Political Notebook: Police protests turn Assembly candidate Lee into citizen-journalist

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 8, 2020
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South Bay Assembly candidate Alex Lee took this photo in San Jose during protests against the police May 29. "We're Linked together as riot gear police show up," he wrote on Twitter. Photo: Alex Lee
South Bay Assembly candidate Alex Lee took this photo in San Jose during protests against the police May 29. "We're Linked together as riot gear police show up," he wrote on Twitter. Photo: Alex Lee

Since advancing out of the March 3 primary race for an open South Bay state Assembly seat, Alex Lee had been sheltering at home with family, friends, and his 3-year-old cat Soba due to the coronavirus outbreak. His campaign for the 25th Assembly District that straddles Alameda and Santa Clara counties was largely being conducted virtually.

Then came the last weekend of May, when Lee took to the streets of San Jose to join in the protests against police brutality spurred on by the deaths of a number of African Americans at the hands of police officers. Equipped with his cellphone, Lee documented what he encountered through videos and photos uploaded to his social media accounts.

In doing so, the former legislative policy adviser went from being a candidate for elected office to a citizen-journalist. Over the course of the last three days in May, Lee's campaign twitter account — @VoteAlexLee2020 — provided man-on-the-street coverage of the protests and the police response to them.

"I felt safe up UNTIL the #SJPD showed up Just like every peaceful protest across the country, things get ugly AFTER the police show up — armor and firearms and all," Lee tweeted May 30.

Along with other protesters, Lee was tear gassed by police and found himself in the line of fire when officers shot rubber bullets into the crowd. The weekend culminated in him being arrested Sunday, May 31, for breaking the curfew city leaders had imposed in order to clear out the streets.

Lee had finished livestreaming a protest on his Instagram account and had stopped to talk with some journalists covering the event "to trade notes on what did you see," he said, when a police van pulled up and arrested him and a man who had come out of his apartment to see what was going on. After being processed at the SAP Center indoor sports arena, Lee and a group of other people who had been arrested were dropped off close to midnight at the Great Mall in Milpitas north of San Jose.

There were no public transit options to get home, noted Lee, who was able to call a friend and get picked up. He was given a court date in October, though it is expected the charges will be dropped.

"At the time when all this stuff kind of kicked off in San Jose, I had no intention of going there and being witness to police brutality at a protest against police brutality," Lee told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview this month.

Once on the scene, Lee said he decided to use his platform in order to show "how terrible things were that happened." He remains astounded by the tactics the police used during the protests and has continued to call for police reforms via his Twitter account.

"What shocks me the most is that police, no matter if they be in Minneapolis, New York, or San Jose and the Bay Area, essentially are the same. I saw police respond to a protest against police brutality with police brutality," said Lee.

He signed a pledge not to accept political contributions from law enforcement sources. Among his legislative priorities will be pushing police reform measures, such as banning local police departments from buying military-grade weapons and equipment like tanks and grenade launchers.

"As an Asian American with some status, I had just a taste of what a lot of our community members who are Black and Brown face in the face of police brutality. It was like having a wake-up call," said Lee. "We need to end police brutality. We really can not sit idle on the sidelines and let this happen anymore to our own community members."

At 24, Lee said he didn't consider what he was doing as citizen journalism. He viewed his posts similar to everything else he routinely shares online.

"I hope I authentically can say I am for these changes," said Lee. "I am not saying it because it is popular or something. I do have pushback from community members who are more pro-police. I can push back on it. The ways we solve our criminal justice issues are broken, and I think everyone knows that, at least I hope."

Nor did he consider if his postings would negatively impact his chances of winning come November, said Lee, in his contest against Republican Bob Brunton to succeed Assemblyman Kansen Chu (D-San Jose). He is expected to easily win the left-leaning seat to become the first out bisexual member of California's Legislature. And Lee, who turns 25 Saturday, July 11, will also be the youngest state lawmaker since 1938 if he wins.

"The thought didn't cross my mind at the time how this would impact my campaign. There were more important things happening that demanded our attention," he said. "In the end, I don't think it affected our campaign negatively at all. Some voters are, I'm sure, displeased at my involvement and my arrest. I think more people are pleased I am using my platform and out there being in the streets with people demanding justice for Black lives."

Last month, Lee announced he had racked up additional support within the Democratic Party for his historic candidacy. Among those endorsing Lee was Chu, who had remained neutral in the primary. Nonetheless, Lee recently admonished the outgoing Assemblyman on Twitter for making derogatory comments during an interview with a Chinese-language newspaper in explaining why he opposed ending California's ban against affirmative action in the public school admission process.

Lee has also been highly critical on Twitter of San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo's response to community demands for police reform and his championing a charter amendment that would extend his current term in office by two years. Asked about his social media posts about the mayor, Lee said he has never shied away from calling out elected leaders when he believes their actions or policy proposals fall short.

"I want to be out there fighting for the people. I plan to be in the Assembly an activist Assembly member," said Lee. "I got a chance to practice it earlier than I thought I would."

Political Notes, the notebook's online companion, returns Monday, July 13.

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