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Growing Up To Be Like Yuri Kochiyama

yuri kochiyama for deepa

She may be best known in the public eye for the iconic picture that shows her cradling Malcolm X’s head in her lap after he was killed in a Manhattan auditorium, but Yuri Kochiyama’s life and legacy stood for much more, especially to Asian Americans. Many of us learned of Yuri Kochiyama’s recent death, not from mainstream news outlets, which have yet to do her legacy full justice, but from one another. And we have had very similar collective responses: tremendous gratitude for how she influenced us, coupled with a redoubling of our commitment to the principles she lived by.

Yuri Kochiyama’s life and legacy is a reminder to Asian Americans and to all those who believe in social justice, of a basic value: to show up whenever and wherever injustice occurs and to engage in acts of resistance and solidarity.

She did just that throughout her life.  I remember how she became a strong voice to highlight the experiences of South Asians, Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs who faced discrimination in the aftermath of 9/11. Film director, Jason DaSilva, captured Kochiyama relating the post 9/11 dragnet of detentions and deportations to the experiences of Japanese Americans – including her own – who were interned during World War II. It wasn’t surprising that Kochiyama would make these connections. She had been an ally in key moments of struggle before, whether it was supporting political prisoners, calling for the establishment of ethnic studies programs, allying with the Black Power movement, or demanding Puerto Rican sovereignty.

Shailja Patel, poet and activist, remembers Yuri in this way:

 Yuri, with her walker, was a regular at Bay Area anti-war events and Asian American activist gatherings. She made us all larger, reminding us always to think globally and organize locally…She emphasized that all struggles for justice are connected – and she lived that truth. I think of Yuri and the Young Lords occupying the Statue of Liberty in 1977 to demand independence for Puerto Rico. I think of Yuri explaining that we can’t talk about 9/11 without talking of US troops in Saudi Arabia. I think of her connecting her own internment as a Japanese American to the Patriot Act. She showed us what a fully realized political life looks like. 

This transcended the public space: Yuri’s daughter remembers in this NPR segment how their home felt like “the movement 24/7”. Her mother would put up newspaper clippings of important events on the walls, open up their home to gatherings and discussions, and take the family to places like Birmingham to understand the real-life impact of racial injustice.

The Blues Scholars have a song dedicated to her that includes the lyrics, “When I grow up, I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama.” For those of us connected to movement-building work and inter-racial solidarity, that’s a question to ask ourselves now: what lessons from Yuri’s life can we learn and pass on? How we can do better, as individuals and organized communities, to press for social change?

Poet and activist, Bao Phi, reflects on how Yuri could influence the way we engage in social change work in this way:

One of the only times I’ve ever been speechless in my adult life was when I met Yuri.  From what I recall, it’s because I agreed to be a part of an awareness raising event for Viet Mike Ngo and Eddy Zheng, two inmates trying to start an Asian American studies program in prison.  And at the same time, students at Berkeley were trying to raise awareness about deportations.  Yuri was involved in both causes, no doubt many more, and activist Anmol Chaddha asked me if I would like to meet her.  What do you say to her?  She had done so much … and yet, she never projected a demand for respect or to be deified… She had political stickers all over her walker.  Pictures of loved ones and I seem to recall, Hello Kitty, all over her walls.  I wanted to learn all I could about her but instead found myself answering her questions about me as she jotted down notes in various notebooks with different colored pens …Yuri’s great gift to us was to show by example that through all the important work she did, she remained a supportive, intelligent, warm and generous human being.  Activists don’t have to be cold, strident, or stoic.  Activists are human beings.  They are not hero figures but members of the communities that they fight for.  There are not words enough to thank her for that… May she rest.  And may the rest of us work.

Perhaps a place to re-imagine and re-start that work is with the most basic lesson that Yuri Kochiyama’s life teaches us: that showing up wherever and whenever racial injustice occurs is the way to dismantle racism and build inter-racial solidarity. And that it must be a consistent practice, simple but brave, repeated over and over again.

Submit your reflection on Yuri Kochiyama via this Tumblr site curated by 18 Million Rising:

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By Deepa I

Deepa Iyer's book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, will be in bookstores in November 2015. Follow her @dviyer on Twitter.

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