The thing about Kochiyama that many people may find astounding, deeply aggravating or alarming is that she was a longtime civil- and human-rights activist who embraced a kind of patriotism that does not involve displays of the U.S. flag. She was an American alerted to the importance of politics by grave violation of her rights. It was an experience that forever transformed her. And, as a result, she remained committed to protest and resistance movements around the world for the remainder of her life.
Kochiyama was a woman unafraid of affiliation with far-leftist and even terrorist organizations and who sometimes expressed unpopular, even shocking political support for their causes. Later on, she even expressed a favorable opinion of Osama bin Laden. But, Kochiyama was a believer in the idea that a country, particularly this country, should fulfill its foundational promises to every human being and stand prepared to answer for its failures.
It's a life worth thinking about today as the idea of group internment and other types of formalized group suspicion have been floated, debated and described as "rhetorical devices" and "suggestions" during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Kochiyama was the daughter of Japanese immigrants, born in Southern California. In the 1940s, she and her family were forced from their San Pedro, Calif., home and into a horse facility in Santa Ana, Calif. Later Kochiyama's family was forced into a camp in Jerome, Ark. This was an internment camp in the Jim Crow South.
Later, Kochiyama married a Japanese American she met in the camp and moved to New York City. There, the couple became deeply involved in civil rights and school reform activism, lived in public housing for more than a decade, taught English to immigrants, volunteered in homeless shelters and collected a truly diverse array of friends. Among them was Malcolm X, around the time he was distancing himself from the black nationalist movement and his past opposition to integration. In fact, a photo of Kochiyama cradling the head of a dying Malcom X moments after he was shot appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world.
Kochiyama counted among her friends a number of individuals who would become wanted or would be jailed for various crimes, including murder. That list includes Mumia Abu-Jamal, Angela Davis, Marilyn Buck, Assata Shakur and the Puerto Rican nationalist activists arrested after opening fire inside the U.S. House of Representatives and injuring five lawmakers in 1954.
In the late 1970s, Kochiyama was part of a group of largely Puerto Rican nationalists who temporarily took over the Statue of Liberty in support of Puerto Rican independence. These were people Kochiyama considered political prisoners arrested, entrapped, spurred to illegal action or, in some cases, wrongfully convicted because of their political beliefs and activities.
But Kochiyama also became a key activist with organizations, such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which helped to organize what are now widely admired protests, such as the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. And in the 1980s, Kochiyama and her husband were part of a group of activists who successfully forced the U.S. government to pay reparations to those who had been interned during the war ($20,000 to each surviving individual).
In the final years of her life, Kochiyama also expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden. Kochiyama told a reporter with the Los Angeles Indymedia that she considered bin Laden a freedom fighter, akin to Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba and Fidel Castro.
"Besides being strong leaders who brought consciousness to their people, they all had severe dislike for the U.S. government and those who held power in the U.S.," she said. "I think all of them felt the U.S. government and its spokesmen were all arrogant, racist, hypocritical, self-righteous, and power hungry."