RABBIT RAMBLINGS: ‘CRIMINALIZING DISSENT’: The 2014 Tule Lake Pilgrimage

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Another Tule Lake Pilgrimage has passed, and it has given me a lot to chew over. It is more popular than ever, and the 350 slots filled up in under two weeks. I wonder what the numbers would be if everybody who wanted to participate could. The numbers indicate that interest in Tule Lake has grown over the years, and people want to be part of this experience. In fact, George Takei was on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and Stewart spent the interview asking George about his concentration camp experience. I commend George for being very public and vocal about his time in the Jerome, Ark. concentration camp and later in Tule Lake, Calif. because of his parents’ decision to answer “no-no” on the loyalty questionnaire.

I have always thought that the story of Tule Lake concentration camp was THE story, the most compelling example of the government’s persecution of us Americans who happened to be of Japanese ancestry. The theme for this pilgrimage was “Criminalizing Dissent,” a very astute title, for most of the people who were sent to Tule Lake were protestors and dissenters. And really, the government program dividing who they characterized as “disloyal” from the “loyal,” threw a large contingent of persons who were caught in the questionnaire dilemmas and moved to Tule Lake, the segregation center. 

It was insult enough that the West Coast population of Japanese Americans was rounded up and thrown into prison camps. Beyond that, those who protested this illegal and unprecedented program were branded as disloyal to our country. When I think about it, I feel a tremendous disgust with those who called for this program and then humiliated the victims by making them pledge loyalty and agree to serving in the army to fight for our oppressors. 

The highlight of this pilgrimage was the keynote address by Wayne Merrill Collins, attorney son of Wayne Mortimer Collins, the lawyer who devoted more than 20 years of struggle to those Nisei who, in a fit of confusion and bitterness, had renounced their U.S. citizenship. Collins had to fight for each of the 4,000 cases, finally winning back citizenship for most of the renunciants by 1969. It was an act of devotion to American ideals that transcends mere patriotism. He championed a group of Americans who had been cruelly vilified and branded as enemies of the country.

In this brilliant address, Collins examined the big picture, the big players who created and went along with the program. We have to first name President Franklin Roosevelt, who gave the executive order that created the program, and whose indifference to the plight of some 120,000 Americans allowed for the abuses that others inflicted. As Collins showed, those who could have been critical of the incarceration, like Roger Baldwin and the national ACLU, were muted by closeness to Roosevelt and the Democrats, and refused to step in and question the incarceration. 

Only the Northern California branch of the ACLU, a somewhat maverick wing under Ernest Besig and Wayne Collins, chose to fight for the rights of the Japanese Americans, particularly in the case of Fred Korematsu, and in combating the out of control craziness that was going on at Tule Lake. In fact, Collins characterized Tule Lake as an insane asylum, where the turmoil was so great no one was safe. 

There is a great, tragic story here, and I hope that some day, it will take its proper and important place in our history books. We in the Japanese American community have not been eager to know this story, we have been reluctant to understand how badly our community was damaged and how we still have carried our fears and sense of vulnerability around with us. You can’t strongly embrace your captors and not suffer a diminution of self, of one’s wholeness. 

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

 

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