Tsuru for Solidarity: Nikkei Voices of Protest

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Protestors gathered at Elmherst Hospital in Queens, N.Y. for the Tsuru for Solidarity rally, one of several held nationwide on June 6-7. (Photo by LINDA MORRIS)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Last of three parts

Emily Akpan, a member of the New York Day of Remembrance Task Force, is a Yonsei of African and Japanese American descent. She challenged the Nikkei community to come out of their comfort zones. 

“My question is what is the Nikkei community willing to risk, going to risk for black liberation and for our collective liberation?” she asked.

Sarah Baker, JACL vice president of public affairs, who is based in Seattle, discussed the model minority myth. 

“We also played into the model minority myth, a divisive narrative that simultaneously served to both benefit and victimize our community,” Baker said. “The privileges we have gained from this dangerous trope have only driven a wedge between Asian Pacific Islanders and other communities of color, and we cannot continue on this path. We must stand together if we want to create meaningful change.” 

Nina Wallace, communications coordinator for Densho, is a Yonsei of mixed heritage from Seattle. She felt it was time to have the difficult talks about race relations and racism with our elders, youths and peers. 

“At Densho, we borrow our name from a Japanese word that means ‘to leave a legacy,’” said Wallace. “Today, we have a choice of what legacy we want to leave behind and what kind of ancestors we will be. My hope for myself and for everyone in our community is that we choose to be the ancestors who stood firmly and lovingly on the side of justice because black lives matter. It always mattered and will forever matter.” 

Bruce Kunitomi Embrey, Tsuru and Manzanar Committee co-chair, has been in the trenches fighting for justice and equality for decades, as did his mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, and his father, Garland Embrey. He encouraged participants to continue the fight.

“Outrage and condemnation and protesting is not enough,” said Embrey. “We need to continue to protest to change policy. We must continue to work on all fronts. We must demand radical changes in policing, not just an end to police brutality and the use of lethal force but in the very way policing of Black, Indigenous and communities of color take place. We must demand radical changes for Black, Brown, Indigenous communities in housing, healthcare, education — in every facet of life in America. We must continue now and into the future and stand with all those fighting to end the legacy of white supremacy in America.” 

Demonstrators make their feelings clear outside the gates of the Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. (Photo by MICHELLE CHEN)

National Tsuru Rallies

• Washington, D.C.: National Tsuru rallies opened in Washington, D.C. David Inoue, Tsuru member and JACL executive director, called upon all Nikkei to support not just reparations for African Americans but also to advocate for better housing, education, healthcare and fair wages for African Americans and other people of color. 

James Early, an African American who was assistant secretary of public service and education with the Smithsonian, urged the public to support organizations such as Tsuru. 

“It is incumbent, therefore, on progressive, concerned, earnest citizens across the ideological and political spectrum to step forward and support projects like Tsuru for Solidarity, which is focused on the unique experiences of Japanese Americans, in particular whose families were incarcerated on the order of magnitude to what happened to Native Americans, who were forced into reservations, and of course, on the order of what happened to enslaved Africans who were forced to come here,” said Early.

Sojin Kim, Julie Abo and a number of supporters hung cranes on a fence near the White House. More than 200,000 cranes had been sent to them, and Inoue said they hoped to return next year with more than 500,000 cranes. 

New York: The New York action organized in front of the Elmherst Hospital in Queens, which is in a working-class neighborhood composed mainly of people of color. Becca Asaki opened with a land acknowledgement to the different Indigenous tribes that once inhabited the area. 

Lauren Sumida made the connection between how the treatment of Japanese Americans held in U.S.-style concentration camps during World War II paralleled the experiences of more recent immigrants being held in detention centers. In particular, she noted that Nikkei family members who contracted contagious diseases such as tuberculosis in camp were often “given substandard health care and died in the camps,” in the same way the COVID-19 virus is currently wreaking havoc in the migrant detention camps. 

Asaki said, “We are here to be allies that we didn’t have in 1942.” 

After a moment of silence, Linda Morris made a call for action. She advocated that federal and state funds be divested from law enforcement and reallocated to social services, healthcare and education, and urged that schools be free of police. 

“Our liberation is bound up with yours,” said Morris, addressing the different communities of color. “And we urge all in the Japanese American community and for all members of Asian Pacific Americans to fight with us.” 

The Northwest action took place at the old Seattle immigration depot. (Photo by STAN SHIKUMA)

• Chicago: Tsuru organizers gathered in front of the Cook County Jail, where there have been seven reported deaths from COVID-19 and hundreds of prisoners and guards infected with the virus. 

Tsuru and the Chicago Community Bond Fund invited Cassandra Greer-Lee to share about the experiences of her husband, Nickolas Lee, who passed away after contracting COVID-19 while imprisoned at the Cook County Jail. 

Greer-Lee said when her healthy husband was placed in a jail cell with two sick inmates, she tried to unsuccessfully get him transferred. She said she made hundreds of calls and even called the cleaning suppliers, but no one responded to her request to get her husband transferred. When her husband called to say he was starting to feel sick, she made 132 phone calls but no one helped her. 

“He was given a death sentence,” said Greer-Lee, who said that her husband was also her best friend. 

Cori Nakamura Lin led the call to action as supporters hung tsuru on the Cook County Jail fence in memory of those who had been incarcerated there and passed away, as well as Japanese Americans who had passed away while imprisoned in camp during World War II. 

• Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania members were in a midst of a virtual vigil to shut down the Berks Family Residential Detention Center, just outside of Redding.  

“The Berks Family Detention is one of three federal detention facilities in the country and is one that we think, with the right advocacy, would be easier to shut down,” said Rob Buscher. 

Hiro Nishikawa, a Sansei who was incarcerated at the Colorado River (Poston) War Relocation Authority camp in Arizona during World War II, shared about his own family’s experience as prisoners and how that shaped his activism. 

Jasmine Rivera, Shut Down Berks Coalition community organizer, read a statement from one of the migrants detained inside Berks, which has confirmed cases of COVID-19. This immigrant from Haiti, who identified himself only as P.M., said he, his wife and their two-year-old child had arrived on March 18. Their child became severely sick, with outbreaks of bumps around the mouth, chin and lips that started to bleed. The child also could not keep food down. The parents reported this to the medical staff every day but no medical attention was given to the child until 12 days later. 

P.M. also noted that they are expected to clean the restrooms and sleeping areas but are not given gloves or masks. The staff that serves food also does not wear gloves or masks. He said all they are doing is “seeking asylum and have done nothing wrong” and are “terrified and was asking for help in staying alive.” 

Jane Palmer, director of Berks Stands Up, said “We want our government to work for all of us, including for the most vulnerable.” 

The coalition called upon Gov. Tom Wolf and the Berks County commissioners to close down the detention center through an Emergency Removal Order. 

This segment was hosted by Tsuru, JACL–Philadelphia, Asian Americans United, Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network, Shut Down Berks Coalition, Shut Down Berks Interfaith Witness, Sunrise Movement Berks. 

• Seattle/Tacoma: The Northwest action started with Tsuru members, led by Stan Shikuma, standing in front of the old immigration station in Seattle that had been built in 1932 and opened in 1933. Shikuma noted that many immigrants from Japan, including his mother, came through this station. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the station was converted to a temporary detention center to imprison Issei, he said. 

Shikuma said they started at the Seattle immigration station because “racism permeates all institutions in our society, not just law enforcement but in immigration policies, education, healthcare, jobs, so that’s why we’re out here. We need to end that racialized inequality and the immigration system is a big part of it.”

From Seattle, the group met up with a larger contingent at Tacoma, in front of the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), which was built in 2004 to imprison an ever-expanding number of immigrants. 

In February, Satsuki Ina and Mike Ishii joined with Densho and JACL to support La Resistencia, which has been holding protest rallies almost on a weekly basis in front of NWDC. According to Ishii, the NWDC holds many transgender immigrants who had fled from violence in their home countries. 

The Tacoma portion was led by Chrissy Shimizu with Tsuru, Erin Shigaki, artist and Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee member, and ShaCorrie Tunkara from La Resistencia. Tunkara’s husband had been detained at NWDC and deported to Sierra Leone in October 2018, separating him from her and their two children. 

Tunkara said when her husband was detained at NWDC, she learned that he and other detainees were not being given clean changes of clothes and had to resort to sharing underwear and socks. Additionally, her husband was not given proper medical attention for his asthma and a tumor on his neck. After about 10 months of imprisonment, Tunkara said she received a phone call at 3 a.m. in the morning from ICE, telling her to bring clothes for her husband, who was about to be deported. 

“Our lives mean nothing to the folks detaining our communities,” said Tunkara, who called for a shut-down of NWDC. 

A consortium of taiko groups performed in front of the NWDC to let detainees inside know that they are not forgotten. 

• San Francisco: Former World War II camp survivors held a memorial service at the former site of the Tanforan Assembly Center, which is currently part of a shopping mall. They included Dr. Satsuki Ina, Tsuru co-founder, Kiyoshi Ina, Chizu Omori, Emiko Omori, and Hiroshi Shimizu. Rev. Ronald Kobata from Buddhist Church of San Francisco led the service as survivors and their supporters offered **oshoko.** 

From there, participants joined a larger contingent at a nearby park, where Kim Miyoshi and Nikkei camp survivors shared their experiences and stood in solidarity with the plight of other people of color. Kiyoshi Ina, whose mother was pregnant with him at Tanforan and was born at the Central Utah (Topaz) WRA camp, wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and took a knee to protest police brutality after his speech. 

The group then invited supporters to join them in a Bon dori to “Ei Ja Nai Ka,” a song written by PJ Hirabayashi of San Jose Taiko. Bon odori is danced during Obon to honor the dead, and in this case, supporters honored those who died in camp and those who died at the hands of police brutality. Bakuhatsu Taiko performed the song. 

• Southern California: Southern California contingent featured a virtual rally since they did not want to take away from the hundreds of protest rallies sweeping the area following the murder of George Floyd, and wanted to observe the need to practice social distancing since Southern California comprises half the COVID-19 deaths in the state.  

Joy Yamaguchi, a Tsuru and Nikkei Progressives member, shared about their support of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice (IN4IJ), which works to improve the lives of immigrants and is currently fighting to shut down the Adelanto Detention Center. 

Lizbeth Abel, immigration detention coordinator with IN4IJ, read a statement from an immigrant currently detained at Adelanto and shared that detainees have complained of being sprayed with a disinfectant called HDQ neutral, which has caused bloody noses and burning eyes. 

Mia Barnett introduced Guerline Jozef, the founder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a collective of Haitian organizations that offers legal and social services to black immigrants, many of whom are survivors of torture.

Among those that HBA has helped was Daniel Tse, an immigrant from Camaroon, who was forced to flee his country after he was arrested for participating in a protest. He survived a harrowing trek to the U.S. but he described it as a “journey of hope.” But rather than finding the “land of freedom,” when Tse arrived at the border, he was turned around and restraints were placed on his hands and feet. He was then sent to what he described as an underground cage where he was held for close to 10 days before he was transferred to an Orange County detention center and then to Adelanto. 

Thanks to HBA, Tse was released on a $10,000 bond. Jozef pointed out that black migrants face higher bail costs and deportation rates than lighter-skinned immigrants.  

Today, Tse assists other detained African immigrants as his way of paying back the assistance he received from HBA. “We have officers in ICE that treat you horribly because of the color of your skin,” he said. “It’s horrible and we need to push this fight forward and have all detention centers shut down.” 

Traci Kato-Kiriyama with Vigilant Love and Nikkei Progressives closed this portion with a call for more solidarity work. 

Arts & Letters

Leslie Ishii hosted the arts and letters portion of the virtual conference. “With the fight for justice, for remembrance, for healing, we must also bring joy and a celebration of our connection,” said Ishii. 

Artists included Ty Defoe, Janice Mirikitani, Kishi Bashi and Nobuko Miyamoto.

 

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