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Bellevue College President, VP Out After Japanese American Incarceration Mural Defacement

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Hundreds of people turned out to Bellevue College on March 3 to help Erin Shigaki rededicate and repair her mural. (Photo by Natasa Varner/Densho)

By RUTH BAYANG, Northwest Asian Weekly

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Bellevue College announced on March 2 that it fired its president, Dr. Jerry Weber, and vice president of advancement, Dr. Gayle Barge, following the recent outrage over an altered mural of the Japanese American incarceration.

Saying an apology is not enough, but that decisive action is needed, the Board of Directors announced the appointment of Dr. Kristen Jones as acting president of the college.

Former Bellevue College President Jerry Weber and former Vice President of Advancement Gayle Barge

“The recent defacement of the ‘Never Again Is Now’ art installation along with the response to this deplorable act has deeply impacted students, staff, and faculty,” said Board Chair Richard Fukutaki. “It has damaged the credibility of the college locally, regionally, and nationally. But beyond that, it was just fundamentally wrong, and we needed to act decisively.”

Barge directed someone to “white out” part of an artist description that accompanied a mural depicting two Japanese American children in a World War II California incarceration camp.

Prior to the announcement of the firings, Bellevue College professor Leslie Lum told The Northwest Asian Weekly, “The fact that Asians at the college were not consulted or even told about the action rendered us all invisible.”

The 11-foot mural, created by Seattle artist Erin Shigaki, was installed last month as the school commemorated the Day of Remembrance, which recognizes the anniversary of the day President Franklin Roosevelt legalized the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

The portion of the mural’s text that was deleted and then restored is visible at lower left. (Photo by Sarah E. Baker)

The erased sentence referenced the connection between Japanese immigrants and Bellevue.

“After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by Eastside businessman Miller Freeman and others, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans included the 60 families (300 individuals) who farmed Bellevue.”

Seattle artist Erin Shigaki (Minidoka National Historic Site)

Miller Freeman is the father of Kemper Freeman, who built the original Bellevue Square, and grandfather of Kemper Freeman, Jr. the founder of Kemper Development Co., which owns and manages the Bellevue Collection.

Lum said, “Miller Freeman waged campaigns to drive Japanese Americans out of our country over decades. We wanted our students to learn this history and how it applied to the current situation of families in ICE detention centers.”

In a statement, Shigaki wrote, “Like my family, the Freemans have also lived in the Seattle area for generations. However, instead of suffering the trauma of incarceration, they appear to have benefitted from it. Bellevue Square, the Freemans’ central holding, is built on the very land Japanese Americans were stripped of in 1942.”

She goes on to say that the Freeman family are major donors to Bellevue College.

Publisher, fisheries advocate and anti-Japanese activist Miller Freeman

Ren Avancena, Bellevue College student and an aspiring artist, said, “The mural defacement left me demoralized as an Asian American artist. I felt hurt by the fact that someone, who I would consider an ally for colored communities, would do such a thing.”

In a statement, the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) called the defacement “tantamount to agreement with the hate speech of decades past” and that it shows “a severe lack of respect for the efforts of Erin and AAPI faculty, staff, and students to raise awareness. It epitomizes yet another way that AAPI people are made to ‘disappear.’”

“As an artist, I felt frightened,” said Avancena. “I have just begun finding my voice through art. Even before, I was able to plan my first piece dedicated to Asian America, this happened. I started to think, ‘Would the same thing happen to me if I continue along this path?’”

Bellevue College Board Chair Richard Fukutaki

Barge was originally placed on paid administrative leave, and Bellevue College apologized. Then the community pushed for more.

“We do not believe that this addresses the deeper problem, i.e. a lack of commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion on the Bellevue College campus,” said Seattle JACL President Stanley Shikuma.

Lum agreed, calling incidents like these the tip of the iceberg.

“They signal deeper problems in the institution. If it wasn’t this administrator, it would have been another, so focusing on one person will not solve the problem. Asian faculty, staff, and students encounter instances where their identity, voices, and history are denied every day. These incidents have continued over five presidents. The job of cleaning up the mess should not fall on people of color as it always does.”

Jones, who has been with Bellevue College for two years and was serving as provost for academic and student affairs, agreed to assume the role of acting president immediately.

“We know that these weeks have been difficult,” said Jones. “We know that you have been hurt. We promise that we will do a better job of listening and more importantly – ACTING on what we’ve heard in order to honor the diversity of our community.”

Shigaki said, “I am grateful for Bellevue College’s Asian Pacific Islander (API) faculty, students and their allies for standing up and forcing the college administration to act… the college has pledged to provide more equity training and education about the incarceration and related histories. I am eager to see them follow through on those promises.”

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