From law to film, activism by S.F. Public Defender Jeff Adachi


Jeff Adachi has been San Francisco’s elected public defender since 2002, and oversees an office of nearly 100 lawyers and 100 support staff. While known for his work in the courts and in San Francisco’s political sphere, Adachi is also a recognized documentary filmmaker and is premiering his latest film “Defender” at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed Adachi March 20 about his latest films as well as his work as a public defender fighting deportations sanctioned by President Donald Trump.

Litigator and Filmmaker
Adachi began making films on Asian Americans in media — including “The Slanted Screen” (2006), which takes on Hollywood’s stereotypes of Asian males, and “You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story” (2009), on actor Jack Soo (also known as Goro Suzuki). In recent years, however, he has also addressed racism more broadly in America. In 2016, he released “America Needs a Racial Facial,” which Adachi says tackles the entire breadth of racism in the United States’ history.

Working with two young novice filmmakers, Adachi began making “Racial Facial” as a tool to facilitate discussions on racism, especially among students. “It was at a time when there was tremendous racial tension, particularly in schools,” Adachi said. Posters put up in San Francisco’s Lowell High School for Black History Month sparked a walkout in February, 2016. “Typically what happens is an administrator apologizes and then a student is disciplined.

But, it just occurred to me that there really isn’t a way to educate people on the realities of racism.”

The film features 450 images and videos strung together into an eight-minute short documentary film depicting “the history of racism in an objective way,” Adachi explained.

“One thing that people miss, because it goes so fast, is the fact that, throughout history, different races — including whites, Asians, blacks, Latinos — worked together for social change and to fight racism and injustice,” Adachi said.

The film features figures who crossed racial lines in their activism, such as the late civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama.

The Role of Public Defender
Following “Racial Facial,” Adachi released “The Ride,” premiering the film in San Francisco during a private screening Feb. 19. The short 15-minute documentary follows Adachi as he picks up Michael Smith, a 22-year-old African American male charged with assaulting the police while being arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Originally, the Center for Asian American Media commissioned Adachi to create a film focusing on “racial justice,” but “The Ride” was then incorporated into Adachi’s latest 70-minute feature-length documentary, “Defender.”

While Adachi initially did not intend to make a film about Smith’s case, the idea came to him as Jim Choi, his co-director and cinematographer, interviewed and filmed Adachi and Smith one morning when Adachi picked Smith up for a court appearance. “I like it because it shows the underbelly of the criminal justice system that people often don’t see,” he explained, mentioning the film’s pre-trial focus.

“We play a critical role in litigating (racial bias) issues. If we don’t raise them, nobody else will,” Adachi said. “As public defenders, we’re the only ones that look out for the rights of individuals. We protect the Bill of Rights. We protect their constitutional rights. We ensure that the proper procedure is followed and that a person gets a fair trial.”

According to a 2013 report by the San Francisco’s Office of the Controller, 56 percent of the city’s prison population is African American while the United States Census Bureau estimated that just 5.7 percent of San Francisco’s residents were black in 2015. On top of that, a 2014 report from the Brookings Institution indicates that, while blacks and whites both have around the same rate of illegal drug usage in the United States, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for buying, using and selling drugs than whites.

“I train attorneys to raise these issues in bail hearings, in sentencing hearings,” Adachi said.

He said he hopes “Defender” will shed a more positive light on his profession. “Public defenders often get a bad wrap, and I know there are public defender offices out there that are top notch and are capable of providing even better representation than if you had paid somebody. I wanted to show that as part of this, and at the same time I wanted people to see that public defenders care about their clients, that we put the care into these cases and what that looks like,” he said. Adachi added that the film also incorporates how public defenders can work with media and use political strength to affect the outcomes of cases.

Representing Immigrants
While the issue of black-crime bias received heavy focus on Adachi’s latest films, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office also worked to expand its office to also represent immigrants, both undocumented and non-citizens, facing deportations from the United States. Adachi said an estimated 1,500 immigrants are detained in San Francisco and face deportation, of which 67 percent do not have a lawyer. Since Trump’s election, Adachi pledged to fight a potential mass deportation of immigrants.

“The mayor took a position that he would support some of the nonprofits to represent immigrants, but he would not fund our office. It was a little bit of a fight,” Adachi said. “I’d be fine with that just so it got done, but the nonprofits very candidly said that there is no way they could provide representation to that many people. They actually came to us and said they wanted us to begin doing this work. It’s because we’re used to handing a high volume of cases. We have the administrative support. Many of these nonprofits only have one or two lawyers in their immigration units, so it’s difficult for them to take on this kind of capacity.”

In a March 2 San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Sub-Committee meeting, Adachi’s office was authorized to hire three new attorneys and a paralegal, who will start in May. Adachi said these new positions would help to represent about 200 to 250 immigrants each year.

“I had hoped to represent everyone, but it will be a start,” he said.

And while Trump had threatened to cut off federal funds to “sanctuary cities” such as San Francisco, Adachi said he is not too worried yet.

“I think it’s right to worry about it, but at the same time, we can’t let ourselves be intimated,” he said, but added Americans must remain vigilant.

“I don’t know, at this point, how deep these cuts are going to run. I’m on the California Humanities board and he’s talking about cutting funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment of the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” he said. “Politicians have said these things before. The Bush administration proposed this and they were not successful. It means that we are going to have to fight harder for what we took for granted in the Obama administration.”

Californians’ Role
Adachi said the future will be challenging for Americans, including Japanese Americans, but he has also been moved by the activism seen through the Women’s March or among lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender and queer communities.

“I think what’s encouraging is that there’s a bigger tent now. People are realizing that we don’t have the luxury of being involved in one issue like climate change and ignoring everything else,” he said.

He went on to say: “I would like to see more activism out of the Japanese American community. I think we’ve been consistent in opposing the Muslim ban and reminding this country about the internment, but if there ever was a time for Japanese Americans to speak out, it’s now. … I really hope to see more Japanese Americans involved in the ground movement and that people take an interest in racial justice and the discrimination that is occurring against Muslims and other people who are being treated just as the Japanese were 75 years ago.”

Adachi said he is doing his own “small piece” by making films and working as public defender, but he also acknowledged he is getting older. At 58, the Sansei attorney now can see himself as a mentor for future lawyers and filmmakers.

“I think I’ll always be an activist. It was instilled in me — probably when I was in high school, and it’s always stayed with me. It’s always been my passion to fight for someone,” said Adachi, who worked on the movement to free Chol Soo Lee — a Korean immigrant on death row — in the 1970s. “Maybe it will change form, as it has already. I’ll play more of a mentorship role, because so many people mentored me. I had so much help from activists, from political people over the years. I probably had over a hundred mentors, so now, it’s time for me to pass that on.”

However, Adachi did not say he intends to retire from serving as public defender anytime soon.

“I went through a very long period where public defenders were very unpopular. We were constantly being assailed and attacked,” he said. “That’s shifting now, where people are suddenly seeing that defense attorneys are critical to our sense of justice and balance in this country.”

“In terms of how much longer I’ll be public defender … I don’t know,” he said. “Once I don’t feel as passionate about the work, I’ll leave and do something else. I’ll make films, I’ll go into private practice, but right now it’s pretty good to be public defender.”

Adachi’s “Defender” will premiere Saturday, April 15 at 3 p.m. as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre, which is located at 429 Castro St., in San Francisco. To register for the free screening, visit

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