Brandon Lee airlifted back to SF

David Mamaril Horowitz

SF State alumnus Brandon Lee followed his heart across the globe nine years ago, leaving behind the comfort and safety of his San Francisco home to advocate for poor farmers in the Ifugao province of the Philippines. 


Faye Lacalinao carries a sign in support of her longtime friend, SF State alumnus Brandon Lee, at the steps of San Francisco City Hall Oct. 28. (Photo by David Mamaril Horowitz / Golden Gate Xpress)

From abroad to the San Francisco Bay Area, members of the Filipino community joined Lee’s family in ensuring his safe return to San Francisco Oct. 26 when he was shot and nearly killed Aug. 6. 

The shooting, which occurred outside Lee’s Ifugao home, lodged four bullets into Lee’s spine, back and jaw. It spurred eight cardiac arrests and put him on life support. 

“Will we make it in time? Will he still be alive when we get there?” his mother Louise Lee recalled herself thinking when she heard the news and left San Francisco to see her son. “So many unknowns.”

In 2015, Brandon and other environmental activists from the Ifugao Peasants Movement were red-tagged as enemies of the state and vilified on social media, Brandon’s close friends said. Brandon himself said in a video interview last year that someone had delivered him a traditional burial blanket that represented a death threat.

Believing the shooting was a targeted attack by the Philippine military, Lee’s family, friends and supporters have rallied multiple times to demand Lee’s safe return to San Francisco. Urgency rose as strangers appearing “suspicious” to his family would circulate the hospital Lee stayed in, spreading fears that his assailant was trying to finish him off.

And after nearly three months of advocacy and fundraising from his hundreds of supporters at home and abroad, Brandon’s family had him airlifted home.

He’s stabilized and recovering at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, according to the hospital’s CEO Susan Ehrlich.

It took two demonstrations at the steps of San Francisco City Hall, several fundraisers and a San Francisco resolution demanding Brandon’s return to make it happen. Local advocacy caught the attention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Jackie Speier. 

They assisted Lee’s family in obtaining a loan from the U.S. State Department, which helped pay for the $164,000 airlift, according to Lee’s family and friends.

“It has been a long journey, and I am grateful, and my heart is full. Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Louise said to a crowd of supporters at an Oct. 26 news conference.

Although Lee’s arrival was met with relief, his supporters continue to demand that the U.S. stop funding the Philippine military, an estimated $184 million per year, according to a San Francisco resolution. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has killed more than 29,000 Filipinos without due process, according to the resolution.

“We need to question where our U.S. tax dollars are going,” Louise said.

Growing up in the San Francisco Sunset District, Brandon fostered a passion for activism during his time in SF State’s Asian American Studies department, said Asian American Studies Chair Russel Jeung, who taught Brandon years ago.

“His personality was a combination of compassion and empathy for the issues that the oppressed are enduring, and a strong sense of justice to advocate on their behalf,” Jeung said.

Brandon’s student activism turned to human rights activism, Jeung said. Brandon became friends with classmates and colleagues in San Francisco, and he stayed in contact with them.

“He was consistent and relentless and always connected,” SF State Asian American Studies professor Allyson Titiangco-Cubales said. “Even if he was thousands of miles away, he was able to maintain his friendships and relationships and the care that he gave here in the U.S. along with his work and care that he gave in the Philippines.”

He met his wife Bernice in Ifugao, and they had a daughter. He worked as a paralegal volunteer, environmental activist and journalist opposing giant corporate projects on peasant farmer land. 

Although he is in stable condition and recovering, Brandon still has the bullets in his body and won’t be able to live exactly the same as he did before, his close friend Princess Bustos said. As they advocate for a halt to Duterte’s regime, Brandon’s supporters hope that his struggle isn’t in vain.

“This cause is not my cause,” Louise said. “It is my son’s cause, but I do not believe in extrajudicial killings, and I know that the U.S. also does not support extrajudicial killings.”

She recalled the victims of human rights abuses in the Philippines, where about 30 environmental activists are killed every year.

“My son would say his fight for justice is for them too,” Louise said.

To donate to Brandon’s family to cover the airlift and medical expenses, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-brandon-lee