30 YEARS AFTER CHOL SOO LEE: A case that gave birth to Asian American activists

KEY FIGURES ­— (From left to right): Grant Din, Chol Soo Lee, K.W. Lee and Richard Kim spoke as panelists in a “Chol Soo Lee: 30 Years of Freedom” panel held March 9. photo by Chris Fujimoto

KEY FIGURES ­— (From left to right): Grant Din, Chol Soo Lee, K.W. Lee and Richard Kim spoke as panelists in a “Chol Soo Lee: 30 Years of Freedom” panel held March 9. photo by Chris Fujimoto

The National Japanese American Historical Society hosted a retrospective March 9 entitled “Chol Soo Lee: 30 Years of Freedom” to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Chol Soo Lee’s release from prison. The event was held in conjunction with the nonprofit’s ongoing exhibit of Japantown Art and Media Workshop posters, created for community organizations and events in and around San Francisco’s Japantown by Asian American artists.

The exhibition featured two posters by Wes Senzaki promoting the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee’s work.

Former members of the movement, San Francisco State University students and community members listened to panelists Grant Din, Richard Kim, K.W. Lee and Chol Soo Lee (no relation).

Din, the forum’s moderator, was a member of the movement while working in the Midwest. He now works for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Richard Kim is an associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis; he first met Chol Soo Lee in 2005 to interview him and K.W. Lee for Amerasia Journal, and has since become the editor for Chol Soo Lee’s upcoming memoir. Noted investigative journalist K.W. Lee is a Korean immigrant said to be the first Asian reporter to work for a major American metropolitan newspaper. Chol Soo Lee, another Korean immigrant, was arrested in 1973 for a murder he did not commit, and was incarcerated for a decade before one of the nation’s first major pan-Asian American movements secured his release. He now gives talks to children in schools to discourage gang violence and drugs.

The Chol Soo Lee Case and Movement
In 1973, a youth gang advisor was gunned down in broad daylight in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Despite the many witnesses to the murder, only six white tourists came forward to identify the killer. Chol Soo Lee was arrested a few days later, and three of the six witnesses identified him as the possible killer. Based on that testimony, he was convicted of murder a year later.

Chol Soo Lee’s case became further complicated when he later killed an Aryan Brotherhood gang member in what he claimed as self defense at a prison yard fight in 1977. Around the same time, the Sacramento Union’s K.W. Lee was contacted to investigate Chol Soo Lee’s case. K.W. Lee, who had previously written an exposé on California’s state prison system, wrote more than 160 articles on Chol Soo Lee’s case to create the momentum needed for the movement.

K.W. Lee’s investigative series, which started in 1978, raised questions about the Chinatown murder and led to the formation of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee. Asian Americans from New York to Hawai‘i came together to question the first case’s ruling. Chol Soo Lee’s case was overturned in February of 1979 in Sacramento Superior Court, but he was soon sentenced to death for the prison murder, according to Din’s timeline of events.

In a 1982 retrial in San Francisco Superior Court, Chol Soo Lee was acquitted of the first murder and the second conviction for murder was reversed by California’s 3rd District Court in 1983, when he was finally released.

“Chol Soo’s case was a rallying point for Asian American activists in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,” Din said. Din emphasized that K.W. Lee’s reporting exposed a “story of suspect police work, crosscultural misidentifications and a lot of other things that sent an innocent man to jail.” According to the former defense committee member, the movement brought together people from all walks of life.

Kim later said during his presentation that the movement’s inclusion of both second and third generation Asian Americans, and new Asian immigrants who came to the U.S. after immigration reform in 1965, was also important in bridging members of the Asian American movement with newer generations of immigrants to the U.S.

“Within the movement were student activists, small business owners, lawyers, social workers, ministers, elderly immigrants, legal assistance organizations and even leftwing communist groups. The movement also generated transnational support from South Korea,” said Kim. “Ultimately, the movement … was the product of a coordinated effort of a truly disparate, heterogeneous group of people, making this an even more remarkable pan-Asian coalition.”

Kim contrasted the movement to earlier ones, which originated from the “radical Asian American left,” such as the I Hotel and ethnic studies at San Francisco State University.

Din credited Ranko Yamada, who he called the “heart and soul” of the Bay Area’s committee, for introducing him to the movement. During a time before the Internet and social media, Yamada, Din said, brought people together using the telephone, postal mail and word of mouth to pack courtrooms with supporters and hold rallies on the steps of the Hall of Justice. Yamada, who is currently an attorney practicing the San Francisco Bay Area, is described as the “glue” that held the movement together by many of the former defense committee members. Chol Soo Lee credits her for giving him hope even before the movement started, and eventually connecting many of the defense committee members. Yamada was not available to comment at press time.

Din biked from Seattle to San Francisco in 1981 to raise money for the defense committee with his friend Greg Tuai. He also worked at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio and helped spread the word through the unofficial “Midwest Committee to Free Chol Soo Lee.” Din later moved back to the Bay Area in 1982 and joined the group’s movement. He attended the trial every day while he was in between jobs.

Kim added that the group effort “represented the first successful pan-Asian political movement in Asian American history.” He said Chol Soo Lee also predates the Vincent Chin case and that it had, in many ways, provided the infrastructure for Chin’s pan-Asian movement. Chin was murdered in Detroit by two white men who mistook him for Japanese in 1982. His death spurred another national movement seeking justice.

Din and Kim also noted that the movement gave rise to a generation of accomplished Asian American political and community leaders.

“The Chol Soo Lee movement provided a catalyst for the politicization of a whole generation of young Asian Americans,” Kim said. “It opened their eyes to social inequalities and workings of institutional power in U.S. society. The grassroots organizing that developed out of the Chol Soo Lee movement produced an enduring vision of social change and social justice. This shaped the lifetime careers of many of the activists working in the movement at the time.”

These former members include Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender, and former California state Assembly member Warren Furutani.

Since his Acquittal
During his presentation, Chol Soo Lee started by thanking his supporters throughout his life. In particular, he thanked Steve Hong, who taught him how to adjust to life outside of prison. Hong’s older brother, Soon-Kyung Hong, was also involved with the movement as chairman of the Korean Center Inc. of San Francisco, a Korean American community center. Chol Soo Lee told the Nichi Bei Weekly that after prison, he worked at the community center as a janitor before moving to Los Angeles to become a union organizer.

Chol Soo Lee said that his plight is not just his own, that every month “someone is exonerated after 20 to 30 years of being imprisoned.” He asked, “where is the justice for not just them, but their families who suffer?”
Since his release from prison, however, Chol Soo Lee has had a tumultuous life.

“There are so many people who want me to succeed in this life somehow, and I’m trying to find that path,” he said during the panel. After moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, Chol Soo Lee started using drugs. At the time he had been in a long distance relationship with a woman in San Francisco, and when the relationship was not working out, he moved back to the city.

“In June of 1991, I got in touch with some people in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” he said. “One day they asked me to have a meeting … at night at this house.” He was contracted to burn the house down but got caught in the fire. About 90 percent of his body suffered burns and he was hospitalized for 19 months.

After being released from the hospital, he left San Francisco, but returned once again in 2003. He now lives to improve himself and others, especially youths, he said. “I try to reach out to young people to fight for a cause.”

Chol Soo Lee also started to work on his memoir since returning to San Francisco.

“It really just shows his brilliance,” Kim said about the memoir. Kim, who has been editing and transcribing the handwritten memoir for the past five years, went on to say that the memoir is especially important to youth born after 1982 for identifying the “social ironies of race and class in American society.”

While the movement to free Chol Soo Lee is well documented (including a documentary presented by Emmy Award-winning journalist Sandra Gin, “Perceptions — A Question of Justice”), his story from behind bars is still largely unknown.

“His memoir gives a blow by blow account of his experiences in prison, the steps he had to take to survive on a daily basis,” Kim said. “The memoir also shows he fought for survival in this parallel world of California State Prison which was almost invisible to his supporters.” Kim said the memoir explores a morally complex and strikingly different story of survival from within the California State Prison System, which experienced the height of racial violence during the 1970s and 1980s, in vivid detail.

A Call for New Media Warriors
K.W. Lee finished the panel with his thoughts on Chol Soo Lee and the state of Asian Americans in U.S. society. He explained how all mainstream media outlets, progressive and liberal or not, had never cared about Asian American issues. He said that, even in San Francisco, the mainstream press ignores them despite the waves of Asian immigrants passing through the city for the last two centuries. Instead, he said, the mainstream press promotes the fear of yellow peril, such as during the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

“In March 1974, I kept hearing pleading calls from San Francisco,” he said regarding the initial requests for him to cover Chol Soo Lee’s case. “I said why don’t you go to Chronicle and Examiner? … Every local newspaper is king, every local newspaper is the beginning of American democracy. … And they said, ‘yes, we did! They don’t give a s–t about Asians.’”

Representation of Asians have largely remained unchanged, according to K.W. Lee, who said the media still focuses on a black and white paradigm despite the great influx of immigrants from Latino and Asian countries.

He also lamented that after his release, Chol Soo Lee was largely forgotten by most of his supporters. He asked for “one ‘Ranko Yamada’ or one ‘Grant Din’ among our latest generation of digital warriors” to stand up and make their voices heard in the digital age. “With our computers, we can bypass the white media. One Korean boy could reach a billion people.”

Also gathered at the retrospective were several members of the defense committee. Gail Whang, who helped coordinate the defense committee members, said the “Sacramento Union touched all of us,” and drew support from Koreans attending churches and schools, even those not politically active. Tom Surh, the former commissioner of Alameda County Superior Court, was also present. Surh had, as a younger lawyer, joined the defense committee as the first Korean American on the defense counsel. Soon-Kyung Hong was also present. David Yoo, director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Asian American Studies Center, also attended the retrospective.

Chol Soo Lee’s Supporters Span the Bay Area
While many other influential members in the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee did not attend the retrospective, several of them still hold Chol Soo Lee as a friend and their time working on the defense committee a major part of their lives.

Peggy Saika, currently the president and executive director of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, said she learned about the case from K.W. Lee and Korean American activist Jay Yoo while at the Asian Community Center in Sacramento, Calif. Saika helped put together the first flyer to raise awareness about Chol Soo Lee’s case, and later met with Yamada. Saika later moved to New York in 1978 and organized the defense committee there.

“There were 12 core members in the chapter,” Saika said by phone. “But there were many others involved too. They came from different sectors of the community.” Saika said her group was primarily focused on spreading awareness about the case to Asian Americans in her area.

“No one knew about Chol Soo. We tried our best to stay connected with the rest of the country,” she said. “This was all done at night and on weekends, but we gave the movement legitimacy as a national movement.”

Since working on the defense committee, Saika said the movement had established a network of contacts she would come to rely on since. She had gotten to know the Korean American community and the older active Nisei of New York along with those in the Chinatown Health Clinic in New York. She also said she went on to work for the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco to ensure people are given justice and the support they need after getting out of jail.

Saika, while busy as ever, said she has kept in touch with Chol Soo Lee, who used to call her from prison at 4 a.m. “I know what’s going on with him. We’re friends forever,” she said.

Saika, who is a Sacramento native, had encouraged others to look into Chol Soo Lee’s case, notably David Kakishiba, executive director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center, and Jeff Adachi. Kakishiba recalled how Saika, his friend and mentor, told him and Adachi to visit K.W. Lee at the Sacramento Union during the summer of 1978. At the time Kakishiba and Adachi, who were high school classmates from Sacramento, were roommates, entering their second year of college at the University of California, Berkeley. Through K.W. Lee they met Yamada, and became members of the defense committee.

“We were 19 years old, our work in the beginning was to educate and drum up support,” Kakishiba said. Through connections made in college and high school friends they put together fundraisers, such as large dances with live bands.

Adachi, who said he owed his career in law to his involvement with the defense committee, said the experience “opened my eyes.” Adachi said K.W. Lee’s writing inspired him to get involved. “He convinced us to look at his case,” he said.

While he did not initially plan on a career in law, Adachi said Chol Soo Lee’s acquittal was the most memorable experience he has ever had in a courtroom. “Having this exposure through the case, that brought the realization I wanted to be a public defender,” he said.

Adachi helped to write the “Ballad of Chol Soo Lee,” a folk rock song written to draw support for the cause, performed by a collection of Bay Area musicians and produced by the defense committee, according to Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo of Eth-Noh-Tec. Adachi, Kikuchi-Yngojo and Siu Wai Anderson, a writer, penned the song and performed it alongside other well-known musicians such as Peter Horikoshi and Sam Takimoto of “Yokohama, California” and percussionist Duke Santos.

“The song sheds light on the injustice of what happened in Chinatown … There was a lot of gang violence in Chinatown, the police just wanted to grab someone, anyone, to seem like they were doing something,” Kikuchi-Yngojo said.

Kikuchi-Yngojo added that the collaborative effort created a sense of camaraderie and inspired many artists to continue working as activists to this day.

“We didn’t know where it was going to go, but the Asian American Movement all across the country continued to grow.”

Kakishiba said he got involved with the movement because he identified with the sense of discrimination Asian Americans have faced. “You’re invisible, you all ‘look alike,’ there is a real lack of power,” he said. “I wanted to do something that was going to help make the country, the city, the community a fairer place.”

“If anything, I learned more about the distinction of help and harm that can be done by idealizing Chol Soo Lee,” Kakishiba said. As a younger member of the committee, Kakishiba drove Chol Soo Lee to various functions following his release from prison, giving him an opportunity to get to know the freed man more personally. “We tend not to see him as a real human being and project our idealism onto him.”

K.W. Lee recalled reading the more than 2,000 pages of court records from Chol Soo Lee’s case. “The real truth I found … in the last chapter of the Sacramento trial, in the last pages: the prosecutor summoned the San Francisco cop who arrested this boy,” he said. “He was asked to identify the person he arrested and he points a finger and goes ‘I have arrested this Chinese man.’ … Dead silence from the judge, dead silence from the prosecutor and dead silence from his own f——g defense lawyer, … There is not one rebuttal. … The criminal justice system is rotten to the core.”
K.W. Lee alluded to the fact that Cho Soo Lee was misidentified as Chinese.

Like Kakishiba, Adachi acknowledged that Chol Soo Lee may not be a model citizen.

“He is no angel,” Adachi said about Chol Soo Lee, “but what’s important is that he got justice for the crime he didn’t commit.”

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