When an upmarket clothing brand shuttered its San Francisco store last month, its boss said the west coast destination was a “city of chaos” where gangs of criminals roam free, robbing businesses at will.
The closure of Cotopaxi seemed to confirm everything the Republican Party has been saying about rising crime in the United States in the run up to the midterm elections.
“Our store is hit by organized theft rings several times per week,” wrote CEO Davis Smith in a viral social media post.
“They brazenly enter the store and grab thousands of dollars of product and walk out.
“Our team is terrified. They feel unsafe,” he wrote.
The swanky Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco where Cotopaxi’s now-closed storefront sits is a mix of cozy cafes, antique shops, designer jewelry stores and tony restaurants, where well-heeled tech entrepreneurs and visiting celebrities like Michelle Obama hang out.
Dozens of stores fill the three leafy blocks, selling everything from top-of-the-range electric bikes to one-of-a-kind designer clothes.
So a business saying it is closing its doors because the area is a crime-ridden free-for-all certainly got attention, says Lloyd Silverstein, president of the Hayes Valley Merchants Association.
“I think he wanted to make a statement,” Silverstein told AFP.
Silverstein, who runs a designer eyewear store, said association members have seen a big upswing in broken storefronts and thefts.
A message group they set up to alert fellow merchants to danger was quickly swamped.
“I was receiving messages every ten minutes,” he says.
“We’ve been waving our hands with the police for a long time saying, ‘Hey, pay attention to us. We’ve got a problem here.'”
But nothing seemed to concentrate the minds of public officials until the fireworks of Cotopaxi’s closure.
“That was I think what tipped the scales. Now this is front page news. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Two police officers now patrol Hayes Valley, and the merchants’ association message board is much quieter.
Security concerns are not unique to Hayes Valley, nor to San Francisco, which this year voted to recall its progressive attorney general after a campaign accusing him of being weak on crime.
For Robert Barnwell of the Hayes Valley public safety committee, the problems are state- and nationwide, and boil down to a lack of police — a deficit caused by what he says is their loss of prestige and their relatively poor salaries.
As the two beat officers walk by, returning his wave, Barnwell says their presence is a major deterrent for wrongdoers, but it also helps remind merchants to take their own precautions.
“You have to put cameras in, train employees how to prevent shoplifting,” he says.
“You have to teach them how to have proper protection because they (criminals) are going to keep coming back.”
With America heading to the polls on November 8 to elect national, state, county and city leaders, crime is the number two issue on people’s minds, according to polling by Gallup, which found 71 percent say it is a very or extremely important factor in deciding their ballot.
According to the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank, 29 cities — including Democratic bastions San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York — have logged an increase in property crimes this year.
Republican candidates up and down the ballot in every race are hammering the issue, accusing their Democratic opponents of being soft on crime.
“We are a nation where… crime is rampant and out of control,” former president Donald Trump told supporters in Iowa on Thursday.
But the Republican message distilled by Trump’s customary hyperbole masks a more nuanced reality.
Homicides and armed robberies, for example, are falling.
And, say Democrats, it’s a message designed simply to spook voters.
“They don’t want to solve a problem… They are just trying to gin up all kinds of fear and anxiety in people,” former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told CNN this week.
While dyed-in-the-wool supporters of both parties might subscribe to what their side is saying, other voters feel caught in the crossfire between politicians who refuse to look at the bigger picture.
“How can we live like this? you tell me,” said Anthony Jackson, gesturing to a sidewalk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco where more than a dozen homeless people huddled.
“This is not an easy fix; it’s not just the police, it’s not just the district attorney, it’s us, all of us working together,” the 58-year-old teacher said.
“But instead we just have politicians pointing fingers, ‘it’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault.'”