RABBIT RAMBLINGS: An intersectional battle for justice

bioline_Chizu OmoriIt has always bothered me that our history of being incarcerated during World War II, based solely on the fact of our being of Japanese descent, has been so obscure and relatively unknown. I admit that many of us didn’t want to talk about it, and it wasn’t something that one would bring up in casual conversation.

And yet, I insist that it is an important part of the American story. The standard has usually been an uplifting tale of “democracy” and the American dream, of equality and freedom. It was a change in the bloody human history of domination of some over others. In fact, America was the example that inspired so many in other countries’ concepts of freedom and justice. All that is true, but only partially, as anyone who has studied American history knows.

Issues of discrimination based on race have also been part and parcel of the story, from the very beginning, and skin color has been used to define status and rights.

So, having a president sign orders that imprisoned 120,000 of us was not that unthinkable, though it was the first time in modern history that such a violation of the laws of the land had been officially sanctioned and accepted by all three branches of the government. This was precedent-setting in a number of ways and raised a lot of legal questions. Still, for the most part, this story had been buried in the archives and history books as a minor “mistake,” not worthy of attention. It pops up occasionally in commentary, but if you mention the “internment” story to people who live in the middle and eastern parts of the country, most won’t know what you are talking about. Our documentary, “Rabbit In the Moon,” produced in 1999, tried to call attention to our story, and was nationally broadcast, but it wasn’t enough to make a deep impression.

So, it is very exciting to see the arrival of a dynamic new documentary, “And Then They Came For Us,” Abby Ginzberg’s pointed film reviewing our history with an eye to current events. I asked Ginzberg, a longtime Bay Area documentarian, what the impetus for the film was, and she said she was first asked to create a small piece to accompany an exhibit of Dorothea Lange’s photos.

That did not appeal to her, but when Trump became president and started making noise about banning Muslims, imposing travel bans and even citing Roosevelt’s actions in imprisoning us during WWII as a reason for doing something similar, Ginzberg saw an opportunity to bring attention to this disturbing turn of events. Her company, Social Action Media, has long been concerned with social and political issues.

So with the help of a foundation and other funders, she was able to make this documentary in record time and begin screenings when the situation with the travel bans was heating up. In effectively linking our incarceration with what’s happening today, she has brought these issues before a wide audience and has been able to reach people in all parts of the country. She stresses the intersectionality of the subject, effectively interesting large groups of Americans: Muslims, African Americans, Latino Americans, and immigrants in general.

This is evidenced by her upcoming screenings scheduled in Michigan in a great mix of organizations representing a crosssection of concerned people, from the usual: ACLU, the Japanese American Citizens League, but also the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Yemen American Benevolent Association, the University of Michigan’s history department, etc. It is an astonishing line-up, showing the breadth of interest in the film.

And that’s just one place, Michigan. Ginzberg usually has a panel discussion after every screening, and for those, she again gets a good mix of interested parties. For these Michigan screenings she has a moderator from the university’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy for one of these programs, with participants like Nour Soubani and Asha Noor from the Take on Hate Campaign.

Moreover, Ginzberg is reaching out to educators, giving out free copies to high school teachers and encouraging its use in classrooms. I myself will be leading a discussion with Kent Middle School students in Marin County after they see the film. I am thrilled at the outreach that Ginzberg is conducting, and the groups that she is reaching.

One of the highlights of the film is how quickly and emphatically American Japanese stepped forward to proclaim solidarity with Muslim communities when they became subject to harassment. These actions began after 9/11, and we have organized rallies and demonstrations with the general theme, “Never Again.” We are using our experience to call attention to the parallels between 1941 and today. These activities are amply represented in the film, and many Nikkei tell of their experiences and also the fight to get our case recognized and addressed during the redress campaign and also in the coram nobis legal fight to overturn the wartime cases of Hirabayashi, Yasui and Korematsu.

The themes in the film are tied together by the wonderful pictures taken by Dorothea Lange, the photographer hired by the government to do a photo documentation of the incarceration program. Disturbed by what she was witnessing, she tried to capture the effect that this uprooting was having on the Japanese Americans, the anguish and fear that they felt as their lives were being upturned and drastically changed. Her work also disturbed the government enough to order her pictures to be locked away for decades.

For more information about “And Then They Came For Us,” contact Abby Ginsberg at: abby@socialactionmedia.com. You ought to see it. 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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