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Jesse Jackson Visits Little Tokyo to Discuss Coalition-Building

Rev. Jesse Jackson chats with a gathering of Japanese American community activists at the JACCC. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson visited Little Tokyo on Aug. 23 for a candid conversation with local community activists about coalition-building and the current political climate under President Trump.

Speaking in the Garden Room of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the former Democratic presidential candidate called on the invited guests to join his Rainbow/PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) Coalition.

The visit was facilitated by Mike Murase, who served as Jackson’s California field operations coordinator in 1984 and California campaign director in 1988. He said that Jackson, who held a rally in JACCC Plaza in 1984, was the only presidential candidate ever to campaign in Little Tokyo. Some in the room, including Murase, Warren Furutani and Evelyn Yoshimura, attended that rally while others were not born yet.

Murase accompanied Jackson to Japan and South Korea in 1986, and Jackson returned to the JACCC that year to discuss such issues as the status of minority communities in Japan.

Noting that Jackson, 75, worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South during the height of the civil rights movement, Murase recalled, “He inspired a lot of people, particularly black, Latino, Asian, women, gay and lesbian candidates at the local level, to run for office or otherwise get involved in the political process … His candidacy and the building of the Rainbow Coalition was really the predecessor and the contributing factor to Barack Obama becoming president 20 years later … Bernie Sanders’ campaign last year was modeled a lot after the Rainbow Coalition in presenting a progressive agenda, a multi-racial, multi-issue coalition.”

Murase added, “I had never heard a presidential candidate say the word ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian American.’ [Walter] Mondale, [Michael] Dukakis, [George H.W.] Bush … never mentioned Asians. Even if there was a string of words describing blacks, Latinos, whites, whatever, I never heard the word ‘Asian’ in American politics until he spoke them … He embraced us in leadership positions in his campaign.”

Jackson, who frequently called on the audience to repeat his key points, stressed that the coalition has a global and inclusive perspective, one of “hope and healing” rather than “hurt and hate.” “We’re multiracial, multicultural. We have many languages but one message … Most of people in the world today are yellow, brown, black, non-Christian, poor, female, young, and don’t speak English. We all matter.” He added that accounts for more than half of the world’s population.

Because “each of us … has a story to tell,” he said, every community needs to know what the other communities have gone through, including, in the case of Asian Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 and the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. For African Americans, “246 years in slavery … Jim Crow for another hundred years … 5,000 blacks were lynched between 1880 and 1940, lynched without one indictment.” For Native Americans, after Columbus “discovered” America, “the Europeans … colonized and killed uncounted millions.”

Those stories are interconnected, Jackson pointed out. “As African Americans moved, everything else moved … African Americans coming out of slavery … laid the groundwork for Asians having their humanity confirmed. No one else had to be referred to in the Constitution as three-fifths of a human being … The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments affect everybody … Women would get the right to vote by 1922 [when the Supreme Court struck down a challenge to the 19th Amendment]. Whenever the foundation moves, adjustments take place on every floor in the building.”

The expansion of rights continued with bilingual ballots and the lowering of the voting age to 18, said Jackson, who spoke in favor of automatic voter registration at age 18, which he said is “on the books in California but has not been implemented.”

“Democratizing Democracy”

During his 1984 presidential campaign, Jackson recalled, “they had something called ‘winner take all.’ If I got 48 percent of the vote and someone else got 50 percent, they could get all 100 … We challenged that … By ’88, if we got 48 percent of the vote, we got that many delegates … Under the ’84 rules, Hillary would have been the one in ’08 because she won California barely, she won Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. If she had taken all the delegates, she would have been the winner, but she could only get her proportion.

“So Barack Obama won because we changed the rules … We democratized democracy in ’88, made the change in 2008.”

Noting that his global view was influenced by Murase, Butch Wing (who was present) and other Asian American advisors, Jackson said, “Each one of us brings something different to the table to make things happen … My grandmother could not buy a blanket from a piece of uncut cloth … She would take pieces of coat and shirt and dress, odd piece of cloth … When she connected them, what was rags separated became a quilt, a thing of art and beauty, a source of warmth, connected … All pieces connected make for a complete quilt. You fit in the quilt, you fit in the rainbow …

Rev. Jesse Jackson posed for a group photo at the conclusion of his talk at the JACCC. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“Little Tokyo story’s and narrative must matter to everyone else in the quilt. We are as strong as the weakest link in our chain. Everybody, all pieces in our coalition must matter. That’s why I want to reignite the Rainbow-Little Tokyo connection … When people can keep you separated, they can also manipulate you. We have learned to survive apart … Now we have a higher challenge … learning to not merely survive apart but live together and share values … We’re trying to build bridges rather than walls.”

Countering Trump’s claim that there was massive voter fraud in the 2016 election, resulting in Clinton winning the popular vote, Jackson alleged that there were efforts to suppress the black vote in North Carolina and elsewhere. “We’re not facing voter fraud, we’re facing voter suppression, voter nullification, votes not counting … So we’re putting together a coalition to focus on how can we end voter suppression.”

Regarding the debate over removal of Confederate monuments in the South, he stated, “There are no more Hitler statues, no more swastikas flying in Germany. They removed the symbols of Nazism and the Third Reich to heal the wounds … The Civil War was not a family feud. It was an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government. And they lost. The fight was about secession and slavery and sedition and segregation … The statues must come down. The Confederate flag must come down. States’ rights must go. The Electoral College must go. We want a democracy — one person, one vote.”

The massive protests following the death of Heather Heyer, an anti-Nazi protester, in Charlottesville, Va., shows “the awesome power in the blood of the innocent,” Jackson said, recalling that Rosa Parks, who famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955, was motivated by the murder of Emmett Till earlier that year for allegedly offending a white woman, and others were moved to act after the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, the Birmingham, Ala. church bombing that killed four African American girls, and the murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Mississippi.

“That’s why Nagasaki and Hiroshima are so alive today … The whole world has been redefined by Nagasaki and Hiroshima,” Jackson continued. “… These were not people at war. These were people walking down the street, going home, on the bus, in the cab, walking in the park. The ghastliness of it has changed how humanity thinks about living and dying in war, war and peace rules.”

While he did not offer a specific solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, he suggested a starting point. “No matter how difficult North and South Korea’s relationship is, they’re closer to Japan and China than to Washington. They have more in common with each other than anybody else in the world. And together they’re the majority of the world … We’ll all be affected if the bomb drops … There’s no hiding place. We need each other.”

While the world is focused on Trump’s tweets, Jackson said, the real danger is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is “unraveling justice” by weakening laws designed to pursue white nationalists who are “armed to the teeth,” banning affirmative action, thus “pitting Asians and blacks against each other,” and investigating voter fraud instead of voter suppression.

On the positive side, supporters of the Affordable Care Act were able to save it, he said, but more education needs to be done. “There is no Obamacare. There is affordable health care. They put Obama’s face on it to blacken it, so they’re reacting to the blackness of it and miss the health care of it. Many whites want pre-existing conditions addressed, they want … women’s issues addressed … Many whites want affordable health care … They don’t want Obamacare. They want the omelet but they don’t want the eggs.”

“From the People Up”

Asked about the current state of the Democratic Party, which many activists see as ineffective against Trump, Jackson responded, “The change that we seek never came from the party down, it always came from the people up. The party didn’t lead the drive for reparations for Japanese internment, the victims led that drive … The victims kept hope alive. It didn’t come White House down, it came Little Tokyo up … When you win the big race, it’s always bottom up …

“The pot boils when the fire is turned on. We’re the fire. You can’t cook with cold grease … [In ’84] Mondale and [Gary] Hart wouldn’t deal with ‘Free South Africa,’ they wouldn’t deal with Mandela. Now he’s a hero. They wouldn’t deal with a two-state solution in the Middle East … They wouldn’t deal with Cuba. We kept winning. Whenever we fight, we win. We’ve never lost a battle we fought. We’ve never won a battle unless we fought. Progress is not a straight line. You’ve got to keep at it.”

On Asian Americans coming from a position of privilege: “If I have privilege, I should keep privilege and use it to lift someone else up. It only matters if I use it; I can’t store it … Use that privilege. It may be to teach somebody to read and write, it may be to help somebody who’s down. Don’t shun your privilege, use it … They try to make you honorary whites and all that foolishness, but you’ve rejected that. No matter how privileged we are, there are enough of us to make an impact to protect the rest of us.”

With participants holding hands, Diane Ujiiye led a prayer to wrap up the meeting. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

On compassion for those who have so much anger and hate: “They’ve been frightened by what they know and made mean by what they don’t know … The Mexicans did not take [Nabisco] jobs from Chicago, the rich sent jobs to Mexico to exploit them … Sometimes knowledge has a way of lifting the veil.”

On Bernie Sanders and the Rainbow Coalition: “Part of Bernie’s problem was his experience in Vermont was so white. A good guy, but he never really connected … We had already made commitments [to Clinton], we were trying to pull Hillary to the left … If he had sought [our endorsement]in time, it would have been a different scenario. We were like strangers to him … [But] in Chicago this summer, we had Bernie there as a guest speaker — he connected …

“When I spoke out here at the Little Tokyo rally, I wasn’t scared of y’all. We look too much alike, circumstances are too much alike. The beauty of the multicultural experience, the world is multicultural. Wherever I am, I’m home … The elitists can’t say that.”

Jackson told the gathering, “Look at the agenda items that are important to you and let’s connect. That may be affordable health care, it may be the way you’re stereotyped in the news, it may be wages … I’ll be in Watts, I’ll be in Chicago, the same agenda. There may be a variation … but you feel a sense of acute exploitation by [U.S.] bases in the Pacific, I feel about 50,000 Haitians having to go back to Haiti and live in that squalor … I can support your issue, you can support my issue, right? … Figure out what your priorities are, connect with other folks who have similar priorities, and together you have the power.”

He reminded everyone, “There are more of us in the world than Trump … Trump sees the world through a keyhole and not through a door.”

Jackson invited everyone present to attend a press conference the following Friday at the downtown offices of MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) to discuss immigration issues.

Those who took part in the Little Tokyo meeting have been discussing how to put Jackson’s recommendations into action.

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