Recalling Dark Days

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Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (center) receives a photo of a peace rally held in Little Tokyo last September from emcees Ameena Mirza Qazi (left) and Koji Steven Sakai following the Day of Remembrance ceremony on Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

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By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer

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The main reception hall at the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo was filled to capacity with participants and visitors on Saturday, for the 2011 Day of Remembrance.

The ceremony is held every year on or around Feb. 19 to commemorate the day in 1942 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the evacuation and incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans.

Hamza Perez

This year’s DOR was hosted by film screenwriter and JANM staff member Koji Steven Sakai, along with Ameena Mizra Qazi, deputy executive director and staff attorney for the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The theme of the day was “September 11: Ten Years After,” in observance of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001, after which the Muslim American community has experienced the same types of scrutiny and bias that led to the signing of E.O. 9066 and the upheaval of the lives of Japanese Americans nationwide.

The event featured keynote speeches by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta and Hamza Perez, a Puerto Rican rapper who broke out of the cycle of drug dealing and prison life to follow a new path as a young Muslim.

In his remarks, Mineta, who himself was among those sent to internment camps during World War II, remembered the placards that had been posted in areas along the West Coast with large Japanese American populations, instructing them to report for evacuation and relocation.

“They were nailed and stapled to the sides of buildings and utility poles,” he recalled, “and said ‘Attention: All those of Japanese ancestry, alien and non-alien.’ Well, who is a non-alien? An American citizen.”

Mineta explained that the government wasn’t even willing to acknowledge that over 65 percent of the over 120,000 people who were going to be evacuated and interned for the duration of the war were U.S. citizens.

“That’s why I cherish the word ‘citizen,’ ” he said.

A capacity crowd listens to Mineta speak. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

In describing some of the daunting tasks he faced on Sept. 11, 2001, the former secretary praised the work of the air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants, all of whom had to figure out what to do with their aircraft after Mineta ordered the grounding of all planes in the country and the closing of all U.S. air space. He noted the cooperation of the transportation minister and the people of Canada, who graciously accepted hundreds and planes and thousands of passengers, not knowing for how long they would be stranded there.

“As far as I could tell, they just decided that these were either new neighbors or just old friends that they had not yet gotten to meet,” he said.

In the days following the attacks, Mineta said one moment with President Bush made him particularly proud, when Rep. David Bonior of Detroit expressed concern about possible backlash against the large Arab American population in that city.

“The president responded, saying, ‘You’re absolutely right, David. I am deeply concerned, and we do not want to have happen today what happened at home in 1942.’ He would have come up with that decision on his own. I simply felt privileged to be cited as a reason,” Mineta said.

Hamza, who left his checkered past in Massachusetts to establish a new religious community on Pittsburgh’s tough North Side, said the humiliating FBI raid on his mosque in the days following Sept. 11 led him to reach for more connection with people outside his faith.

“God created different tribes,” Hamza said, citing the Koran, “so that we’ll get the opportunity to know one another.”

Hamza added that on any road to understanding, face-to-face contact is crucial, and he praised the Japanese American community for holding events such as the DOR.

The ceremony also saw the adoption of a resolution and call to action, brought by representatives of the local Japanese American and Muslim American communities, which called for a commitment “to stand up for the civil liberties and the rights of all Americans to express their beliefs and practice their faith peacefully and without harassment.” A large print of the resolution was signed by the presenters and all in attendance were invited to do the same.

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