studies agriculture at Purdue University. He woke up before the crack of dawn to hop a flight that landed at 2 p.m. so he could attend the 7 p.m. debate and planned to take a 7 a.m. plane out the next day.

The image shows a debate flyer with blue text on a white background asking, "Has criminal justice reform made our cities unsafe?" with an image of handcuffs.
In an opening poll, 87% of attendees said they believed that criminal justice reform meant less public safety. That number dropped to 76% after the debate.   | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

“I’m a big admirer of Bari Weiss,” Hirsh said. He said he discovered Weiss’s work last fall and also flew to an event she hosted in Dallas earlier this year. This trip was his first visit to San Francisco. 

He said he was surprised to see people stumbling on the sidewalks when he arrived at his hotel at the edge of the Tenderloin and Union Square, noting some were loitering, while one man attempted to get through the revolving doors with his cart full of garbage. 

Hirsh said he appreciated the debate even though he disagreed with some of the viewpoints. “It’s important to have dialogues about uncomfortable topics,” he said. “You don’t always agree with everybody. I certainly didn’t. That’s the point.”

The debate pitted Michael Shellenberger, author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities” (you can guess what side he took) and Oakland activist and former mayoral candidate Seneca Scott, against Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco and libertarian pundit Kmele Foster.

At the start of the event, Weiss asked the audience to vote on the central question of the evening to gauge whether anyone would change their mind. The vast majority of attendees, 87%, said they believed that criminal justice reform meant less public safety. 

After closing arguments, Weiss polled the audience again. The numbers had shifted slightly; 11% of people changed their minds and decided they would answer “no” when asked if criminal justice reform had made cities unsafe. 

But as evidenced by the data, most minds were already made up. 

Willy Pell, 46, moved to Mill Valley about two and a half years ago. At the afterparty, where servers passed out toasts with slices of steak and little cups of fried chicken, Pell described the event that prompted his departure from Bernal Heights.  

A large group of people, mostly older men, are seated in a dark auditorium, attentively listening. They wear name tags and appear engaged in the event.
The crowd at the event was overwhelmingly white with many traveling to Fort Mason from the East Bay and Marin County. | Source: Adahlia Cole for The Standard

Three men broke into his garage and used power tools to sever the lock to steal one of his family’s bikes. The police took three hours to arrive and wouldn’t take action. “It was a home invasion with people brazen enough to use power tools inside someone’s house in the middle of the night, and they weren’t going to do anything about it,” Pell said. “This city doesn’t care anymore.”

Melinda Bagatelos, 48, also moved to Mill Valley after 20 years living in San Francisco and Oakland. She said she came to the theater in Fort Mason because “I’m in love with Bari Weiss.” 

After the debate, she said “every single one of them opened my mind to the nuance of the argument.” But, “my opinion didn’t change.”

At the close of the event, an audience member made one final point about the premise of the entire 90-minute discussion. 

“It’s a stupid question!” one man shouted from the crowd. Weiss thanked him.