Tsuru for Solidarity: Presenting Voices from Ground Zero

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Japanese Americans protest in front of Cook County Jail as part of Tsuru for Solidarity. 

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Second of three parts

Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network (DWN), noted that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world and felt it was not enough just to call for the defunding of local law enforcement agencies. 

“What we have to understand is that all these systems are intertwined,” said Shah.

“Detention doesn’t happen without the criminal legal system in the U.S. ICE and CBP don’t happen without the existence of police in the military. All of those things are intertwined, and as we fight for the release of people from detention, the release of people from incarceration and also preventing further deportation and providing refuge for people coming to this country, we have to think about how all of these systems were created based on racism, and specifically anti-black racism, and to think about what that means for us to build systems where black people are thriving because if we do that, then all people will be thriving.”

Rev. Sheri Dickerson, executive director of Black Lives Matter Oklahoma, who had been active in successfully preventing Fort Sill from becoming a migrant children’s detention center, thanked Tsuru for their past actions around Fort Sill and requested further assistance in the form of advice, financial donations and legislative help in connection with African Americans and Indigenous tribe issues. 

“We’re asking that you push for reparations for black persons,” said Dickerson, who was en route to another rally. “We also stand with our Native and Indigenous communities. Oklahoma means the ‘Land of the Red Man’ and so we acknowledge that we exist on stolen land, and so we also are in solidarity with our Indigenous community in saying, ‘Give the land back,’ and restore balance and fairness to this country.”

Cetan Sa Winyan, director of American Indian Movement Indian Territory Oklahoma, who works with Murdered, Missing and Indigenous Women, Oklahoma Chapter, shared that their work involves sovereignty issues and treaty rights, as well as bringing awareness to the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and police brutality. 

During the Fort Sill protest rally, Winyan had placed her body in harm’s way to block counter-protesters who were threatening the Buddhist ministers.

“Our women are ten times more likely to be murdered or missing among any other race,” said Winyan.  “Our native people are more likely or at a higher rate to be killed by police or face police brutality, especially here in Oklahoma.” 

Yet despite the high numbers, Winyan said their community is often ignored. “Even though we have the highest rate of murdered or missing, and police brutality (cases), we don’t get news media,” she said. “We don’t get like a platform to tell our story, so by you inviting us and giving us room for discussions and a platform, that’s a big step for acknowledging us.”

Like Dickerson, she felt it was important for different communities to join together to end racism. 

“This country was built on the genocide of our people and on the backs of black people, but yet it is still run by white supremacy,” she said. “And here we are in 2020, and we’re still having to have these discussion of racism and injustice against people of color. We’ve been fighting that ever since the first white person stepped foot on this country and that’s over 500 years … When are we going to say enough is enough?”

Neidi Dominguez, senior advisor for Mijente, felt it was incumbent on everyone to get involved in these issues that have been causing pain and rage within the respective communities for a long time. 

“I think all of our people in the streets are sending everyone a very solid message that this is not a moment to reform but a moment to end the oppression, end the police brutality, end detention,” she said. “That this is a moment for our people to be free.” 

Mariko Kaczkowski (right) arrived with strings of tsuru and signs in honor of black lives and family members who were incarcerated during World War II.

Although the current protest rallies focus on police brutality upon African Americans, Dominguez felt this was her community’s fight as well. 

“As Latinx specifically, we have a lot to owe to the blacks and Black American struggle in this country when it comes to racial justice,” she said. “I think that could be said for so many of the ways all of our struggles are intersected and connected and so I am so, so clear and grounded in this moment that whatever work all of us are able to do, whether donate or if it’s to show up or making calls, texting, bringing new people in or having hard conversations with our own families around anti-blackness, that we do that … with a very, very clear understanding that this is our fight too.” 

Maru Mora Vilalpando is co-founder of La Resistencia, based in Tacoma, Wash. The organization’s goal is to seek better treatment for immigrants held at the Northwest Detention Center, while working to eventually shut it down. La Resistencia has been so successful that ICE has started deportation proceedings against Vilalpando, who continues her organizing work.   

This February, Tsuru members joined with La Resistencia at NWDC, calling for better treatment of the detained immigrants and the closure of the site.  

Vilalpando, building upon what Shah had said, pointed out that the U.S. also has the highest number of imprisoned immigrants in the world. The vast majority of detained immigrants are people of color and poor. She noted that immigration agents, like local law enforcement officers, have the same racist attitudes towards darker-skinned people and those who speak little to no English, treating them the worst. 

She challenged privileged people of color to examine their own prejudices. “It is very important for us to see the connections, both how the system separates us but also how we replicate those systems and how we protect those systems and how we police each other, thinking that we are going to be accepted in the future somehow by the people in power, by the white dominant culture.” 

The demonstrators hung posters with the names of the seven people who died of COVID-19 while being held at Cook County Jail.

She shared that her organization has refrained from pushing for U.S. citizenship. 

“I personally have called upon my own undocumented community to really think about whether we want to ask for citizenship when we see citizens for so many centuries being treated the way they’re treated,” she said. “When we see Native Americans, when we see black people that are U.S. citizens being treated as disposable, how can we undocumented call ourselves for citizenship? 

“I think we need to first make sure that those who are U.S. citizens are treated with respect, that those communities are treated with equity so that we can come along and ask for that kind of rights so it is completely bound together that we need to work together, that we need to fight together.”

Nana Gyamfi is executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the largest black-led social service organization, representing 10 million black immigrants and refugees in the US.

Gyamfi talked about the myth of the American dream that has eluded generations of African Americans and said that as recent immigrants, they, too, are forced to learn the racist policies of the U.S. 

 “As black immigrants, we have no choice but to confront and address anti-blackness because we are subjected to the terrors of white supremacy, along with our African American siblings,” she said. 

She called for the “ending of policing, the ending of caging, the defunding of enforcement, the releasing of people from cages, including from detention centers and jails, including black political prisoners.” 

Lara Kim, an undocumented organizer with the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, said she has never been detained but as an undocumented immigrant, she lives with the fear of being detained and deported any day. She condemned the living conditions inside the detention centers and advocated for citizenship for everyone. 

“We need to fight for citizenship for all,” said Kim. “And I don’t mean just legal citizenship but I mean real citizenship. I mean the acknowledgement that we have full and unequivocal rights to live and be recognized as human beings.”  

Dr. Kate Sugarman is a family doctor with Unity Healthcare. She learned about the plight of immigrants and asylum seekers when an immigration attorney asked her to document proof of torture in her clients. Since then, Sugarman has done hundreds of torture examinations, many inside ICE detention centers, which she described as “wretched,” where immigrants are detained in cages and not being given proper medical attention. 

Angry over the treatment of the migrants, she and other doctors around the nation joined to create Doctors for Camp Closure. These doctors have since marched on Washington and have gotten arrested for merely attempting to administer vaccine to the migrant children. 

“COVID-19 has turned these ICE camps into death camps,” said Sugarman. “And this must stop.” 

Queyn Dinh, executive director of Southeast Asian Resource Center (SEARAC), shared that 45 years ago leaders from the U.S. called for an end to the Vietnam War that had spread into Cambodia and Laos. 

“These leaders included those from the Black Panther movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., to American humanitarians who called for the United States to hold itself accountable to the violence and destruction it had created in our own home countries and to call for an America that would offer asylum and a safe haven,” said Dinh. “That’s why it is our duty and responsibility to stand with Tsuru for Solidarity to call for an end to the injustices of our nation’s policies of forced removal, detention, deportation and separation of immigrant and refugee families who are only seeking what we sought — freedom.” 

Rita Pin Ahrens, executive director of OCA–Asian American Advocates, called for everyone to get involved and pointed out that support can come in many forms, such as having open conversations about anti-black sentiment, volunteering for different organizations, making donations and contacting elected leaders. “It is clear, we must be present and not passive,” she said. 

The testimony of Lam Hong Le was typical of the experience that thousands of Southeast Asian and African immigrants are subjected to under the Trump Administration. 

Le hooked up with Tsuru while incarcerated at San Quentin. Jun Hamamoto, an origami instructor, had held tsuru-folding sessions at the prison. 

Le, who was born in Vietnam, fled to a Hong Kong refugee camp with only his 10-year-old brother. Le was 12. In 1981, the brothers were shipped to the U.S. after sponsors were found but the two brothers were separated. Le ended up running away from his sponsoring family after being subjected to constant verbal abuse. He joined a gang, ended up killing a man, and was sentenced to 30 years behind bars. 

In prison, he was inspired by people like Hamamoto, who let him know that people cared about prisoners like him. He enrolled in classes and worked to turn his life around. In 2019, he was granted his freedom, after a successful parole hearing, but immediately after his release, he was arrested by ICE, who shackled him and sent him to the Yuba detention center, where he is slated to be deported. 

He said at Yuba, prisoners are locked in cages, are given inadequate food portions and can only go outside for about an hour every two or three days. Le currently lives with the threat of being deported to a country he has not seen in more than 40 years. 

Le’s experience is typical of thousands of Southeast Asians. Those with felony convictions like Le lose their legal residency status and can be deported at any time, even after they have served prison time, unless they receive a pardon from the governor. 

Photos by TY YAMAMOTO

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