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Yuri Kochiyama, today’s Google Doodle, fought for civil rights — and praised Osama bin Laden

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Thursday, May 19, this year would've been the 95th birthday of Yuri Kochiyama, a prominent Japanese-American activist who passed away at 93 two years ago. Google is marking the occasion with one of its trademark doodles.

Some of Kochiyama's work was deeply, clearly admirable. As an associate of Malcolm X, she was an important nonblack ally to the more militant end of the civil rights movement. She endured forced internment during World War II, and was an outspoken advocate for reparations to internees, which would eventually be passed in 1988. She was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and advocate for inmates she viewed as political prisoners.

But other commitments of hers were more ambiguous. She was an outspoken admirer of Mao Zedong even after the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. She praised Malcolm X for his "admiration for Mao and Ho Chi Minh," and worked closely with the Revolutionary Action Movement, an "urban guerrilla warfare" organization based on "a synthesis of the thought of Malcolm X, Marx and Lenin, and Mao Zedong." The activist Robert Williams gifted her with a copy of the Little Red Book, and she later thanked him for "the gift of Mao's philosophy."

Yuri Kochiyama was a supporter of the terrorist group Shining Path

Graffiti in Lima, Peru calls for the freeing of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán.
Graffiti in Lima, Peru, calls for the freeing of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán.
Cris Bouronicle/AFP/Getty Images

Two positions of Kochiyama's stand out as particularly alarming. First, she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path, a Maoist organization that has conducted a brutal insurgency killing tens of thousands of people since 1980. Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Shining Path personally killed or disappeared at least 30,000.

"Its tactics include the burning of ballot boxes and the public 'executions' of moderate local leaders and others, including nuns and priests, who are seen as rivals for the allegiance of the poor," according to a 1992 New York Times report. "In wildly exaggerated demonstrations of Maoist precepts, children have been killed for political 'crimes.' Amnesty International says the guerrillas routinely torture, mutilate and murder captives."

"We reject and condemn human rights because they are reactionary, counter-revolutionary, bourgeois rights," founder Abimael Guzmán declared in one document. "Rather than concentrate its attacks on the armed forces or police, Shining Path has predominantly singled out civilians," Human Rights Watch noted in 1997. "The Shining Path has pragmatically avoided taking captives unless it intends to execute them … Shining Path has been reported to torture captured civilians before executing them." Shining Path also used rape as a weapon of war.

This did not appear to bother Kochiyama, who joined a delegation to Peru organized by the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, which defends the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. She read, in her words, "the kind of reading materials that I could become 'educated' on the real situation in Peru; not the slanted reports of corporate America. The more I read, the more I came to completely support the revolution in Peru." In other words, she read, and believed, Maoist propaganda denying Shining Path's war crimes.

After her return from Peru, she declared, "What has been taking place in both Peru and the US is a serious campaign to discredit Guzmán and the Shining Path movement, tainting them as terrorists, undermining their struggle with lies, isolating them, and intimidating anyone who might support them."

Yuri Kochiyama declared Osama bin Laden "one of the people that I admire"

bin laden horseback sentences
Osama bin Laden, on a horse.
Getty Images

Kochiyama was a thorough-going opponent of what she viewed as American imperialism, and like some radical anti-imperialists this occasionally led her to admiring truly loathsome figures, because she thought they were effective at combating American empire. Abimael Guzmán was one. Osama bin Laden was another.

In a 2003 interview for the Objector: A Magazine of Conscience and Resistance, Kochiyama explained:

I’m glad that you are curious why I consider Osama bin Laden as one of the people that I admire. To me, he is in the category of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, all leaders that I admire. They had much in common. Besides being strong leaders who brought consciousness to their people, they all had severe dislike for the US government and those who held power in the US.

bin Laden may have come from a very wealthy family, but by the time he was twenty, he came to loathe the eliteness and class conduct of his family…

…You asked, "Should freedom fighters support him?" Freedom fighters all over the world, and not just in the Muslim world, don’t just support him; they revere him; they join him in battle.

…You stated that some freedom fighters responded that bin Laden’s agenda is more reactionary and does not speak to the needs of the masses of people who exist under US dominance. bin Laden has been primarily fighting US dominance even when he received money from the US when he was fighting in Afghanistan. He was fighting for Islam and all people who believe in Islam, against westerners, especially the US--even when he was fighting against the Russians.

To be clear, this is Kochiyama defending bin Laden — who, besides being a mass murderer, was a vicious misogynist and hardly the brave anti-imperial class traitor Kochiyama fancies him as — against other leftists who correctly noted that you can oppose American imperialism without allying or supporting violent jihadism.

Kochiyama's praise for Che Guevara and Fidel Castro is also controversial, and, I think wrong, but is at least somewhat common on the left. Sympathy for Shining Path and bin Laden, by contrast, is not a common left position basically anywhere.

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