Bob Lee deserved better than to be killed – and then co-opted in death | Joe Eskenazi

This story was published in collaboration with Mission Local.

Robert Harold “Crazy Bob” Lee died on the pavement in the wee hours last Tuesday after being stabbed while he walked through an abandoned street of downtown San Francisco.

He was 43, a father, and while the moments after a man’s violent, senseless death are not ideal for gleaning unvarnished opinions, the heartfelt tributes emanating from his many friends and loved ones made it clear that this was a better world with Lee in it. And he deserved far better than this.

While San Francisco police insist this was the 13th homicide this year, the medical examiner provided only 12 names. This is an area in which you’d like to have everyone on the same page and police have not answered our questions about this jarring discrepancy; they are apparently very busy working on the present case.

Little wonder: unlike those prior 11 (or 12) victims, the death of this successful tech executive quickly became international news. The preceding homicides, if they were noted in the press at all, were summarized in brief, rote articles hurriedly penned by young reporters. Most of these victims, in fact, were not judged to warrant print or visual news coverage at all. But they had lives and stories, too. Here are their names:

Gavin Boston, 40; Irving Sanchez-Morales, 28; Carlos Romero Flores, 29; Maxwell Maltzman, 18; Demario Lockett, 44; Maxwell Mason, 29; Humberto Avila, 46; Gregory McFarland Jr, 36; Kareem Sims, 43; Debra Lynn Hord, 57; and Jermaine Reeves, 52.

Bob Lee in an image on MobileCoin’s website, where he worked as chief product officer.Pin
Bob Lee in an image on MobileCoin’s website, where he worked as chief product officer. Photograph: MobileCoin

These victims’ deaths garnered minimal coverage and little in the way of international outrage, let alone mere acknowledgement on a local level. Justifiably or not, their deaths were not co-opted into being a bellwether for the state of San Francisco. Clearly, Lee’s was.

And this is unfortunate, in many ways. First of all, the public facts in the case remain vague; at present we simply have no idea what Lee was doing walking alone through a bereft section of downtown at 2.30 in the morning. We have no idea who stabbed him, or why. The fact he still had a phone in his hand to vainly call 911 in his dying moments points toward this being an entirely irrational, random attack – or one that was not random at all.

The decent thing to do is acknowledge a tragedy, express sorrow for those who have lost a treasured individual and let the police do their work with all due haste – and then we can begin politicizing this poor man’s death to buttress our pre-existing worldview.

But that hasn’t happened here. Among Lee’s fellow VCs and tech executives, this was presented as the latest and most egregious example of a wave of violent crime inundating San Francisco. Less-than-responsible news coverage quoted these allegations at face value, the way Ari Fleischer used to be quoted at face value talking about weapons of mass destruction. That’s a problem because the mere existence of crime, or even a specific crime deemed extra tragic by outside operators for rhetorical effect, does not create a crime wave.

The decent thing to do is acknowledge a tragedy, express sorrow and let the police do their work with all due haste

San Francisco’s street situation seems to bewilder many: the city is awash in visible homelessness, drug use, misery and chaotic behavior. That’s been the case for decades, but the drugs are now more dangerous and those who are suffering are more visible. Property crime rates are high: there is great wealth in this city and great wealth disparities and people steal things. Violent crime, however, is at near-historic lows. Homicides are low as well.

Does that mean San Francisco is “safe”? This is not an objective question. It depends on your definition of “safe”. San Francisco, or any large American city, will never be as “safe” as the suburbs many of its present residents grew up in – or Mayberry. It is asking a lot of San Francisco to provide the benefits of a big city but none of its drawbacks.

But, at the same time, San Francisco’s crime statistics reveal that it is safer than most other mid-to-large-sized cities, including those cited by the VC class as places to relocate to escape San Francisco’s crime problem. Year-by-year crime statistics also reveal that, however safe San Franciscans may or may not be – they’ve rarely been safer.

But they don’t feel safer. The perception of danger and menace – tents, drug use, chop shops, ranting people – outweighed any downward-trending crime chart you could show to people. Ousted DA Chesa Boudin found that out the hard way.

But now the problem transcends Boudin and is bedeviling the city writ large. In the wake of the pandemic and the rapid shift to remote work, the perception of lawlessness and danger is one the city can’t just brush aside. The city needs people to visit here, work here, buy overpriced salads here – and the image problem doesn’t help.

In the wake of the pandemic and the rapid shift to remote work, the perception of lawlessness and danger is one the city can’t just brush aside

So that’s new: in 2010, police were called after a woman’s remains were discovered in a suitcase that had been floating in the bay, just three-tenths of a mile from the spot where Lee would be fatally stabbed in 2023. And no newspaper would speculate if this crime would feed into a “doom loop” and imperil the city’s overall economic viability and expedite our metamorphosis to Detroit-by-the-Bay. No powerful businessmen or thirsty politicians or social media titans felt the need to use this case as an exemplar of ostensibly burgeoning San Francisco chaos (violent crime rates in 2010 were a shade worse than those in the present day).

This story would, in fact, receive minimal coverage at best. The victim was a 52-year-old Black woman named Pearla Louis. Make of that what you will.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the politicization of Lee’s killing is people plainly stating they simply don’t believe the city’s crime statistics. Not that they acknowledge them but still feel the way they feel – “yeah, but still… ” – but that they simply don’t believe them. With this in mind, when these same people talk about this killing being a call to action or an inflection point, one wonders where we may be inflecting to.

The only solutions proffered thus far to address residents’ perceptions of a crime wave are more cops, stiffer sentences and a return to the Governor Reagan-era incarceration of the mentally ill – which, regardless of what the legislature puts forth, will likely face legal challenges on civil rights grounds.

Of note, all of these things were hallmarks of past eras when violent crime rates were significantly higher.

I didn’t know “Crazy Bob”, and sadly only learned of him through his horrifying killing. But I’m not sure he’d want to be used, in death, to push forward punitive measures and a ramping up of mass incarceration.

In 2019, he tweeted: “Ignoring color is problematic because it precludes fixing institutional racism. Instead, see color, recognize that your black friends face challenges you don’t, and help move the world toward racial equity.”

In 2020, he tweeted: “If people you associate with say or do something racist and you don’t correct them – you are guilty of racism by association, which is just as bad, perhaps worse, since you know better. When it comes to racism, if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

After his death, he was mocked in the replies by ghouls who chalked up his violent killing as comeuppance for being woke.

Lee’s senseless death left many in agony. But that agony shouldn’t lead to false narratives and failed approaches that invariably lead to unintended consequences. We should know better.

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