Chol Soo Lee, who inspired pan-Asian movement, remembered for giving community strength and love


REMEMBERING AN ICON ­— Former members of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee and friends gathered to pay their final respects for Chol Soo Lee Dec. 2. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

REMEMBERING AN ICON ­— Former members of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee and friends gathered to pay their final respects for Chol Soo Lee Dec. 2. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly
REMEMBERING AN ICON ? Former members of the Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee and friends gathered to pay their final respects for Chol Soo Lee Dec. 2.
photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

Chol Soo Lee, a Korea-born immigrant to the United States, passed away early Dec. 2 in San Francisco, according to Richard Kim, a professor at the University of California, Davis who worked with Lee on his upcoming memoir. Lee became a national rallying point for Asian Americans after being falsely convicted of murder, leading to a decade-long ordeal of incarceration, half of which was spent on death row.

Approximately 50 people gathered Dec. 9 at the Yeolaisah Korean Buddhist Temple in San Bruno, Calif. Kim organized the memorial with others who were close to Lee. The service featured a remembrance by Ranko Yamada, one of the first activists to rally support for Lee, and a eulogy by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who pursued a career in law because of Lee’s case.

Lee, born Aug. 15, 1952, arrived in San Francisco from Korea when he was 9 years old. In 1973, when Lee was 20, he was arrested for the murder of a Chinatown gang leader after three white witnesses identified Lee as the killer. The evidence against him was shaky, however, and police suppressed conflicting evidence. Once convicted, he was sent to Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., where he ran into more trouble after a fellow inmate, Morrison Needham, attempted to kill him Oct. 8, 1977. Lee, having killed Needham in self-defense, was charged with murder and sentenced to death row at San Quentin, Calif. until his 1982 aquittal for the Chinatown murder and the 1983 reversal for the Needham stabbing.

Eulogizing a Victim of the System

The Free Chol Soo Lee Movement created a new generation of activists and organizers. Adachi said his drive to go into law came from the movement. “The Chol Soo Lee movement was born, and although it was fledging at the time, there were committees in Sacramento, Bay Area, Los Angeles, even in Chicago and New York. Support came from all over the country, even Korea. But most of it came from Korean senior citizens and church-goers, and Asian American activists. Chol Soo Lee was our community’s George Jackson (a jailed Black Panther member),”? Adachi said. “He was a victim of racism, the prison-industrial complex, prison gangs, lawyers who didn’t do their jobs, police officers who hid evidence. When I think back to it now, I wonder how we even thought that we could win.”? Adachi said supporters could not have continued but for Chol Soo Lee’s own “burning desire for justice.”

Adachi recalled the retrial’s verdict. “The courtroom was packed. The verdict was announced ‘not guilty.’ Time stopped. Chol Soo turned to the audience and thanked everyone. And then he turned to the prosecutors … and the police, and he said ‘you should never do this again.’”?

Adachi said, with no re-entry programs to rely on, Chol Soo Lee had difficulties adjusting to life outside of prison. “I think there were times when Chol Soo felt he let down the community or let his supporters down but, … know that we let you down. We didn’t understand how hard it was for you to live on the outside, but in the end you did more for us than we can ever do for you,”? he said. Adachi said Lee’s case is “more relevant and significant today than ever,”? referring to the ongoing issues with racism within the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island in New York, where grand juries have declined to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of African Americans Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

To conclude the eulogy, Adachi asked everyone in attendance to chant with him: “Free, Free Chol Soo Lee.”

Not a Failure

Lee told the Nichi Bei Weekly last year that he had gotten involved with drugs after he was released from prison. While he worked as a janitor in San Francisco and a union organizer in Los Angeles, he later quit and became involved with gang activity. In 1991, Lee was involved in a botched arson attempt that left him with burns on more than 80 percent of his body.

Kim and Yamada offered their remembrances of Lee and read prepared remembrances from others. Lee’s story spanned more than four decades of connections, from people like Yamada who knew Lee before the murder, to Kim, who met Lee in 2005.

Kim said Doris Yamasaki, a close friend of Lee since his arrival in the United States, was present with Lee when he passed away and notified him of Lee’s death. According to Kim, Lee had been hospitalized since Nov. 18 as a result of his injuries from the fire, and declined an operation on Dec. 1 before passing away.

“Though he was in poor health, he was always so strong and resilient. And so when Doris informed me of his passing … I was truly in shock.”

Kim shared a message from Brenda Sunoo, a Los Angeles-based Korean American journalist and friend of Lee. “Chol Soo was always very stubborn and in control of what medical advice he took or not. So in the end, he decided he had enough and passed after making his own choices, and in that respect, he died in character,”? he read.

Kim read a remembrance from Sandra Gin, a Houston-based Emmy Award-winning journalist who produced a documentary on Lee’s case entitled “Perceptions ? A Question of Justice.”? “I always sensed Chol could never live up to his supporters’ expectations. He carried a huge burden that most people never experience, how could he repay a whole community for saving his life?” Kim read. “But Chol did repay us in two important ways. First, he became a powerful spokesperson for the plight of exonerated prisoners and their re-entry into society. Second, his struggle inspired us to stand up for justice then and now. Chol galvanized a generation that found its voice in the movement.”?

Yamada, one of the main figures who rallied support for Chol Soo Lee and is credited by K.W. Lee (no relation to Chol Soo Lee), a former Sacramento Union reporter who wrote more than 100 articles on Lee’s case, as the catalyst for his investigative reporting and the entire movement, spoke at the memorial. She first read a statement from Stuart Hanlon, Chol Soo Lee’s attorney. Hanlon noted that Chol Soo Lee had feared letting his supporters down, confiding with him right before walking out of prison. “A few weeks ago, he talked of this moment, as if it was yesterday, he said he had failed and that he was ashamed,” Yamada read. “I told him he had not failed, because he had tried.”

Hanlon wrote that Lee became increasingly angry at himself as he grew older. “But his will did not waver, nor did his expressed love for those who had fought so hard for his freedom … The lasting legacy of Chol Soo Lee’s life is not simply Chol as an individual, but more so what he became to mean and stand for to the Asian American community.”

Yamada read her own remarks following Hanlon’s. “Sixty-two years seems too young to die, especially now, because I’m the same age, but Chol Soo lived so many lifetimes in those short years. It’s a wonder he lived that long,” she said. Yamada noted his optimism and faith in life and acknowledged the benefits the Asian American community reaped from his hardship. “The horror of his case … rife with prejudice, institutional racism and unbelievable corruption … honed our politics and consciousness. His remarkable life inspired our own. I wish there had been more joy in his life, but I do know the joy and beauty he experienced mainly came from those in this room and those who wished they could come here today.”

The Ven. Seoljo Lee, who led the memorial in a Buddhist chant, shared a few words in Korean to Chol Soo Lee, breaking into tears toward the end. Kim read a prepared translation in English following him. He expressed his own remorse and shame for being unable to assist Lee following his freedom. “I met Chol Soo for the first time in Stockton when he was released on bail. I wished he would live as an ordinary citizen, neither as a criminal nor hero, from that time on,”? he said. “It is most regretful that I did not assist him to live as an ordinary citizen.”

Remembering Chol Soo Lee

Others attending the ceremony also shared their memories of Lee. Gail Whang, who helped organize the defense committee, said she and other Korean Americans were moved to help after K.W. Lee shared Chol Soo Lee’s story. “People could relate to it. They could relate their own struggles. It galvanized the community and spread like wild flower,”? she said.

Peggy Saika said she and other activists in Sacramento started the defense committee there and Saika later went on to start the committee in New York with her husband, Art Chen. She tearfully recalled the calls she got from Lee in New York. “I’ll forever be grateful to know you in such a deeply personal way … All the love and support that you received from the community, you gave back to us in spades,” she said.

Grace Yoo, who teaches Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, said she would invite Lee to speak in some of her classes. “When I would tell him something about a student or he knew something about a student (about a personal or familial experience with incarceration)… he connected with the students. He intentionally tried to connect, and some of them he stayed in contact for many years,”? she said.

Emily Han Zimmerman, who helped edit Lee’s memoir with Kim, spoke about the unapologetic frankness Lee had in describing his 10 years of incarceration. While those outside fought for truth and justice, Zimmerman said Lee fought for survival. “Chol Soo’s memory does not describe a fight for truth and justice, but rather one man’s fight to maintain his individual pride and character within prison society by rising to the top of that world.” Kim said the book, which has been 20 years in the making, is in its final stages of editing and due out for publication in a year and-a-half.

Speaking last, K.W. Lee stood to speak with a wooden staff Chol Soo Lee carved for him. He lamented that Chol Soo Lee suffered an injustice that should never have happened. “He died a hundred deaths in that god-d—– living hell called the California prison system. And then even in the free world he suffered a thousand deaths,”? he said. However, K.W. Lee lamented that others were not so lucky. “I spent seven years, 24/7 with Chol Soo Lee. During that time, I had 12 pleadings from parents of other Chol Soo Lees (those in a similar situation) … and I couldn’t lift a finger, and they’re still in prison now.”

Kim said in closing that Yamasaki asked him to spread the news of Lee’s death and the memorial following his death. “Within two hours, it was just amazing all the support that came from around the country … I think this is the legacy Chol Soo leaves behind, the networks, the friendships, the solidarity, the alliances that grew out of the movement.”

A memorial fund for Chol Soo Lee has been set up at Kim said the funds would go toward larger public memorial services and educational programs in Lee’s name.

One response to “Chol Soo Lee, who inspired pan-Asian movement, remembered for giving community strength and love”

  1. Scott Johnson Avatar
    Scott Johnson

    I had the honor to serve as foreman of the 1982 San Francisco retrial of Chol Soo Lee. Right after the verdict I joined the Committee To Save Chol Soo Lee and participate with the pan-Asian membership working toward gaining his ultimate freedom from prison, and spreading information of what is to be learned from his history with the legal system. I met Chol Soo Lee on three occasions over the years, first right after the trial in San Francisco while he was still imprisoned, when we spoke briefly and agreed to exchange some poetry by mail. I recall his sincere steadiness of gaze and expressive intelligence. On reading this article, I feel sure he would be pleased to know that his spirit lives on fighting for equality and justice.

    Scott Johnson
    San Rafael, California

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