Yuri Kochiyama talks at an anti-war demonstration in New York City around 1968. Courtesy of the Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center

The renaming of Washington Elementary, the last Berkeley public school named after a slave owner, has been delayed until the end of the school year by a controversy surrounding one of the luminaries who’d been shortlisted to be the school’s new namesake. 

Yuri Kochiyama, a survivor of Japanese incarceration camps known for speaking out against American imperialism, had been chosen as one of seven finalists. A supporter of reparations for Japanese Americans, she worked alongside Malcolm X against the oppression of Black Americans, famously cradling his head in her arms after his assassination.

Her name was taken off the list after parents notified the school principal that Kochiyama had once expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden. Though her name was reinstated shortly afterward, the removal brought up what some parents say is the all-too-familiar erasure of a figure who they called a “revered and respected hero.” She lived the final years of her life in Berkeley, where she died in 2014 at age 93.  

The process to strip the name of our country’s first president from the elementary school began in September. The intention, Superintendent Brent Stephens explained, was that “this city, with its progressive ideals and aspirations towards social justice, would not have a school named after a person who held human beings in bondage.” 

The renaming was the product of a June 2020 Black Lives Matter resolution to address both the symbols and practices of racial injustice within the school district. (Jefferson was renamed Ruth Acty Elementary, after the school district’s first Black teacher, in December 2020.)

Community members offered 74 different suggestions for Washington’s new name, ranging from Hogwarts Elementary to Greta Thunberg School. 

A committee whittled the suggestions down to seven finalists who spanned the spectrum of national and local renown, all in some way connected to civil rights or racial justice: Mable Howard, Herb Wong, Maya Angelou, Yuri Kochiyama, James Baldwin, Frances Albrier and Yoshiko Uchida.

Kochiyama’s nomination was spearheaded by the husband-and-wife duo of Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, who lead Berkeley’s Radical South Asian Walking Tours and were behind the renaming of Kala Bagai Way, the first and only street in Berkeley named after an Asian American. 

The nomination was co-submitted by Washington parent Frances Ho and multiple city officials, including City Auditor Jenny Wong and Councilmember Terry Taplin. Dozens of Washington parents signed a letter supporting her nomination. 

When the naming committee cast their votes, Yuri Kochiyama and James Baldwin tied for sixth place, according to Laura Valdez, a parent on the naming committee. The plan had been to include only six names, but the committee voted to make an exception and include both Baldwin and Kochiyama on the list.

Soon after the shortlist of seven was made public, some concerned parents contacted their children’s teachers and Washington Principal Katia Hazen. 

Hazen declined to comment for this story, so it’s not clear exactly what those conversations entailed, their tenor, or whether there were a few or many. A Berkeley Unified spokesperson told Berkeleyside that the principal could find only one brief parent email — a missive drawing her attention to the “Controversies” section of Kochiyama’s Wikipedia page. 

The two-paragraph section includes this quote: “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 … I thank Islam for bin Laden. America’s greed, aggressiveness, and self-righteous arrogance must be stopped. War and weaponry must be abolished.” 

You can read the full article the quote is taken from in The Objector: A Magazine of Conscience and Resistance. In it, Kochiyama praises bin Laden for his “strong” leadership, his “severe dislike for the US government and those who held power in the US,” and his “consciousness” raising.

Like Malcolm X, Kochiyama is a radical figure in American history with mainstream renown. She is celebrated by organizations like the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. The Obama administration issued a statement honoring her legacy in 2014.

Hazen raised the parents’ concerns at a January faculty meeting. The next day, Kochiyama’s name was removed from the shortlist. “You can read between the lines,” a parent involved in the conflict told Berkeleyside.  

Stephens wrote a detailed letter apologizing for the harm the removal of Kochiyama’s name caused to the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in Berkeley. But the letter elides the question of who took the name off the list. 

And it’s not clear whether the naming committee was consulted before Kochiyama’s name was removed. Two members of the naming committee insist they were “absolutely not” consulted. 

Stephens said he has heard “different reports of the order of operations” and does not “consider this to be a point that needs investigation.” 

The point, to Stephens, is that the district failed to adequately staff the renaming process after the person leading it — Natasha Beery — retired, and that resulted in “a flaw in the district’s thinking about process.” “This is a principal in earnest trying to respond thoughtfully to concerns coming her way and finding herself in a bit of a vacuum as a result of the staff transition at the central office,” Stephens said in an interview. 

At any rate, community members caught wind of the removal and it spread like wildfire. 

A worksheet completed by a first grader at Washington Elementary helps teach about Yuri Kochiyama’s life. Credit: Laura Valdez

Many parents were hurt by what felt to them was the erasure of a widely beloved figure. It was one thing if Kochiyama’s name wasn’t chosen, parents told Berkeleyside, but another altogether for people to not have the chance to vote for her or learn about her life. Especially at a time of increased violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, they said, this one stung.

“The action [of removing Kochiyama’s name] to me was representative of erasing the legacy of Yuri Kochiyama and reducing her contributions to the civil rights movement to just a set of comments,” said Laura Valdez, a parent on Washington’s renaming committee.

“We continue to see our voices and experiences flattened, silenced, and ignored. To have someone who is very widely celebrated, disappeared, in a sense, felt like a slap in the face,” said one Asian American parent of an elementary schooler who said she wasn’t comfortable with her name being published.

Multiple members of the naming committee say they were not consulted before Kochiyama’s name was removed. 

The naming committee met a few days later, voting unanimously to reinstate Kochiyama among the list of seven finalists. Her name is now back on the list.

For some parents, hurt feelings linger, despite Stephens’ public apology. Some want an apology from Hazen, who has thus far stayed silent on the issue. Some want to see a supplemental curriculum used to teach Washington elementary schoolers about Kochiyama so that it reflects her entire legacy.

While others are critical of renaming schools altogether. Last week, three San Francisco school board members were recalled in a landslide vote after a campaign that centered on the board members’ failures to get schools open during the pandemic and criticized its plan, rescinded shortly after it was announced, to change the names of 44 schools while students were still in distance learning.

On Wednesday, the school board approved paying up to $15,000 to hire two consultants — Dr. Lori Watson of Race-Works and Dr. Courtlandt Butts of Life Guardian — to facilitate the renaming process and host restorative conversations. The goal, according to Stephens’ email, is “to ensure that the representations of all seven of the finalists, including potentially controversial aspects of their lives, is sensitive to their full legacies and presented on even ground.”

Chatterjee, who co-submitted Kochiyama’s name for consideration, said the conflict made him pessimistic about whether Berkeley is as progressive as its reputation suggests it is.

“If Berkeley is scared of celebrating a left, progressive, anti-incarceration reparations activist, and the Smithsonian isn’t afraid of it, it just kind of makes me sad,” Chatterjee said.

Gavin Tachibana, who is involved with the district-wide AAPI Leadership Team, hopes the conflict, while painful for him throughout, will come with a silver lining. 

“I hope the next time something like this happens, we take the time to examine the whole history and not try to run away from it,” Tachibana said. “Hopefully it encourages a deeper discussion about Yuri’s life, Japanese American concentration camps, and ethnic studies as a whole and how it’s taught.” 

Students at Washington Elementary are learning now about the legacies of the seven finalists. Over the next several months, the community will cast their votes, as will the naming committee. The school board, which was going to vote on a name in March, now plans to approve a new name by the end of the school year.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...