Alex T. Lee is 24 years old. A Democrat, Lee is squaring off against Republican Bob Brunton in November 2020’s race for California State Assembly District 25.
This past Sunday, May 31, Lee was arrested by San Jose Police following a protest over the murder by police in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an African-American man who’d been apprehended on suspicion of passing a counterfeit 20-dollar bill.
Lee was initially inspired to run for office on account of “A deep sense of the structural injustices that are in our society.” He cites housing unaffordability as one example, what with Northern California residents often unable to afford to continue living in the communities they grew up in, and police brutality, now prevalent on most Americans’ minds, as another.
Since high school, Lee knew he wanted to study Political Science. If he wins November’s election, he will be the first openly bisexual legislator in California history. Says Lee, “I identify as bi, and I’m also API [Asian/Pacific Islander], and I’m also Gen Z, and I’m also progressive …”
He cites these as the “4 most important identities I have” in terms of his status as a public figure. “It informs my desire to want to fight for a more inclusive society.”
Lee was out protesting last Friday and Saturday, then into Sunday. Downtown San Jose was the epicenter of the city’s protests, right near City Hall.
On Sunday, he was live-streaming through Instagram, getting to know his fellow protestors and “sharing a strong moment of outrage with my community.”
“Almost everyone there,” he adds, “was fed up with racism…”
He had first seen the police intervene on Friday, and then again on Saturday. Come Sunday, he found the officers’ behavior to have been tamer than it was on the two days prior. Sunday, he only saw them fire rubber bullets into the crowd one time. Beyond that, he witnessed police using riot control strategies to break up the crowds and cause them to disperse.
Lee left City Hall at around 7:30pm. The curfew, which incidentally ends today, June 4, was set to begin at 8:30pm and run ‘til 5am.
“Around 8:30,” Lee explains, “is when I think the police got more aggressive about chasing down people…” He says police soon fired stun grenades into the crowd. “The more intimidating the police tactics, the more people [will be] inclined to run and panic, and that happens a lot…”
San Jose’s curfew was not mandatory for police and emergency personnel, delivery and utility workers, news reporters and government employees, those in search of or providing medical care, and homeless people. Lee had, however, heard about journalists being subject to arrest. In the meantime, his own live-streamed Instagram videos served as a form of journalism.
Post-curfew, Lee had broken away from the main protest group and was chatting with some medics, volunteers on hand to help protestors with wounds or tear gas burns. He was continuing his live-streaming when an officer appeared and issued a threat, saying, “Better get out of here, or you’re gonna be made an example of…”
Lee then got into a car with one of the medics, for the sake of following the protestors and staying on the lookout so as to help anyone in need. By then, the city’s streets were “completely dark.” The police chopper above helped to light the pair’s way. All around them was a sense of panic, as explosions rang out and police chased down and/or arrested protestors, or worked to drive them off the downtown grid.
Lee continued to capture what he could on video.
Alongside the vehicle Lee was in, police were marching some arrestees toward a bus. From the curb, a cop told them to leave the area, and almost raised his weapon. Lee recoiled in fear, envisioning being gassed, as one possibility, while enclosed in the small space of a car.
In time, the scene grew quieter. At around 10pm, Lee was in the company of a legal observer/advisor. The pair returned to City Hall; Lee’s car was parked closeby. Near City Hall was a news van; the legal observer knew the van’s personnel. All around them, many police cars and officers were in plain sight.
Lee stood chatting with the media workers when a police cruiser rolled up, headlights shining hard. A female officer emerged, her attention locked on Lee.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” she asked.
Then she grabbed him. She said, “You’re under arrest…”
She secured Lee against the car and fastened a zip tie around his wrists, explaining that he was being arrested for having broken curfew. He explained in turn that he was with a legal observer and with the media.
The zip tie was fixed tight. If Lee tried to move his wrists, he couldn’t; he got corrected by a hit of discomfort. Emotionally, he found himself in what he describes as a “calm rage.” Back on Friday, when he’d joined his fellow protestors out on the 101 Freeway, “I was ready to get arrested for looking like I was doing something unruly.” But being arrested at that point in time had caught him off guard. In addition, as Lee was being arrested, a man emerged from his apartment to see what was going on.
The police arrested that man, too.
“I was just in disbelief,” Lee shares. Then: “They march us across the street, put us in the back of a paddy wagon, with other detainees.”
“Very hot and smelly in there,” he adds. The wagon offered very little room to breathe, as many other arrestees were crammed inside.
One man who’d been in the vehicle before Lee was distressed about his zip tie, and complained of circulatory problems. As the man pleaded with the officers to relieve the tie, the officers said that the ties are either too loose or too tight, with no room in between. Lee asked if they could just redo them, but they wouldn’t.
The man’s girlfriend, meanwhile, was in a different compartment of the same wagon, across a layer of grating. She, too, was having circulatory issues, to the point where her hands grew numb and cold. The cops relented and redid the girlfriend’s tie.
They sat still in the wagon for 15 or 20 minutes, before riding over to San Jose’s SAP Center. Lee had already asked where they were going, and been told it’d be County Jail, for a stretch of about six to eight hours.
But now they were pulling up into the SAP Center’s parking garage. At the top of the parking structure, 50 arrestees got sat down on the pavement. Then one by one, they each got cited and processed, after which Lee got placed into another paddy wagon, this one bearing a Sheriff’s logo.
He estimated about nine people inside. “Very COVID-friendly,” Lee says sarcastically.
A rumor spread amongst the detainees that they were headed to Milpitas’ Great Mall. Ironically, the Mall had been hit by looters some hours prior. It was midnight when the Sheriff’s wagon pulled up to Neiman Marcus, the precise store that the looters had targeted. More ironic still, having been dropped off away from San Jose, the arrestees would have to technically break curfew again just to make their way back home.
Lee was tense with anger. “I’ve never felt, in a funny way, more terrible customer service…” In other words, all he wanted was communication and clarity, but now things that would be unacceptable at the DMV were happening in a situation wherein he was being detained and then dropped off miles from home.
Outside the mall, Lee’s zip tie was removed once and for all (it had been removed once before, during his processing atop the SAP Center).
Alex Lee is due in court on October 6, on a misdemeanor charge for violating San Jose’s curfew order. Like others arrested amid the protests, he has contacted the National Guild of Lawyers for support.
On his pending court date, Lee says, “It causes some anxiety…Another thing to have over my head…”
Indeed, the court date is less than 30 days before Election Day, which comes on November 3.
Prior to his arrest, Lee hadn’t incorporated criminal justice reform into his campaign. Now, though, he plans to seek community and advocate input on which reform measures he might be best positioned to push.
In the meantime, on Monday, the night after his arrest, I asked Alex Lee if he had any evening plans. Said Lee, with stoicism, “I might be joining the protest tonight at City Hall.”