From the September-October 2022 issue of News & Letters
Kei Utsumi touched many lives before his death on July 15, a few days shy of his 87th birthday. In conversations with friends, in being present at countless demonstrations, or in putting pen to paper, his was a passionate, unyielding voice for freedom which will be sorely missed. Kei’s frequent reports in News & Letters highlighted Angelenos he knew personally: homeless people, Black youth demanding police accountability, immigrants, DACA dreamers, teachers, home-care workers, vendors, Uber drivers, and more. He also held deep concern for the environment.
THE EXPERIENCE OF INTERNMENT
As a boy attending elementary school, Kei and his family were forcibly relocated from Los Angeles to an internment prison at Rohwer, Arkansas, in 1942. He told some News and Letters Committees comrades that the abuse imposed on adults and children there once caused him to hide inside a latrine toilet out of extreme fear. He returned with his family to L.A. in 1945, carrying this trauma.
As a teenager, Kei enlisted in the U.S. Army, at the urging of two schoolmates. He went on to basic training at Fort Ord, Calif., and then served four months of active duty at Fort Mead, Maryland. He would spend five more years in the Army Reserves. Interested in studying art, math, and architecture, Kei enrolled at East LA City College. From 1962-87, he worked as a draftsman. By the mid-1980s, his skills in using a T-square and a parallel bar were becoming obsolete due to computer automation. As Kei would later write on the subject, “leisure without employment is leisure without money.”
Pressures in his professional and personal life came to a head one night when, seeing men tending a campfire on the street, he communicated with them a sudden desire to throw all his ID cards, his whole identity into the flames.
These complete strangers were kind enough to reason with him, empathize, and eventually talk him down. Kei would later credit this experience as a moment when his perspective on humanity changed. He came to self-identify as an equal to the human beings living on the street.
At about this point, Kei discovered News and Letters Committees and was inspired by the Marxist-Humanist freedom philosophy of its founders, including Raya Dunayevskaya and Charles Denby. For more than three decades, he distributed the organization’s paper, News & Letters, at demonstrations, rallies and community colleges, had impromptu discussions with students, and was active in the meetings of N&LC’s Los Angeles local.
KEI BECOMES ‘BASHO’
As he began to write, Kei’s respect for simple living led him to assume the name Basho, after a great poet from the Edo period of Japan, who by choice lived in a plain hut. Kei himself spent this portion of his life traveling almost everywhere by bus and residing in low-rent senior housing one block away from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation: Skid Row.
Kei became a longtime activist with and proponent of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), in Skid Row, whose advocacy he described in the July-Aug. 2019 issue of N&L: “[They have] been resisting the LAPD’s sweeps, harassment, criminalization, and murder of the homeless population with street protests, lawsuits, and a know-your-rights campaign. They also inform low-rent tenants of their rights against unlawful evictions, and fight for restrooms, water fountains, showers, laundry facilities, and trash cans in the neighborhood. Landlords and the media often blame the homeless for unsanitary conditions created by city negligence.”
KEI SUPPORTED MANY ISSUES AND CAUSES
Kei participated in campaigns to house homeless residents in vacant hotels, to fight redlining in Chinatown and gentrification in Boyle Heights, and to establish a Skid Row Neighborhood Council independent of the developer-laden Downtown Council. Anyone who visited Kei at his apartment and took a walk with him outside could see that he always had a little bit to share with people living on the street who knew him by name.
In activist circles, Kei would sometimes be identified as a formerly interned person. Uncomfortable with the admiration or awe surrounding this issue, he tended to be most interested in putting the spotlight on contemporary parallels to the internment of Japanese Americans, such as immigration bans and family separations.
He would draw historical comparisons. Making notes in his copy of Dunayevskaya’s book, Marxism and Freedom, in sections describing Stalin’s agrogorods and Mao’s communes, Kei inscribed: “Compare to J.A. Relocation… Commonality of state and private capitalism and their imperial goal… Mao’s desire for world power, as Russia’s and the U.S., is a fundamental flaw and is not Marxism.”
A BLACK LIVES MATTER PARTICIPANT
In the last years of his life, Kei was moved by the outpouring of support for justice in policing that followed the murder of George Floyd. In a July 2020 Zoom meeting he told friends in part:
“I’d been going to BLM protests once a week at the Hall of Justice where DA Jackie Lacey has not prosecuted even one of over 500 officers who killed, in the majority, Black and Brown youth, but even white youth too. There used to be 40-50 people on a really good day. There are thousands of people there now.
“I’m gonna just say the police murder of Floyd on May 26 in Minneapolis sparked a worldwide protest still ongoing seven weeks later. I was not in the LA protests because of my energy, but I heard chants from my window as crowds marched on Spring St. I attended the June 10 protest. Thousands of new younger white people, but also all races. LAPD has over 50% of the city budget. $6 billion in New York City. A new society will need to have no police department as we know it. It has to be controlled by the working-class community.
“Marx said that the freedom of the individual is the basis for the freedom of all. You can’t have a free society unless all individuals are free. Development of human power means using that power not as a basis of profit. Marx insisted abolition of private property is only the first transcendence. Not until you transcend that does there arise positive humanism beginning from itself. This is when mental and manual labor is reunited in the all-rounded individual. BLM is about the whole human Black lives that never mattered in U.S. society.”