By Thomas K. Pendergast
With four bullets still lodged in his body, Brandon Lee is in a Philippine hospital fighting to survive an assassination attempt while his friends and family struggle to raise enough money to get him safely home.
Lee, 37, was shot outside his home in Luzon on Aug. 6 and his assailants have not been captured or identified, although the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and the Philippine military are suspected of involvement.
Born in San Francisco and raised in the Sunset District, Lee attended Abraham Lincoln High School and has spent the last decade in the Philippines, where he has a wife and daughter. He is a correspondent for the weekly newspaper Northern Dispatch and is an activist who has been assisting local indigenous people resist attempts to build a hydroelectric dam on their land.
On Sept. 30, his family and friends held a fundraiser and silent art auction at the Executive Order Bar on Mission Street to raise $200,000, which they say is about what it will cost to get him home in his condition.
“The State Department, unfortunately, does not cover those expenses. And that’s why there’s a lot of community effort right now to raise those funds to bring him back,” Mario de Mira of the San Francisco Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines said.
“It’s also an issue of not just his health recovery but his safety. The perpetrators of the attack on Brandon are still at large in the Philippines and are assumed to be, or speculated to be, elements of the Philippine military,” he explained. “So, we know that it’s not safe for him to be there, to be in the hospitals there and so if we can get him back to the U.S., get him back for medical treatment that he needs and to be in a safer environment, that’s really the goal.
“There’s been some security concerns that people have been asking about his whereabouts, investigating his location in the hospital,” de Mira said.
One of the campaigns Lee was working on involved a hydroelectric-power dam that the government is trying to build, which would displace a large indigenous community.
“That was really the essence of Brandon’s work,” de Mira said. “He was a volunteer paralegal for one of the organizations there and it was really about helping those with limited resources understand their legal rights and how to combat this development aggression that was happening.”
His aunt, Lita Lee, said her nephew became politicized while a student at San Francisco State University (SFSU) after he visited the Philippines a couple of times.
“That was his passion. I think he felt useful there,” she said. “I think the student organizations that he belonged to at State and what he saw when he went there twice, with the organizations,” gave him that passion.
“Four years ago, his life was threatened and we went to the Philippine Embassy and asked them to help. And it seemed like everything kind of died down. I think he was still in danger but what can we do? I never thought he would get shot,” Lee said. “I don’t think he wanted to be bullied. I don’t know; I just want him to come back.”
She joked that if he ever wants to go back there she will “take his passport. He’s not leaving. Half of me is amazed and proud of him. The other half doesn’t want him to do that.”
Melissa Reyes is a friend of Lee who met him at SFSU in 2006. In 2008 they were part of a small group of students who went to the Philippines to study and understand the issues there.
“He was the leader but also someone we would go to when we were having a crisis of understanding why we were there,” Reyes said. “He’s not Filipino himself but he was so comfortable there. He was really personable with all of the people that we stayed with. So, he really became that person for us.”
She said that a few days before he was shot he emailed her and a group of her friends that he was being followed.
“He was clear. He was clear that it was elements of the AFP, the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He had two other colleagues … and they were both targeted and killed … in 2014 and 2018. In 2015 they were getting death threats from the AFP. They were sent indigenous burial blankets, saying ‘you’re going to be buried in this.’”
She said Lee emailed her that an officer in the AFP contacted him about a “partnership” he wanted to form with their group but that Lee rejected the offer because he did not believe them, saying “you’re the same people that killed my friend. So if you want to form a partnership, you have to first answer how my friends were killed.”
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar said working with all of them to save Brandon’s life and bring him home has given him new hope.
“I think what Brandon really, to me, represents is the best of San Francisco: his idealism, his deep, deep commitment to his values and what he believes in and his dedicating his life to putting those values into action in the most inspiring way by moving to the Philippines and working with them and really knowing he’s really putting his life at risk,” Mar said.
District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney went to the hospital in the Philippines where Lee is recovering. He also attended the fundraiser, along with Mar and District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer and Board President Norman Yee.
“He’s continuing to do his part by fighting every day to get better and now we’re here to do our part, to make sure that we support his family, that we raise the money that’s necessary to bring him home,” Haney said.
“Sadly, what happened to Brandon is not an anomaly. There are tens of thousands of people in the Philippines who have been killed, who have been targeted by the Philippine police and the Philippine army, and that was a struggle that Brandon was very much on the front lines of, and he knew the risks that he was taking in order to be there for people who he believed were even more vulnerable than he was. And he put his life on the line in order to be there and defend them,” explained Haney.
Also at the fundraiser was Pam Tau Lee, chair of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines in the U.S.
“I went up into the rainforest and I met the defenders there who are protecting the lungs of mother earth, the rainforests, in the Philippines and I met them as they were stopping logging and roads running through the forests and the mining there,” Lee said. “And to see how important that role, to be an environmental defender in the Philippines is, not just for the Philippines but for the whole world. That was one in which I felt like to be an environmental defender in the Philippines, which I realized is one of the most dangerous places in the world.”
“Let us also brace ourselves to become environmental defenders, like Brandon, who does this with fierceness, with commitment, with courage. Let’s do that together,” she said.
To donate to help bring Brandon Lee back to San Francisco, visit the “Save Brandon Lee” page at http://www.gofundme.com.
Categories: Sunset District