By TRACI ISHIGO
On Saturday, Feb. 21, nearly 200 attendees joined together for the Los Angeles Day of Remembrance (LA-DOR), a moment to uplift a part of history not shared enough, yet has so much relevance to struggles today.
Since September 2014, the LA-DOR organizing committee, made of multi-generational members of the JACL-Pacific Southwest District, the Japanese American National Museum, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, and the Manzanar Committee, had been meeting to plan this annual commemoration of Executive Order 9066 and its impacts on our community. Our conversations were undeniably shaped by the tragic death of unarmed 18-year-old African American Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, only a month prior to the first organizing meeting.
The use of fatal force by the unindicted officer Darren Wilson represents one of many modern-day legal murders of black lives, due to the state’s protection of deadly law enforcement. Public outrage made the end of 2014 a time of nationwide protests, and organizers now recognize 2015 as the year of resistance.
With Los Angeles community members demanding justice for the death of Ezell Ford, a young unarmed black male shot in the back by LAPD on Aug. 11, 2014, and Little Tokyo at the heart of peaceful protests with LAPD headquarters nearby, the LA-DOR organizers began to discuss what became the theme of this year’s program: “E.O. 9066 and the [In]Justice System Today.”
We began to understand that E.O. 9066 not only changed the lives of the Nikkei community, but that of others whom our history is forever connected with. This year’s theme was an effort to speak to the importance of remembering how wartime anti-Japanese racism and the U.S. incarceration camps led Nikkei and black community members to connect and build with each other in the face of oppression.
Emcees Helen Ota and Dr. Curtiss Takada Rooks began the program with the annual commemoration ceremony, and then led the audience through a historical presentation, highlighting stories of Nikkei and black leaders, working across difference with justice in mind.
African American attorney Hugh Macbeth was just one of those community leaders who acted upon his moral consciousness to defend Ernest and Toki Wakayama, who were forcibly removed from their California home following the announcement of EO 9066. He also worked with ACLU attorney A.L. Wirin to represent Fred and Kajiro Oyama in their challenge against the California Alien Land Act, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in January 1948.
African American political leaders such as Congressman Ron Dellums and Congressman Mervyn Dymally were also honored for their impassioned efforts alongside Japanese Americans in the redress and reparations movement.
Japanese Americans such as Yuri Kochiyama were recognized for their inspiring commitment to justice and black liberation while living and working amongst African Americans. Nisei short story writer Hisaye Yamamoto Desoto was another leading example, through her experiences of writing for an African American newspaper, The Los Angeles Tribune. After her release from Poston, she compiled critical reports of lynchings across the country, and the experience of working with the black community led her to feel that a “transformation did take place, the effects of which are with me still.”
After leaving the camps, African Americans and Nikkei used to live amongst each other in neighborhoods such as East and South Los Angeles, where restrictive housing covenants had segregated communities of color. With the communities sharing space, children playing together, black and Japanese American leaders working to integrate their neighborhoods, everyday moments for solidarity and transformation could take place.
But, how do these historical connections matter today? With Japanese Americans no longer living in black neighborhoods as we once used to, what is the community’s connection to how the United States justice system continues to imperil the black community with police violence, profiling, and mass incarceration?
To further this dialogue, a conversation took place between community members Povi-Tamu Bryant, Rey Fukuda and Mike Murase.
Mike Murase, a community activist raised in what is now South Central, challenged the audience to realize there are many days of remembrances. Going back to 1955, Mike began to recount the names and years of many black individuals killed by the state, making the connection of how “racism, hysteria and the failure of political leadership” systemically continues to allow these injustices occur.
Rey Fukuda, a transgender, mixed-race, Nikkei and Latino immigrant to the U.S., shared that regardless of where he traveled to in the world, he witnessed anti-blackness, and the stigma against black people. Sharing personal experiences of how his parents took issue with him dating his former black partner, Rey not only showed how anti-blackness is commonly perpetuated within non-black communities of color, but how it is harmful and divisive within non-black families as well.
With hopes of building solidarity, Povi-Tamu Bryant, a black queer organizer with the Los Angeles chapter of the nation-wide Black Lives Matter movement, shared how audience members could begin their support: that is, with self-awareness, a curiosity to self-educate themselves on issues affecting the black community, and a willingness to show up, especially when black leadership asks for specific support from allies. Povi-Tamu also powerfully reminded us that the Nikkei community is bound with the black community through much more than only history, but through the very bodies of mixed black and Nikkei people. We then heard from one of those prophetic voices, Dr. Rook’s 15-year-old daughter, Mariko Rooks.
Strongly representing their generation, Mariko Rooks and 18-year-old Alex Kanegawa made a call to action for greater efforts of inclusion, awareness and solidarity from Nikkei community members in the fight for justice today. Often pulled between two racial identities, Mariko shared her experiences of people telling her that she is “not one of them,” as a way to deny when they hurt and offended her with anti-black statements. She reminded everyone that she too, is “one of them,” as a call to realize the harm of anti-black racism, the need for change and the immensity of today’s racist society on her life that matters.
From the Black Lives Matter website, the emcees shared: “Today, every 28 hours, a black man, woman or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement. An estimated 25.1 percent of black women live in poverty. This is higher than any other ethnic group. The average life expectancy for a black transgender woman is 35 years.”
And with a moment to register those facts of today’s reality, we asked the audience: “Do black lives matter to Japanese Americans?” We ask with the hopes of not only remembering the historical connections, but the need to build meaningful contemporary ones in a time so critical as now.
Traci Ishigo is a 23-year-old organizer in Los Angeles, and program coordinator for the JACL Pacific Southwest District.