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Tense Moments as JA Activists Protest at Fort Sill

A military police officer confronts a group of Japanese American activists on Saturday protesting the government’s latest plan to house over 1,400 migrant children at Fort Sill, Okla. in a screenshot from ABC affiliate KSWO.

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

First of two parts

LAWTON, Okla.—Tsuru for Solidarity mobilized Japanese Americans from across the U.S. within days of the Trump Administration’s announcement that it planned to incarcerate asylum-seeking immigrant children at Fort Sill, a former Army detention camp that had imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II and a former prisoner of war camp for the Chiricahua Apache tribe, which had been forcibly removed from the Southwest.

Within a week’s notice, close to 30 Japanese Americans and their supporters from California, New York, Washington, Wyoming, and New Mexico joined supporters in Oklahoma to send a message to the Trump Administration that they opposed the incarceration of innocent children at Fort Sill.

Many were among those who had participated in a Crystal City pilgrimage and a protest rally in front of the Dilley detention center in Texas in March. Nancy Ukai, one of the three, who along with Mike Ishii and Dr. Satsuki Ina spearheaded the Oklahoma event, said, “I think because we had just come back from Crystal City and we had just had this life-changing experience at the Dilley fence, when this happened, we were primed.”

In addition to Tsuru for Solidarity, other Nikkei groups officially represented at the June 22 press conference/rally included Tom Ikeda, Densho; Lauren Sumida, New York Day of Remembrance Committee; Karen Ishizuka, Japanese American National Museum; Aura Newlin, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation; and Joy Yamaguchi, Alan and Ruth Wakabayashi Kondo, Nikkei Progressives.

The government has plans to temporarily detain 1,400 asylum-seeking children at Fort Sill. The military base had also been used during the Obama Administration to house migrant children in 2014, but the current plan comes at a time when there are reports of families being separated and detained children living under unsanitary and even dangerous conditions.

Paul Tomita, a Minidoka incarceree and Seattle native, hangs strings of origami cranes at a rally near Fort Sill. (Photo by MARTHA NAKAGAWA)


The press conference just outside Fort Sill became tense but ended without arrests, following a confrontation in which military police insisted that the group move across the street. A military police officer with a name tag giving his last name as Keyes, came out and told the group that they needed to leave. “Let’s go! Now! Today,” he insisted.

The group, however, continued the press conference. All six camp survivors were prepared to be arrested to make a point that they opposed the imprisonment of innocent children. They included Dr. Satsuki Ina, Tule Lake Segregation Center and Crystal City Department of Justice camp; Kiyoshi Ina, Topaz (Central Utah) War Relocation Authority camp, Tule Lake, Crystal City; Chizu Omori, Poston (Colorado River) WRA camp; Emiko Omori, Poston (Colorado River); Nikki Nojima Louis, Minidoka WRA and Lordsburg DOJ camps; and Paul Tomita, Minidoka WRA camp.

Standing in solidarity with the elders to get arrested were Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho; Reiko Redmonde of Revolution Books; Stacie Hiramoto; Ruth Sasaki; and yours truly.

As Keyes kept ordering the group to leave, Dr. Ina asked, “Otherwise, what will happen?” To which Keyes said, “I, I, I don’t know. I’m not going to arrest you, but you need to move now.”

Ishii then calmly but forcefully said, “Then we’re not going to move.”

At one point, Keyes yelled, “What don’t you understand? It’s English. Get out!”

As the situation escalated, Lawton police officers arrived, and Officer Cox intervened to defuse the stand-off. All six camp survivors were able to make their statements.

Ishii, who had been prepared to be hit by the military police, said, “We asked the press to be there because we wanted to make a statement to the world that even though there is a law within the United States government that says you may not demonstrate in front of a military base if they ask you to leave, that we answer to a higher law and that’s the law of protecting children.”

The success of the press rally was due to the behind-the-scene efforts of Linda Sachiko Morris, Lauren Sumida and Kathy Kojimoto.

Japanese American protestors from across the country traveled to attend the protest. They brought banners and cranes, which were meant to inspire healing and hope for the migrant children. (Photo by MARTHA NAKAGAWA)


Karen Ishizuka, author of “Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties,” came as a representative of the Japanese American National Museum.

“The Japanese American National Museum is really committed to using our history and the lessons thereof in order to make America, America again,” she said. “So it was really the foresight of JANM that they wanted to send somebody and I was available and willing to come. I cancelled four things that were happening Saturday and Sunday because I really agreed that it is so important for us to show up and to join with others here, with non-Japanese Americans, to stop this legacy of oppression at Fort Sill.”

Joy Yamaguchi, a representative of Nikkei Progressives, is a Yonsei whose grandparents were imprisoned at Jerome, Rohwer and Gila River.

“I feel it’s important to do this concrete and specific solidarity work in understanding how all of our histories and stories are connected and how we need to fight for each other and build these new systems through these bonds we are making together,” she said. “So I felt it was important to come out here to Fort Sill and know we are working with communities here and with everyone coming together from across the country to really fight against this history of incarceration and violence against immigrants and people of color in this country.”

Aura Newlin, a Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation board member whose grandmother was imprisoned at Heart Mountain, said, “We’re showing solidarity within the Japanese American community and also showing solidarity with other disenfranchised minorities, including immigrant groups, in this case, immigrant children.”

Newlin said she feels a strong connection to the current immigrant detention issue. “The topic of immigrant detention that is hitting our Latin brothers and sisters is really close to my heart. My sister was born in Honduras and several members of my family lived in Latin America, so I wanted to be here, to be a part of this.”

Clinton Huey, from Northern California, is of Chinese descent but as a teacher, he felt compelled to join Tsuru for Solidarity. “I have many students who are from families with undocumented parents,” he said. “And they tell me how they have to hide from public view, and they are afraid when their child wants to participate in a protest against what’s happening at the border now.

“Since I have this opportunity to step up my involvement, I wanted to be here, and at the same time, I wanted to support the Japanese Americans who had less power during World War II but now are going out and speaking for those can’t speak as much for themselves.”

Ruth Wakabayashi Kondo, another Nikkei Progressives member, was also a teacher before her retirement. “So children are the utmost of concern to me,” she said. “I worked in South Central and in the (San Fernando) Valley, and I do know for sure what family means to children, and this crime perpetrated against innocent children is just more than I could just sit by and not do anything about.”

Alan Kondo, also with Nikkei Progressives, was active with Visual Communications (VC) during the 1970s. “When I was working with VC, our attitude was to give voice to the people and to tell our own story instead of having our story told for us,” he said. “But then, I had kids and needed to earn a living, so now, I’m coming back to it (filmmaking) because the issues are still relevant. I think it’s really critical for people to support each other and defend against injustice and to work together to create positive change.”

On the same day, the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center held a protest rally in Portland in solidarity. Two days earlier on June 20, the Japanese American Citizens League spearheaded a press conference in Washington, D.C. that included Nancy Ukai of Tsuru for Solidarity; Karen Korematsu of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute; and Shirley Higuchi of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation.

A solidarity rally is scheduled for Thursday, June 27, at 7 p.m. in front of the Japanese American National Museum, First Street and Central Avenue in Little Tokyo. Simultaneous rallies will be held in San Francisco and San Jose Japantowns.

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