Of all the afflictions that plague Yuri Kochiyama in her old age, only one bothers her enough to warrant a mention. "I can remember something from fifty years ago," she said, "but not what I did yesterday."
In typical Yuri fashion, this is not so much a complaint as an observation. She said this while searching for a stack of leaflets, anxiously sifting through the copious sheaves of paper, newspaper articles, and letters that crowd her tiny studio apartment. Piles of paper have settled permanently everywhere: on bookshelves and a desk, a pair of stools, and the floor -- even the twin-sized bed. Yuri doesn't remove them when she sleeps; she just curls up next to them.
The leaflets advertise a "speak out" taking place at the West Oakland library, and sponsored in part by the People's Resistance Against US Terrorism, a group that Yuri belongs to. Up for discussion are racial profiling, the curtailing of civil liberties, and the impact of the war upon those already in jail.
Finally, the flyers surface in an unlabeled file folder among a stack of labeled file folders. The speak out is in five days, so Yuri must mail the leaflets today, she noted. With a cloud of white hair shaking about her face, Yuri asks a visitor to stuff and seal envelopes as she meticulously logs each piece of mail in a notebook, noting the date and what was mailed to whom and where. Because she can no longer rely on her memory, she writes everything down. ("What day is it?" she asks, several times a day.) There is a planner, a bound notebook for logging mail, a spiral notebook for guests to sign, and another one for jotting down the little details of daily life. In a tribute to the notion that to be color-blind is to be naive, her address book is color-coded by race: green ink for black people, black ink for white people, blue ink for brown people, brown ink for yellow people, and red ink for red people.
In the back of one notebook are stubs from money orders sent in ten- and twenty-dollar denominations. These denote gifts to people she considers political prisoners -- anti-imperialists, anticapitalists, former Black Panthers -- people who are dear friends, people from the movement.
When Yuri talks about the movement, she says the word with a capital "M." The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the Asian-American movement -- all these fall under Yuri's definition of Movement. And in Movement circles, Yuri is something of a celebrity.
In a 1965 Life magazine photograph taken moments after the assassination of Malcolm X, Yuri is the woman in thick black glasses cradling his head in her hands as his bullet-riddled body lies splayed on the floor. As a longtime resident of Harlem, Yuri, a petite Japanese-American woman and mother of six, fought for black nationalism. In 1977 she was one of thirty people who stormed the Statue of Liberty and held it for nine hours to bring attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. In the 1980s, she and her husband -- whom she met at a World War II internment camp -- lobbied for reparations to Japanese Americans who were imprisoned by the government during that war.
Today, as a resident of Oakland, this constant critic of the United States government is as vocal as ever, pointing out the similarities between her internment and the detainment and harassment of thousands of Middle Easterners since September 11. In one recent week she had five speaking engagements.
To mainstream America, the Movement may be dead, little more than textbook photographs of protesters marching arm in arm. But to Yuri Kochiyama, the Movement is alive and well and living in the Bay Area. And one of its most emphatic voices comes not from an idealistic Berkeley student, but from an eighty-year-old who gets around with a walker.
The Federal building in downtown San Francisco sits higher than street level. To get to its plaza, one must ascend a ramp surrounded by a wall of concrete that gradually disappears. On this ramp a few weeks ago, Yuri slowly made her way, pushing her walker, which sported no less than four "Free Mumia" stickers.
"Where's the march?" Yuri asked when she reached the top.
"Yuri, this is a press conference," a woman said.
"What?" she said with disappointment. "No march?"
"What is the point of marching?" a skeptic asked. "It doesn't actually accomplish anything."
"I think it's very important," Yuri enthused. "If they did not have all those years of marching and demonstrations, they never would have gotten the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ... I like it because it's a people's thing. It's not an individual thing. It's all the things that people do together that gives you strength." That not only applies to marching, but serves as Yuri's most basic credo.
Among Movement people, rumor is that this plaza was designed with constricted points of access precisely to discourage people from gathering. But on this Wednesday afternoon, some forty people mill about in front of the building to show solidarity with Arabs, Muslims, and south Asian immigrants, and to protest the government's detention of some 1,200 people since the towers fell -- often on minor immigration infractions. The protesters wore blue triangles, each bearing the name of a detainee. Yuri tied a large triangle-shaped placard on the front of her walker. "Haddy Omar Jr.," it read.
Seven Days - December 4, 9:20 PM
Seven Days - December 4, 5:31 PM
Seven Days - December 4, 8:35 AM
Seven Days - December 3, 7:55 PM
Seven Days - December 3, 6:01 PM