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On Fred Korematsu Day: From Evacuation to Deportation on the Anniversary of Japanese-American Internment

What have we learned since the internment of Japanese-Americans in desert concentration camps and converted race tracks?

Soul Consoling Tower.“Soul Consoling Tower”. (Photo: jvoves / Flickr)

For Anibal Fuentes-Aguilar

& the 2 million deported

For Aracelis Girmay

After her poem “On Kindness”

For the 120,000 interned

On Fred Korematsu Day, there is an Asian-American woman from the governor’s office who seems moved and a white woman from the city who seems uncomfortable. The room is diverse, but mostly brown and youngish.

There is a large portrait of an old white man in a black robe. There are, in fact, five of these, the only decor lining the wooden walls. We are at the Depaul College of Law. We are here for Chicago’s inaugural Fred Korematsu Day. It is the first holiday to honor an Asian-American, celebrating the birthday of the man who defied Japanese-American internment.

I just left a press conference seven blocks away, where Anibal Fuentes-Aguilar had baby in arm, electronic shackle on foot and a few hours or a few days before deportation to Guatemala. He has crossed once, twice, three times.

They keep crossing, once, twice, three times – the ones with families, facing the journey from Mexico, or Central America, for any chance to survive, thrive. But they are dying there, out in Arizona’s Sonoran desert, out in the ranch lands of South Texas known as “The Corridor of Death.” There is the wall, as we know. And did I tell you: I learned there are also small cages there, out in the desert. Border Patrol says simply they are used for storage, but I still can’t help to think of these cages sitting there out in the open air, out in the sun, rimmed with barbed wire, waiting.

“In the winter, it was very cold, and in the summer, dust storms came through,” internment survivor Kiyo Yoshimura said at DePaul, sitting with her white hair and black turtleneck as if for a portrait, a moment meant for capture. She speaks in the faltering voice of the old, in the unwavering voice of those with conviction. It is how I remember historian Howard Zinn’s voice.

And if you have not had the chance yet to read Zinn and fellow people’s historian Ron Takaki, you may not know much about the years in which the US government imprisoned Japanese-Americans, wholesale. Half were children. Among the last generation of these survivors are heroes and heroines, now elderly, such as Kiyo Yoshimura and the legendary George Takei, now beginning to leave us, like Fred Korematsu.

There was the evacuation – dispossession, internal deportation, mass incarceration. But did I tell you? The government even crammed them into the stalls of race tracks, whole families concentrated in stables made for a single horse, not humans, with dirt floor, armed guards, barbed-wire border at the camp perimeter – a barrier where, on the other side, people of the right skin tone walked freely.

Two of 17 total assembly centers, the Tanforan racetrack, just a dozen miles outside of San Francisco, and the Santa Anita racetrack, a dozen miles from Los Angeles – served as way stations while the government constructed ten internment camps in remote sections of the country.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called these sites concentration camps. With the stroke of a pen he ordered the 1942 evacuation “of all persons deemed a threat to national security” during World War II via Executive Order 9066. This order did not apply to caucasians of German or Italian descent, only to Japanese-Americans. Families were torn apart and placed in separate facilities. Some died for lack of medical care; some were killed by guards.

“We can’t let this happen to other people,” Kiyo Yoshimura was saying just as I was leaving. She said this, and these words trailed after me, of course, and beyond me and you and beyond Kiyo Yoshimura herself. It is surely an adage that goes beyond the question of protecting constitutional rights for citizens to the matter of what constitutes a citizen, to the matter of what rights are human rights.

In remote sections of the country, there were Japanese-American concentration camps. Remote and not-so-remote sections of the country are where there are now prisons. Prison is where one in three black men will end up in their lifetimes, if current trends continue. If they make it past 17.

Remote sections of the country are where there are now dozens of detention centers. Detention centers are where immigrants of the wrong skin tone are thrown into indefinite solitary confinement, fed maggots, denied medical care, left to die.

Tanforan racetrack is now a mall, The Shops at Tanforan. There is a small plaque there mentioning internment and a large statue honoring the race horse Seabiscuit.

Santa Anita Park is still “the premiere destination for live horse racing.” There is a small plaque there recognizing internment and a large statue honoring Seabiscuit.

“We can’t let this happen to other people.” It was said, on Fred Korematsu Day, which is a day like any other day for many of today’s undocumented immigrants of the wrong skin tone. It is a day of living in fear of forced removal, of 34,000 detention center beds waiting to hold them captive. Thirty-four thousand beds is the daily quota driving nearly 2 million deportations by this administration, driving nearly $2 billion annually to corporate detention.

“We can’t let this happen to other people.” I wonder, are we always speaking to one another in this way – in code and in subconsciousness, confluence of shared trauma compressed on some frequency, railing away for our attention between generations and between sorrows, begging us to act.

The first political act of Fred Korematsu was simply a decision to survive, thrive. He refused the evacuation order. He did not want to leave his girlfriend. But 23-year-old Fred Korematsu was soon picked up while standing on a street corner, when such a thing for Japanese-Americans was not considered legal. “I was just living my life, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Korematsu said.

In 1944, he brought a case challenging the internment all the way to the US Supreme Court and lost. He was interned for several months in a horse stall at Tanforan, where he lived as an outcast. “All of them turned their backs on me at that time because they thought I was a troublemaker,” he said.

He was then interned at the Topaz “War Relocation Center” in the Sevier Desert in Utah. Four decades later, in 1983, he reopened his case and won. “It may take time to prove you’re right, but you have to stick to it,” Korematsu said.

His last political act was to advocate on behalf of Muslims detained in the wake of September 11, 2001. Citing similarities between the wrongful imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and Muslims during the War on Terror, Korematsu filed multiple briefs with the Supreme Court on behalf of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and Muslim-American detainees. He remained an activist on the issue until his death, in 2005. He was 86 years old.

It is now February 2014.

Approaching is the Day of Remembrance to mark the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, launching internment. Approaching is the Day of Action to mark 2 million deportations and to demand an executive order to end them.

It is a new year. The Year of the Horse.

It is a new day. Fred Korematsu Day.

“If you have the feeling that something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up,” he said.

The phrases “did I tell you” and “speaking to one another in this way” are from the poem “On Kindness” by Aracelis Girmay.

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