The Jeff Adachi Memorial at City Hall was Incredibly Powerful
Jeff Adachi, the “superman” of public defense left this stage of life but the intensity with which he lived his 59 years, the passion he brought each and every day to his mission is what inspires those who now follow in his footsteps. It was a celebration of that legacy that set the tone for Monday’s memorial held at San Francisco City Hall.
He was known by countless “important people,” as the crowd demonstrated. But what made Adachi the fearless defender he became known as was not his desire to appease those at the top, but his assertion that every single person is important, a point Rudy Corpuz of United Playaz Violence Prevention Organization made at the start of Monday’s emotional ceremony.
It was just shortly after 11 a.m. when the reserved center seats began to fill with Adachi’s family and elected officials. To their right was a large group of primarily Public Defender’s Office staff, most wearing black shirts with their beloved leader’s image and the words, “His fight will live on through us,” printed on the back. That was really the essence of Monday’s memorial; amid fond remembrance and healthy doses of laughter were signs of hope that his work would not die with him.
Mayor London Breed recalled first meeting the man who would later go on to change the face of what public defense is capable of, not in any of her official political roles but instead as a 15-year-old girl when a friend had been arrested. Adachi had come to the family’s home to sit at the dining room table with the great grandmother of the accused friend.
“That’s how I met Jeff, not at a political event or a fundraiser, not when I was an elected official and he needed something from me, but at a dining room table trying to help someone from my community,” Breed told the crowd. That was the beginning of a lifetime friendship and working partnership where Breed is now tasked with appointing someone to replace the irreplaceable.
Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney who has assumed Adachi’s role since his untimely death, spoke from the City Hall stairway and remembered his late boss as “the protector of the poor, the champion of social justice.”
“In the 28 years I knew Jeff, I never saw him run away from injustice, rather he ran towards it.”
Former District 9 Supervisor David Campos recalled Adachi as “the best defense attorney we had,” who “in and out of the courtroom was relentless in his pursuit of justice.”
“Jeff was inherently someone who worked to support the underdog.”
That aspect of the Public Defender is a recurring theme when discussing his life’s work. Gonzalez said “Jeff was proud because he was representing the human being, not for what they did or might have done,” he recognized that each person deserves “dignity and a meaningful life.” He recalled that Adachi would walk into court not judging or condoning his client’s conduct, but he was “as certain as his opponents were not that the system needed to change.”
People shared Adachi’s love of film, quirky stamp collecting and quirkier Godzilla figurine obsession – he was remembered as a multifaceted man who knew how to laugh, and how to dress. But the tone of the day always returned to the people he served, the fight he never gave up on.
Leaders spoke, poems were read and songs were sung Monday on behalf of the city’s first elected public defender – the program reflected the diverse communities he served, and loved, and the family he left behind, both of blood and of business. There was former Mayor Willie Brown, Japanese American community leader Paul Osaki, his brother Stan Adachi, Reverend Bob Oshita, the GLIDE Ensemble and more…but it was the voices of those Adachi fought for who were celebrated alongside his memory, because that is exactly the way he would have wanted it.
Gonzalez, who humbly takes on Adachi’s leadership role in his absence spoke to this point best when he described a belief the two men shared, that there should be more than a “not guilty” plea for people at the criminal defense end of the justice system.
“I think the defense should be able to enter a plea of understanding,” Gonzalez said.
“I think there ought to be a plea of shared blame…or how about, ‘Your Honor, the defense pleads systematic failure.” That line garnered loud applause from those in the room who understood Jeff Adachi best and understand now that the best way to honor his memory is to continue his fight to fix what is broken and give voice to the voiceless.
Many in the large crowd of mourning yet hopeful people gathered Monday seem geared up to do just that, including the man who, for now, carries the responsibility to maintain Adachi’s vision in what will inevitably be challenging days ahead.
In his last words at the podium Monday, Gonzalez seemed to accept that torch as he said goodbye to his friend and colleague:
“Jeff was a beautiful man that after a life of so much action deserves to rest in peace.”