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LA Loses Rose Ochi, Civil Rights Leader and City Hall Insider

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Rose Ochi, a civil rights leader and LA City Hall insider, died earlier this month. Kevin Winter/Getty Images
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Los Angeles' civil rights community is mourning the loss of attorney Rose Ochi, who died earlier this month at age 81.

She was the first Asian American woman to become an Assistant U.S. Attorney General, as an advisor to the Clinton White House on race relations.

Ochi was also integral in the push for the federal government to designate the Manzanar camp in Owens Valley as a national historic site in 1992.

Naomi Hirahara followed Ochi over the years as a Rafu Shimpo newspaper reporter and editor. She noted how Ochi was able to straddle the civil rights world and City Hall, where she worked closely with Mayor Tom Bradley as director of the city’s Criminal Justice Office.

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"She's was a very, very special individual because she was able to hold on to both worlds, and she was respected in both circles," Hirahara said.

Ochi's path to fighting for civil rights was set as a child. Born in East L.A., her family was shipped to Arkansas during World War II and incarcerated at a camp because of their Japanese ancestry. Ochi, then called Takayo, was given her western name by a schoolteacher.

"Even as a young child, you're made to believe that you're not a real American, and that you're an outsider," Ochi said in a 2013 interview with the Discover Nikkei project. "That empowered me throughout my life to be able to challenge institutions."

Aside from making history as an assistant attorney general, she was also L.A.'s first Asian American woman to serve on the police commission.

Hirahara said people couldn't help but pay attention to Ochi when she entered a room because of her confidence and the striking gray hair she didn't bother to dye.

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She was very direct and intimidating, using her legal skills to tackle issues such as criminal justice.

"She was kind of like Wonder Woman figure," Hirahara said. "There was no one quite like her."