The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office holds an outsized role in US politics. It offered Kamala Harris a stepping stone to statewide office in California and eventually the vice presidency. But beyond its use as an apparatus for national politics, the position holds great power over the lives of one of the United States' most diverse, populated, and economically imperative cities. The last elected DA Chesa Boudin attracted national attention for his attempts to devolve San Francisco's carceral state. His brief time in the position was so troubling to political elites that his defeat in a plutocrat-funded recall was hailed by The New York Times as “an end to one of the country’s most pioneering experiments in criminal justice reform”. Boudin’s appointed successor Brooke Jenkins, who had promised a restoration of law and order while promoting “progressive values”, swiftly fired 15 staff from Boudin’s tenure including the liaison to the Innocence Commission, which assisted the District Attorney’s office with identifying inmates who faced wrongful conviction.
That same office plays a pivotal role in the new documentary Free Chol Soo Lee, directed and produced by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi. The film details the systemic racism that immigrants and refugees must navigate in American society: from the functionality of the school to prison pipeline, racist policing, unfair legal systems, the violence of the American prison system, and the depravity of death row. Free Chol Soo Lee offers up a harrowing demonstration of how these hazards can fabricate a death sentence for an innocent man. But it also demonstrates the way working class movements can rally to fight these systems of injustice: we would likely never know the story of Chol Soo Lee if not for the immense popular mobilization of the Korean and Asian American communities who rallied for justice and his release.
In the late 1970s, Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee was wrongly charged, and eventually convicted, with two counts of murder by the San Francisco District Attorney's office. The conviction set off an international and multiracial movement that challenged the injustices and malignancies of the United States' legal systems. After an incredible pan-Asian mobilization, Lee’s wrongful conviction was overturned and he was released from confinement on death row after 9 years.
While the term “refugee” is not used to describe Chol Soo Lee in the film, it is clear that he fled unimaginable economic privation in the wake of destruction from the US war in Korea. His mother fled Korea after being disowned by her family for Lee’s out of wedlock birth, and married an American GI to help her son get an education in the United States. Chol Soo quickly finds that American schools do not offer him any assistance in adjusting to American life.
As depicted in the film, Chol Soo Lee finds an American school system without any other Korean youth and with no counselors, teachers, or resources to help him learn English as a Korean speaker. Lee later reflects that he felt more alienated as a young child in the United States, than he did navigating the immiseration of his early life in post-war Korea. Lee states that his frustration and inability to communicate with his peers and school staff drove him to assault the school’s principal, leading to a stay in juvenile detention.
After his story is discovered by the trailblazing Korean-American journalist K.W. Lee, Chol Soo Lee became an icon for a community tired of the discrimination it faced after immigrating to the United States. Rallies, fundraisers, protests, and vigils were organized and an original ballad was composed to raise funds and awareness for the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee.
Chol Soo Lee’s journey from refugee of a community leveled by war in Korea to prisoner to community icon is incredible, as is the harrowing story of his struggle to live up to immense expectations after his historic legal battle. Just as Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and other Asians saw their struggle as intertwined with Chol Soo Lee and the Korean community’s fight for justice, viewers from every background can see how the systems of imperialism, capitalism, and mass incarceration similarly destroy the lives of working class people in the United States and around the globe. Free Chol Soo Lee resonates as a tragedy of one man, the brutality inflicted on immigrants and working-people in our capitalist society, and the often unbelievable power of organized masses to transcend those conditions together through struggle.
Free Chol Soo Lee is screening across select theaters in the United States and Europe.