by The People’s Minister of Information JR
The legendary photos of Malcolm X aka El Hajj Malik el Shabazz with his shirt ripped open after being shot a number of times at the Audubon Ballroom will forever be etched in the pages of American history. In one photo, a Japanese woman holds the head of one of Black people’s greatest leaders, as his spirit left his body.
This woman was a friend and comrade of El Hajj Malik el Shabazz; her name is Yuri Kochiyama. Beyond this legendary friendship, she lived an extraordinary life that was intertwined with the Black human rights struggle and the Black Power Movement.
She survived Japanese internment – or concentration – camps during World War II in San Francisco, she was a comrade of our beloved brother Malcolm, she was a trusted bridge between the Asian and Black communities and she was a champion for political prisoners. These are all things that I have learned about her, but this under-5-foot giant affected my life in a very direct way.
I used to see Yuri in 2003-2004 almost weekly when I was distributing the SF Bay View before it became a monthly. She would be at home at the independent senior living spot on San Pablo near 20th Street in downtown Oakland. I knew who she was but I never introduced myself.
Every now and then, she and some of her friends would be in the lobby and comment or pose a question to me, usually about the paper or something in it. But for the most part, I was working on distributing my load of 6,000 newspapers, so I usually was in and out.
Then one day, at an event in downtown Oakland for political prisoners, Yuri walked up to me and asked me, “Are you JR from the SF Bay View?” I answered, “Yes, ma’am.” She then proceeded to ask me if I would get the Bay View to publish a letter from Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of Malcolm X, who was being held captive at the time.
I told her that I knew who she was and that it would be an honor for me to help out her and a member of the Shabazz family. She gave me the letter, and it was published. After that, Malcolm and my comrade Ra’Shida and myself kept in close communication through mail. This lasted for about four years, and by 2008 we lost contact.
In July of 2010, I received a call out the blue from a man with a very distinct, deep voice. It turned out to be Malcolm, who had recently returned from Syria where he was studying Islamic jurisprudence for a year. He had gotten my number from a mutual friend in Miami.
At this point we still had never met. He told me that he wanted to hook up face to face and come to Oakland to see the legacy of the Black Panthers laid down with his grandfather’s message. This was when his political career started.
Within 10 days, Malcolm was flying into Oakland Airport. In one of the first conversations we had leading up to Malcolm’s arrival, he asked me if I knew how to get in touch with Yuri. Ironically, he told me that they had never met face to face, only by mail, but he had an immense amount of respect for her already.
After he got off the plane, he was driven straight to San Francisco to Prison Radio’s studio to record a conversation with political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal. After that we went down the street to a Mexican restaurant by the name of Pancho Villa in the Mission, where he and Yuri finally met.
I remember she appeared very feeble, but she looked up and reached out strongly to hug Malcolm. Malcolm would go on to tell me that was one of the biggest and happiest days of his life.
Another time in 2010, Malcolm had been going through some personal problems in his life and told me that he had an urge to see and talk to Yuri. We called her and hooked up with her in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland, at Peets Coffee Shop, which was near where she was staying. That’s one of the times when she stressed the prophetic words to him that “you are only as good as the people around you” and that “you have to keep your circle tight.”
He would later repeat what she told him in speeches. We also took a photo on that day. After that, I only would get updates about her declining health from her daughter and acquaintances, but I never saw her again.
Malcolm Shabazz looked to Yuri as a living extension of his grandfather, kind of like a great aunt. And through this relationship as well as through my own individual encounters, she was a beautiful grandmotherly type of spirit who was a gentle but militant revolutionary.
She also did a lot more than talk. One time I was invited to her downtown Oakland spot with Professor Chinosole, another ardent political prisoner activist and freedom fighter, where we talked about the freedom campaigns for Mutulu Shakur, Mumia Abu Jamal, Chip Fitzgerald and others.
The meeting was about a political prisoner project that I don’t remember much about today, but I can say that Yuri was definitely someone who did not rest on her laurels. In her declining health, while she was barely independently mobile, she was always working on a project or giving advice to some of the movers and shakers.
I remember hosting an event in West Oakland at the Black New World social club, where she answered questions about her life and friendship with El Hajj Malik el Shabazz. A well known Asian man asked her, “What did you and Malcolm talk about in public?” She replied, “We did not talk publicly because he was a leader whose time in public was totally dedicated to his people, and I wanted to respect that.”
Yuri Kochiyama was also the conduit for me and Malcolm knowing each other and interacting. Malcolm was one of my most trusted comrades and my homeboy, and for that connection that she created, I will forever be grateful. I salute you, Yuri, on behalf of Black people and young people who you had a major impact upon. We love you. Rest easy.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.