by Stanley N Shikuma
Executive orders have been in the news a lot lately. Did you know there have been over 15,000 executive orders signed by 46 presidents in the history of the United States? More than 3,700 were signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) alone. Yet how many of those executive orders do you remember by number?
The only one I can think of is Executive Order (EO) 9066.
FDR signed EO 9066 on February 19, 1942, an act that launched years of infamy by enabling the War Department, under cover of “military necessity,” to remove over 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast and incarcerate them in concentration camps, including all of my family members. There were no charges brought, no evidence submitted. Yet the U.S. government justified removing and detaining an entire ethnic community for up to four years based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” according to a federal commission later set up to study this national disgrace.
Japanese Americans now recognize Feb. 19 as our Day of Remembrance.
So … what do we, in the community, remember on this day? For a long time, we chose not to remember anything. We hid the memories away, the trauma and the shame closeted like some dark family secret. Like we had done something wrong. Like we had brought incarceration upon ourselves. Like maybe we had deserved such abuse. Meanwhile, we gaslit ourselves and each other in order to survive the unspeakable. Abuse is like that.
The first Day of Remembrance was held in Seattle in 1978 with a call for a car caravan from Seattle to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, which housed a temporary detention center in 1942. Back then, Japanese American families were assigned to live in horse stalls and livestock barns at the Puyallup Fairgrounds’ “Camp Harmony” — a makeshift prison surrounded by barbed wire, watch towers, and armed guards. Bad food, poor sanitation, and a lack of medical care and recreation lead to a lot of illness — physical, mental, and spiritual. After several months, the government shipped everyone off to more permanent concentration camps hastily built further inland, like Minidoka in central Idaho and Tule Lake in northern California. Herding the “enemy aliens” east and south for the duration. Out of sight, out of mind.
No one knew if anyone would show up for that first Day of Remembrance. A community that had not talked openly about the Camps for over 30 years was being invited to take part in a public acknowledgement of their torture at the hands of our government. The organizers expected a few hundred cars at most. They got over 2,000. The wounds had scarred over, but the pain remained. Trauma was passing through generations and, like water behind a dam, it was seeking an outlet before it overflowed. The movement for Redress and Reparations really got going that day.
This year, we are organizing another Day of Remembrance (DOR) Car Caravan, but this time we will be traveling from the Puyallup Fairgrounds to the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) — the ICE facility in Tacoma — a journey from past to present. For the last decade or so, ICE has been locking up children, separating families, and building mass detention camps for immigrants and refugees — overwhelmingly People of Color, largely non-English speaking communities. Basically, in the words of poet Emma Lazarus, inscribed on our Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.“ Another time, another place. #StopRepeatingHistory
At NWDC, those detained inside complain of bad food, poor sanitation, a lack of medical care (during a pandemic!), education, and recreation. They tell us the indefinite detention and separation from family take a heavy toll physically, mentally, and spiritually. They suffer from race prejudice, a war-on-immigrants hysteria, and an abject failure of political leadership. We, in the Japanese American community, know this story because we lived it too. As my friend Paul Tomita, a child detainee in 1942, told me last year, “The names change, the colors change, but it’s still the same old sh#t!” #FamiliesBelongTogether
Yet there is hope. By Remembering, Japanese Americans open the closets of history. We air the dirty laundry and bring the dark secrets into light. And now, we can expose ICE’s “business as usual” facade for the human rights atrocity it is. This weekend, we can all make the Day of Remembrance really count as a Day of Action. We can all be the friends Japanese Americans wish we had in 1942. #FreeThemAll #ShutdownNWDC
Tsuru for Solidarity is organizing a DOR Car Caravan from Puyallup Fairgrounds to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on Sunday, Feb. 21. Co-sponsors include La Resistencia, Densho, Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee, Puyallup Chapter JACL, and Seattle Chapter JACL. Special thanks to the Puyallup Tribe who has lived on and stewarded these lands since the beginning of time and to the Puyallup Fairgrounds for allowing us to caravan through the grounds in remembrance of our families held there in 1942. For more information, contact TsuruSeattle@gmail.com.
Featured Image: Protestors carry signs that read “Never Again Is Now”; Day of Remembrance 2020 Never Again (Photo: Sharon Ho Chang)
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