By Thomas K. Pendergast
Brandon Lee, the activist, journalist and the survivor of an assassination attempt in the Philippines, is back home in San Francisco and receiving treatment from Dr. Susan Ehrlich at San Francisco General Hospital.
At a press conference and rally on Oct. 28 in front of San Francisco City Hall, feelings of relief, love and anger from his family, friends and supporters were all plain to see: relief that he is home now; love for him; and anger at the Rodrigo Duterte regime in the Philippines being funded with hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars.
“My son, who, unlike me, willingly and selflessly gave up a comfortable life in San Francisco to fly halfway across the world to help the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera, even though he has no roots in the Philippines,” said Brandon’s mother, Louise Lee. “My son, who, like many innocent people in the Philippines, was senselessly shot for speaking out for those who have no voice, for those who are marginalized, for those who are being taken advantage of.”
She reminded everyone of the countless extra-judicial killings there that do not receive the same international attention as Lee.
“My son would say his fight for justice is for them too,” she said. “Brandon repeatedly told us his assailant was from the (Philippine) army. We must work together to stop U.S. military aid to the Philippines.”
Lee, 37, was shot outside his home in Luzon on Aug. 6. His assailants have not been captured or identified, although some suspect the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and the Philippine military are involved.
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 was assisting local indigenous people resisting attempts to build a hydroelectric dam on their land. Lee was a volunteer paralegal for one of the organizations there, helping the locals understand their legal rights in order to resist the government through the courts.
District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar sponsored the press conference and he described how Lee came back into the country.
“Early Saturday morning, I, along with Supervisor Haney and Brandon’s family and many friends here, were able to join together and welcome Brandon back to San Francisco safely,” Mar said. “Brandon’s safe return to San Francisco really is an incredibly hopeful outcome, made possible through an even more incredible organizing effort by Brandon’s family and supporters.”
Mar noted that Brandon Lee is a first, albeit a first of an unenviable distinction.
“Brandon is the first United States citizen believed to be a target of an extrajudicial assassination attempt by the regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,” Mar said. “Prior to Aug. 6, Brandon had been subjected to surveillance, threats and harassment by the Philippine military since 2015 for his advocacy to protect the land and the human rights of indigenous people in the Cordillera region of the Philippines.
“I’m so, so glad to have Brandon back, but we’re not done yet. There’s a ways to go to still cover the cost of Brandon’s ongoing medical care and much more work to be done to address the underlying injustices that led to Brandon’s attack. While this attempt to assassinate and silence Brandon is shocking and tragic, his story is tremendously inspiring and hopeful to all of us,” Mar said.
“Brandon is someone who believes in and fought for the power of the people,” District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney said. “He went to the Philippines to stand with indigenous people there, to fight for their rights to stand up for their land, so it’s especially powerful that we stand here welcoming him home because of people power.”
Lee’s mother, Louise, described how, on Aug. 6, after his family’s dinner, he came out on the porch to feed the dogs when someone sprayed it with bullets and four of them hit him. She relayed what she was told about the harrowing experience of trying to get him to the hospital, with people helping along the way, and that by the time she finally got to the Philippines and saw him for herself, the doctors at Baguio General Hospital told her he had already suffered eight cardiac arrests, all of which they managed to pull him out of.
“The Philippine government is currently under investigation by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council for its human rights abuses, including politically motivated killings of its critics, such as human rights defenders like Brandon,” she said. “We need to question where our U.S. tax dollars are going. Is the money being used to unjustly kill and maim innocent Filipinos who are poor? Or those who merely speak up and help the poor farmers and peasants?”
She called for a freeze on military aid to the Philippines pending an investigation into these killings “so that innocent people like Brandon are not caught in the crossfire.”
Brandon’s friend, Faye Lacanilao, said the last time she saw Brandon they watched “The Avengers” movie together, and that’s how she thinks of him.
“For some of us Brandon is a real-life avenger. Who else could have survived eight cardiac arrests and four gunshot wounds, right?
“But this real-life avenger wouldn’t be home if it weren’t for all of you. If it were not for your love, your compassion, your faith and generosity to bring our dearest Brandon back home,” Lacanilao said.
Meanwhile Rhonda Ramiro of the activist organization BAYAN USA pointed to the City Hall building as she made another point about the larger issues involved.
“While we’re ecstatic that Brandon has come back to San Francisco … he’s returned with bullets still lodged in his body,” Ramiro said. “Bullets that were shot by the armed forces of the Philippines but supplied by the over $193.5 million in so-called ‘aid’ that the U.S. provides to the Philippine military and police.
“We hold accountable both the Duterte regime, which is hunting down environmental activists and human rights defenders like Brandon, and the U.S. government, which is funding, equipping and training the death squads of Duterte and other fascists around the world,” she continued.
“The U.S. government is knowingly supplying this aid to Duterte, despite the well-known 30,000 people killed in his ‘drug war,’ the more than 30 environmental defenders slaughtered in just 2018 alone, and the 400 farm workers and state leaders and lawyers, and trade union organizers and other human rights defenders, who are people just like us here. This level of impunity has risen to new heights under Duterte,” Ramiro said.
In September, the SF Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution authored by Mar that condemned the attack on Brandon, urged a congressional investigation and called for a moratorium on U.S. taxpayer dollars going to the Philippine armed forces and national police.