John Hamasaki wears many hats.
He’s a former San Francisco police commissioner, a criminal defense attorney and a fourth-generation Japanese American who moved to the city in search of a safe place to raise his family.
If you know him online, he’s the notoriously combative Twitter commentator, constantly splashing out controversial takes on local politics and public safety policy.
With the upcoming election, he’s taken on a new role as the progressive challenger to San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, who was appointed to the role by the mayor this summer.
Hamasaki recently stopped by The Standard’s newsroom to talk about his Asian identity, his experiences as a victim of discriminatory violence and what he’s like outside of Twitter.
This is part of a series of four DA candidates’ profile features—the rest of which you can find here. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.
It’s been two weeks since you announced your campaign for DA. How’s your campaign building up?
Jumping in late in the game was quite something. We’ve built up infrastructure, endorsements, fundraising, getting out and meeting the community all in a very short time. It’s been going about as good as it can go, I think, and it’s pretty amazing the way people have stepped up to help.
Some former Chinese American elected leaders support your campaign. You were the only Asian police commissioner for years, and you were the Asian American Bar Association’s president in 2020. Do you have strong ties to the local Asian community?
I think I do. I lived in North Beach on the border of Chinatown. I’ve always been in the community. My focus has been in the legal community and I’ve really focused on how to represent Asian Americans as a lawyer.
Growing up Asian in a community where there weren’t many Asians, I really learned to identify or was identified by my “Asianness.” It’s important to me as an Asian American to be a strong voice on behalf of our community.
You say you were once a victim of anti-Asian violence and came to SF to find a space free from “anti-Asian bullying and harassment.” Can you talk a bit about what happened to you?
It was in college there was a man who was harassing a Pakistani classmate at a party. I asked him to leave. I said, “That’s not appropriate here. It’s cool. Just leave. We don’t want any trouble.” And then I was targeted by him and his friends. A lot of anti-Asian slurs. He had a long wooden stick, swung it at me and struck me in the forearm.
In my childhood in Florida, there was me, my brother and two other Asian kids in my entire elementary school. So starting in kindergarten, I faced intense bullying and harassment.
All that experience really shaped who I am in the sense that I know what it's like to be an outsider, an underdog, somebody whose voice isn't represented.
And after college, you chose to come to SF?
Right. My father’s family is from Hawaii, and we would go there every summer. So there I really learned about my Asian community and my culture. When I was back to Florida after college, I decided that I wanted something like that. I wanted to be around the Asian community. And I decided to move to San Francisco because it has one of the largest Asian populations.
High-profile attacks have sparked fear in the community and there are debates about the ups and downs of crime data. As an Asian, do you feel safe?
I’m a relatively young man, and I think it’s a very different experience for me than it is for a woman or an elder who seem to be the targets of the anti-Asian hate and bias. So it felt safer for me. But I also understand that it doesn't feel safe for a lot of people. It feels like the community is under attack.
It’s hard to overcome the fear now because [the crime] feels very random. People can’t stop a lot of these attacks from happening. When individuals are caught, they go to the criminal justice system and the District Attorney’s Office has an opportunity to seek justice for them.
I think that’s one of the things that I want to focus on, the expansion of victim services to really provide culturally competent language access wraparound services so that victims’ needs are met.
Many in the Asian community are now pushing a platform of tougher policing and prosecution. What’s the best way to keep our communities safe?
Public safety is such a complicated issue because the goal of law enforcement, the prosecutor and the community has to be on ending the harm, ending these attacks.
I don’t want to say that policing is the problem, but what I’m saying is that how it’s run and how it’s operated and how it’s managed and the culture within it—I think we can definitely do better.
So, it’s not that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach because we really have to address the underlying issue, which is: why are Asians being targeted? These attacks were happening and the bias was occurring on a pretty regular basis to people. So we have to take a holistic approach and address every side of it that we can to end anti-Asian hate, not just prosecute after it’s happened.
It seems like you have softened your tone on the police. We know you are a strong critic of law enforcement, SFPD and mass incarceration. So what’s your response to some people calling you “anti-cop” or even “pro-criminal?”
That's just not a reality. If anybody watches my four years on the Police Commission, these are issues that I focused on: public safety, cultural competence, language access, domestic violence.
Do I have opposition to police who aren’t doing their job? Who are doing their job in a racially biased manner? Who are beating up and killing people? Absolutely. And like I said, that’s a form of bullying and I have a hard time sitting back when people are abusing our communities.
Let’s talk about your Twitter persona. We all know SF’s political dialogue on the platform can be toxic, and you appeared to be very combative on Twitter. Are you a nicer person in real life?
I think that’s up to every individual to judge, but I get along with everybody.
Twitter can be a place [for] pushing the boundaries, [for] challenging people. It’s the new town hall. We throw ideas out there and people join in and comment and debate. Hopefully, everybody learns in the process. It can be fun, but it can also be pretty destructive. And I think we’ve seen that in San Francisco politics.
You deleted thousands of your tweets right before you launched your campaign. Are you trying to hide anything?
No. It’s an awkward story because I did use a program to delete “low engagement” tweets like tweets with little likes or retweets. But it just deleted the tweets from February. So there’s a chunk that's missing, but if anybody wants to go and dig up some controversial tweets, I’m sure there’s some there.
I knew getting in the race I was going to be scrutinized. So I just wanted to clear up the low engagement ones. People want ones that people weren’t really interested in. Like I said, there’s plenty on there if people want to have fun and I'm sure they will.
You tweeted about defunding the DA’s Office in 2020 but now you are running to be a DA. Do you still agree with what you tweeted?
The tweet is about a Vallejo police killing and the DA has ruled every Vallejo police shooting as justified since taking office in 2014.
I believe that with some prosecutors’ offices, absolutely. Police and prosecutors are both law enforcement. This has been a historical problem. There has been a way that police and prosecutors have worked together that is not in the interest of the community.
SF progressives were rallying in solidarity behind former DA Chesa Boudin. Do you think you have that level of support?
I think that we’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of aspects of the community. I don’t think I’m a candidate necessarily just for the progressives. I think I’m a candidate because I have the experience, I have the background, I’ve worked in criminal justice for my whole career, I’ve worked in the courtroom for my whole career.
What people want now after a really divisive and toxic few years around criminal justice in San Francisco is just somebody who’s going to do the job.
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]