Nichi Bei Weekly: Korematsu Day tackles mass incarceration across communities

ByTomo Hirai

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Fred T. Korematsu Institute held its seventh annual Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution program Jan. 29 at the Paramount Theatre. The program, entitled “Mass Incarceration Across Communities: What’s Next?,” commemorated the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

Korematsu defied military orders — that incarcerated some 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II — leading to his arrest and trial. His case, appealed to the Supreme Court, was upheld in 1944, but a 1983 petition for a writ of coram nobis helped persuade a federal judge to vacate his conviction. Today, the late Korematsu, who passed away in 2005, is remembered through Korematsu Day, which has been recognized in California since 2010 and has since been recognized in perpetuity in Hawai’i, Virginia and Florida. Illinois and Pennsylvania also recognized the day this year, Karen Korematsu, daughter of the civil rights icon, said.

The event, emceed by ABC 7 Eyewitness News Los Angeles News Anchor David Ono, featured a number of educational programing examining the wartime incarceration and its parallels today. Poet and actor Hiroshi Kashiwagi spoke about the Japanese American experience, and also expressed his solidarity with Muslims facing the “Muslim ban” today. Ethan Garcia, an eighth grader attending Fred T. Korematsu Middle School in El Cerrito, Calif., recited his winning speech for the Institute’s annual speech contest. The program also screened the trailer for Konrad Aderer’s film, “Resistance at Tule Lake,” and showed “America Needs a Racial Facial,” a video set to music on America’s racism by the elected San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

“Let’s keep promoting diversity. We all represent our beautiful country, America. Every one of us can make a difference no matter how young or old we are,” said Garcia, who is of Mexican and Honduran descent.

Kashiwagi referenced the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington and addressed the difficulties Muslims and undocumented immigrants currently face in America. “Please know that those of us who suffered the injustice of mass incarceration during World War II are firm in our resolve that it will never happen again,” he said.

The Nisei writer finished his speech with a postscript: “The latest is that refugees are being stopped and refused entrance (to the United States). There is international condemnation for President Trump’s attempt to suspend all refugee admission and banning millions of Muslims from entering the United States. Christian leaders have denounced the plan favoring Christian immigrants. What’s next Mr. President? Stay tuned.”

The program also featured a question-and-answer format panel moderated by Ono to discuss mass incarceration among Japanese Americans, the American prison system and the fear of history repeating itself with regard to Muslims. Panelists were Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates; Timothy Long, peer educator at the San Quentin GED program; and Adachi.

“We are dealing with a country that is in crisis right now, as we speak,” Ono said at the start of the panel. “This topic of racial profiling is very much a part of what this country is dealing with yet again. There are protests going on at airports throughout the United States.” Ono referred to the nationwide protests taking place at airports calling for the admittance of Muslims barred from entering the United States due to an executive order Trump signed Jan. 27. The ban targets seven predominantly Muslim nations and includes those individuals with green cards.

“I think we’re in the fight for the soul of our country that we haven’t seen in at least 50 years,” Khera said. While the Muslim ban had been implemented swiftly and cruelly, Khera said she couldn’t help but feel hopefulness from the protests.

“Today, in the world that we’re living in, resistance is a basic obligation for each and every one of us,” she said. “And I would say it goes all the way up to federal officials and federal agents who are implementing unconstitutional orders. I think that should be our next phase of our work, to give support to those government officials to have the courage to resist illegal orders.”

“We used to say it can never happen again … but it is. It’s happening to all of us. It’s a tragedy,” Adachi said. However, he held on to hope for the future, citing the thousands of protestors that took over the San Francisco International Airport lobby the night before. “I think that’s where the hope lies going forward. It’s a wake up call to all of us in the country. We can’t take things for granted.”

Long, who is African American, said he is used to people treating him suspiciously, such as being followed around when he goes to the mall or enters a store. “We’re no different than anyone else, that’s how I feel,” he said. Long, said the public must look past the color of skin and listen to them. “People can look at me and they would never know I spent over a quarter century in prison.”

Long also noted that each new law that is implemented in the United States can cause a “ripple effect” that could affect prisoners as well. He encouraged the audience to “Be aware of … the laws going on right now and how they affect the people you didn’t even think it would affect,” he said.

The program also featured music and spoken word. Emeryville Taiko opened the program with taiko drumming. Hip-hop artist and activist Equipto, who is of Japanese and Colombian descent, rapped about the need for solidarity among the working class population and added his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Young, Gifted and Black, a performing organization for Black youth also performed a spoken word piece entitled “Social Justice.”