How Will We Remember Yuri?

June 18, 2014

from bottom right: Yuri Kochiyama (sitting), poet-activist Mitsuye
Yamada, Diane Fujino, and her sons Seku and Kano at an Interfaith Prisoners of
Conscience Project (IPOC) meeting in San Francisco, November 2005.  Photo
by Matef Harmachis.


there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom
and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground."

--Frederick Douglass, 1857


For me, Yuri’s
passing has been harder than expected
. After all, she had lived a long and extraordinary life and had been in
poor health. But only after she
transitioned did it really hit me. She’s
been a core part of my life for 20 years and was my foremost political mentor. The
loss of an elder -- one who has gained wisdom from the experiences of life, who
made the individual as important as the collective, and who used her life in service
to justice -- creates a huge void in our shared communities.  

For our Asian American community, the loss is
all the greater because we have so few visible activist leaders. Now I fear that all her complexity as a
person and an activist-leader is being reduced to two images: the internment camps and that now famous photo of her holding Malcolm X at the time of his
assassination. It’s like Martin frozen
in time in 1963 or Malcolm on an X cap. 

When that photo
was first published in 1965, Life magazine
neither named nor recognized the Asian woman cradling the slain Malcolm X. But following her death, Life reprinted the photo and named Yuri Kochiyama in its brief
coverage. This is symbolic of the ways the
Asian American freedom movements and activists have been dangerously
misunderstood. First, we’re rendered
invisible. Second, when discussed, Asian
American radicalism is made into something it never was -- moderate and
nonthreatening. The general public and
most of the Asian American community as well have never heard of Yuri
Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Richard Aoki, Fred Ho, the Asian American Political
Alliance, Asian Americans for Action, I Wor Kuen, Wei Min She, KDP, or Gidra, much less understand these nuanced

So the telling of Yuri’s
story becomes more important than ever. I’m grateful to have been able to write her biography, Heartbeat of Struggle. I'm also fortunate to have read the many articles and interviews by and about Yuri, including her memoir, Passing It On, as well as viewed the two
documentaries about her life, Passion for Justice
and Mountains that Take WingTogether these works tell
a more complicated story of struggle, of human foibles, and of an ordinary
person creating an extraordinary life. 

Yuri was not
afraid to learn about and stand by the most radical visions of a transformed
and egalitarian society. In October
1963, when Yuri first met Malcolm X, she was a middle-aged mother of six who opposed
his views on integration -- and told him so. But she was willing to listen and learn from him and others whose life
experiences differed from her own. With an
unsurprising intensity but surprising ease, she immersed herself in Malcolm’s
world and soon adopted the politics of national liberation, of struggles for land
rights, and of self-determination and self-defense. 

In the late 1960s, she joined the Republic of
New Africa. She fiercely defended
political prisoners. She supported
Puerto Rican activists fighting for national independence. She visited and defended socialist Cuba and traveled
to Peru as part of a delegation to defend the imprisoned leader of Shining
Path, the country’s Communist Party. She
called for Black reparations alongside Japanese American redress. And she condemned US and Japanese imperialism
from Hiroshima and Okinawa, to Vietnam and Hawai’i.  Yuri believed as Frantz Fanon did in The Wretched of the Earth: “For a colonized people, the most essential
value, because it is the most meaningful, is first and foremost the land: the
land, which must provide bread and, naturally, dignity.”

Yuri saw ordinary
people as catalysts of change. And she
trusted people to a flaw. But strength
and weakness are flip sides of the same coin. The first time I interviewed Yuri in December 1995, Yuri handed me a key
to her apartment so I wouldn’t have to wait in the snow in case she returned
late from her meeting. I barely knew
Yuri and refused her offer. Yuri’s
family and fellow activists have worried that her openness increased her
vulnerability to predatory people or infiltration. But in today’s climate of heightened fears
about personal and national security, of orange alerts and text messages about
every single neighborhood crime, Yuri’s faith in ordinary people’s capacity to
make decisions, to learn and grow from their mistakes, and to collectively
change society is more relevant than ever and essential for movement

This trust in
people coincided with Yuri’s belief in a model of collective leadership that borrowed
from the traditions of Ella Baker and became a hallmark of the Asian American Movement. She disrupted the conventional notions
of leadership by embodying a “centerperson” style, a concept developed from
Karen Sacks and contained in my essay on Yuri in Want to Start a Revolution? 

Yuri exemplified traditional leadership through her writings and speeches, her
strength as a leader was as a networker and bridge builder. By bringing people together, she introduced
people to activist struggles, provoked new analyses of social conditions,
challenged conventional thinking, got people excited about activism, crossed
borders of differences, and ultimately helped to build multiple social

Her home, dubbed “Grand Central Station,” was
a non-stop flow of people and meetings. In
a time before the internet or even answering machines, people would leave
messages and leaflets with Yuri to disseminate as she waitressed in
working-class restaurants. Numerous newly
released prisoners saw Yuri’s as the first number to call when they got out of
prison. She attended to the individual, inquiring
about one’s life, offering food, and asking people to write to political
prisoners on their birthdays. These
qualities are too often dismissed. But
if one believes as Yuri did that the people give power to the movement, then
the kind of centerperson practices that Yuri embodied are crucial leadership

One way to honor
Yuri is to take seriously her philosophies and practices. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything --
but rather taking the time to study, to be open to unconventional, even
transgressive, ideas -- and to transform oneself and possibly society in the
struggles for justice. Yuri believed as
Fredrick Douglass did that progress requires struggle and that agitation is
necessary for those who believe in freedom. 

At the end of her
life, while in failing health, Yuri offered momentary glimpses into the
concerns on her mind. Nobuko Miyamoto,
who worked with Yuri in the New York Asian and Black movements, relayed how
during a recent visit, Yuri sprung to life at the mention of Mutulu Shakur’s
upcoming parole. She insisted, “We
have to get everyone together…we have to help Mutulu.” She momentarily woke from sleep, looked Wayie
Ly in the eyes and said, "The Asian American Movement is so far behind... we
have to catch up with all the other groups...." It is up to us, as a
multi-generational movement, to understand the lessons in Yuri’s story and to
figure out how to collectively create that transformed society. 

I thank you, Yuri,
for your fearlessness and determination in the protracted struggle, for demanding
that we treat people with dignity, and for bringing great joy and meaning to my


Diane C. Fujino is author of Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama, as
well as books on Richard Aoki
among Panthers
) and Fred Ho (as editor, Wicked
Theory, Naked Practice
) and numerous essays on Asian American radicalism
and Afro-Asian solidarities. She is
Professor of Asian American Studies and Director of the Center for Black
Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Inspired by Yuri, she’s a longtime activist
in the political prisoner, anti-war, public education, and Asian American