In pursuit of a ‘whole and free’ society

FREEDOM WITHOUT JUSTICE: THE PRISON MEMOIRS OF CHOL SOO LEE

FREEDOM WITHOUT JUSTICE: THE PRISON MEMOIRS OF CHOL SOO LEE

Edited by Richard S. Kim (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2017, 323 pp., $19.99, paperback)

I grew up in a law-and-order family. There was no contradiction between my parents’ experience of the Japanese American incarceration, and their fundamental respect for the U.S. criminal justice system. They believed that dangerous, generally dark-skinned individuals needed to be imprisoned for the safety of light-skinned law-abiding citizens.

This kind of thinking about race, crime and punishment supported the rise of U.S. mass incarceration in the 1990s: Our country now holds more than 20 percent of the world’s combined prison population. Many people maintain a tough-on-crime perspective. But others on the right as well as the left are pushing for prison reform and decarceration. Still others advocate the end to all forms of incarceration, which for prison abolitionists is essential to racial justice.

What are Asian Americans’ historical and contemporary stakes in these debates? Powerful answers can be found in the late Chol See Lee’s memoir “Freedom without Justice,” edited by UC Davis Asian American studies Professor Richard S. Kim, who provides a short but excellent introduction. “Freedom without Justice” presents for the first time the story of a major event in Asian American movement history — the pan-ethnic, transnational grassroots campaign to free wrongfully convicted Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee — from the perspective of the man at once at the center and the margins of struggle.

In 1973 then 21-year-old Lee was unjustly convicted for a San Francisco Chinatown gang murder. A few years into his life sentence, Lee fought with and killed a neo-Nazi inmate, which led to the death penalty. “Freedom without Justice” crucially presents Lee’s experiences with the criminal justice system, which he narrates and analyzes with great insight. Lee tracks his movement from naïve trust in the police and courts, to awareness that racial injustice fundamentally conflicts with — and perhaps constitutes — American democracy. Police and prisons exacerbate the very violence they purport to contain, by perpetuating anti-Asian as well as anti-black and anti-brown racism.

As Lee illustrates, Asian immigrants are especially vulnerable to racial violence. But insofar as white society views all Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners,” whether Yonsei or Issei, it behooves us to support immigrants’ rights as did the campaign to free Chol Soo Lee. Moreover, by invoking both the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans (pp. 308) and the fatal 1982 beating of Vincent Chin — the young Chinese American killed by white auto factory workers angry about Japanese economic competition (pp. 268) — Lee reminds us that Asian Americans can shift from “model minority” to “yellow peril” targeted for incarceration or death.

Lee further demonstrates that incarceration extends beyond jails and prisons, to the schools, streets, and juvenile detention. Kim points out that after Lee was “freed,” he continued to live under some form of carcerality, returning to prison in 1990 and then entering the FBI witness protection program.

On one hand, Lee suggests that justice is a matter of getting rid of the few corrupt police, prosecutors, and judges. But he also states more radically, “It should be unacceptable both to free society and to convicts that all are victimized by the way the system is designed to fail for released prisoners. Great change is needed for society to live whole and free.”

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