The Calling Of Jeff Adachi: Honoring the Legacy of the Legendary Freedom Fighter
Whenever we would get a call from Jeff Adachi, it was always exciting — a chance to be recruited into some real next level, challenge the very foundations of the system in a way no one had ever tried, type fight for racial justice. We are in San Jose, not San Francisco, so we didn’t get to work with him as much as we would have if we were in his city, so we knew, if he reached out, it was on.
The last time he left a voicemail, he said, “Call me back, I have an idea.” We were starting a deeper dive in our bail reform work locally, and reading how he was loudly obliterating the rationale of money bail and getting pre-arraignment representation for the people in San Francisco — so we assumed it was going to be some radical pretrial justice stuff.
We called him back and he says, “I want to do an animated music video…do you listen to acid jazz?”
Only Jeff Adachi, the revolutionary freedom fighter who redefined what a “public defender” even means, could ask a question like that, and you still knew, it was going to be pioneering movement work.
Turned out he wanted to tell the history of race in America in a way that spoke to today’s media landscape. He had archived photos, art pieces, and small video clips of riots, racist signs, images of everyday people fighting for their rights, dating back a hundred years. He wanted to make a short video that would scroll through the clips — like a flip book looking at snapshots of how race played out in different periods in American history. He said he didn’t want to just focus on the famous icons, he wanted to lift up leaders in black and brown communities who were unknown, yet pivotal actors, in the ongoing fight for liberation in America. His instinct, to honor the lives of those typically occupying no space in the public imagination, was consistent with what he did everyday, in every other aspect of his life.
He said he had bought the rights to a song he heard in New York that he wanted played in the backdrop of the video. Now, Jeff Adachi could have done this project with Hollywood producers — he had that kind of pull. But he called us, and wanted to work with young videographers who he knew came from the struggle. And that’s exactly what he did. Over the next few months, Ookie and Andrew would roll up from De-Bug to San Francisco, and they would work with Jeff on his project he called, “Racial Facial.” As all things Jeff did, it was brilliant, unique, and advanced the consciousness in a way only his artistry could. The next thing we knew, we got a packaged DVD box of Racial Facial - it was winning film festival awards across the globe, and inciting a raw discussion and examination into race in America, just as he planned.
Now, if we said that a public defender made an animated music video spanning decades of racial injustice set to an acid jazz song — people would know off top, that had to be Jeff Adachi. In fact, he is the only person people would guess, he was the only one that had his range. Mind you, he didn’t take any time off to do this project — he was still taking the most serious trials, working on ground-breaking policies locally and nationally, and working on other films and art initiatives.
This project though was just representative of what Jeff Adachi meant to us. He had his own current, and always invited others, to jump into the waters with him. And we all knew he was always flowing into a place of true, uncompromising, justice. He brought community into spaces that usually were only regulated for attorneys, and asked us to re-imagine the possibilities of justice, and to never assume unjust practices and norms as immutable.
When the Humphrey decision dropped, a ruling that forever changed California bail law, we called him and asked if there were any motions related to it that could help our people in San Jose. He immediately shot over his bail motion and he said to get it to as many public defenders as possible. We literally were handing out Jeff’s templated motion to families waiting in line to go to court in counties across the state. He even made a PSA with us to push communities and attorneys to not except money bail or pretrial detention as acceptable. He was freeing people, and creating change-makers, without even being in the same city.
It was emboldening just being around him. I remember the first time we met him, Aram James, a comrade and former public defender, brought us up to his office. Of course, we were enamored with Jeff’s Malcolm X posters, his movie awards, and his genuine warmth, but it was how he talked about the fight that drew us in with the most gravity. We were talking to him about how our county didn’t have public defenders at misdemeanor arraignment courts — something that would never stand in an Adachi defended city —and he shared an example of how his office stopped taking excessive number of cases as a way to hold the line against eclipsing case loads. He said, “Sometimes you just need to go to the mat.” Despite his individual mastery of the public stage — his unmatchable charm, charisma, and swagger — Jeff showed us it is always about the fight against the power structures that expressed and protected white supremacy. And that the power to win is in the people.
The last time we saw him, a group of us had split a ride with him in LA, after he ignited a crowd of grassroots organizers on how we can end money bail, while also not giving unchecked power to judges to continue caging people pretrial. He was talking up the Lyft driver, asking him about his life and LA story. As he was getting out of the car, he looked back at us, raised his fist and said, “Fight the Power!” Like instead of “see you later” or “bye” he used the moment to again call us to act. He was just one hundred percent about it, and expected the same from all of us.
We are honored, like so many, to call Jeff a friend, brother, inspiration, and we will continue to lean on his spirit for guidance and strength. Rest in Power Jeff, we know you will continue the fight, and we will continue to answer your call.