Los Angeles Day of Remembrance stresses collective action for justice

Reparations and reperatory justice expert Dreisen Heath.

LOS ANGELES — The annual Los Angeles Day of Remembrance, commemorating the Feb. 19, 1942 signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which authorized the forcible removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast into American concentration camps during World War II, was held on the Japanese American National Museum’s YouTube channel Feb. 19.

Emphasizing the theme, “Power of Communities: Building Strength Through Collective Action,” this year’s virtual event paid tribute to the resilience of the Nikkei community over the 80 years since the executive order’s signing, and explored the next steps for ensuring a just and equitable future for all, especially African American victims of slavery and racial discrimination.

Japanese American activists traci kato-kiriyama and Kathy Masaoka, and Dreisen Heath, an expert on reparations and reparatory justice, discussed the importance of solidarity in working for reparations in the present day.

Heath explained that HR 40, which would create a commission to study and develop reparations for African Americans, was first introduced in Congress around the time the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was enacted. The late Rep. John Conyers, who led the early campaign for African American reparations, said after the redress bill for Japanese Americans became law, “If the country is ready to not only acknowledge an atrocity but also provide some type of redress for it, then maybe the country is ready to deal with centuries of dehumanization, enslavement, forced labor and racial discrimination.”

HR 40 has 217 votes and can pass in the House of Representatives, Heath declared. “We’re here because we’re remembering a collective trauma, a collective injury. Reparations allows you to rehabilitate … If you neglect that injury, it may cause complications. That’s the same thing with the injuries of racism … If we do not patch this up, we can’t get these goals of reconciliation and equality. You cannot do that without reparations.”

Black reparations proponents are trying to “get the perpetrator to actually recognize, to acknowledge and pay for these atrocities after 256 years of forced labor in the U.S.,” Heath stated.  “As you saw in the (Japanese American redress) movement passing in the ‘80s, what we have to learn from that … is the power of testimony, the power of saying out loud what has happened. How we can change that trajectory for future generations is really at the heart of what we’re doing here.”

Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, stated, “We as Japanese Americans are really following the lead of Black organizations fighting for reparations for individuals … What we achieved or whatever we’ve learned, you have to put it in that historical time … We’re looking at 1981, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 40 years ago and 40 years after the camps.”

With HR 40, setting up a commission should be “a very simple thing,” Masaoka stated. “They’re not asking for anything to be paid. They’re asking for a commission to study and make recommendations, just as we had a commission in 1981. We didn’t want the commission at first. We wanted individual payments. But then we realized the importance of the commission … that people have the opportunity to say what they went through and experienced, and that we would learn from these stories … The CWRIC hearings not only released people from their anger and the pain … It galvanized and sustained the movement for reparations.”

Achieving redress for Japanese Americans came from Third World solidarity, learning from Black leadership, Masaoka continued. “The legacy of solidarity is very important … Last year, at the testimony for HR 40, Japanese Americans from across the country submitted testimonies in support of HR 40 … We have to imagine that anything is possible … it could happen again.”

Breaking the Silence

As a college student during the early 1990s, kato-kiriyama recalled watching an exhibit at JANM of the CWRIC hearings. “I saw people who looked like my aunties and uncles, or my parents or grandparents. They were pissed, angry, emotional, articulate, eloquent, and, speaking in public … It fought against so many tropes of our community being so totally submissive and quiet and not standing up. I also saw folks from so many other communities stepping up and standing up alongside our folks. I think there were two things about that — breaking silence in community and the power of that, and the solidarity that it took … That was huge for me, it was really life-changing.”

Nothing has ever been achieved in the U.S. without multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, multi-generational work with collective energy, Heath related. “Our humanity is interconnected … We have to share our struggles … toward the goal of claiming, demanding, and receiving reparations. This is a precedent well set, even prior to the Civil Liberties Act passing.”

There’s so much emotion that comes with investing in the story of Black reparations, Heath revealed. “I’m a Black woman, a descendant of enslaved people … If and when reparations are administered, I’m not sure I’m going to be able find the papers in my family’s catalogs and basements to prove that my family was impacted. Destruction of records was also part of the dehumanization. Who’s to say my family even had records, when they weren’t even counted prior to the 1870 Census.”

She urged reparations supporters to “put pressure on the congressional leadership — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Stenny Hoyer, and Majority Whip James Clyburn — who all have the power to move this forward, and who have verbally and publicly committed to advancing this, including the president of the United States and his vice president … So, you have people who are selling a reparations study, a reparations process, to get votes. But to actually follow through, we have to hold them to their public promises.”

“I see the power in how the demands were so clear in the Japanese American Redress Movement, and the demands explicitly for monetary compensation. That is incredibly important. (The U.S.) still hasn’t even apologized for enslavement today … We have to reclaim our power.”

Significance of Manzanar

Speaker Emiko Kranz, a University of California, Los Angeles graduate student, spoke of childhood summers driving up to Mammoth with her grandparents, and her grandfather would detour to Manzanar. At the time, she didn’t grasp the significance of the former concentration camp because her grandparents were incarcerated elsewhere, at Granada (Amache) in Colorado, and Gila River in Arizona, respectively. “But decades later, at the Manzanar Pilgrimage … I felt the weight of this history — of my grandparents, my great grandparents, and the entire community. Dancing tanko bushi alongside so many activists of color also fighting for justice for their communities, I realized that … by fully understanding the depth of our community’s history and trauma, we are better able to see … our need for collective action that guarantees better futures for all seeking liberation.”

The program featured video clips of former inmates angrily testifying at the 1981 CWRIC hearings about their concentration camp experience, and also depicted several African Americans — including former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley — criticizing America’s mistreatment of the Nikkei. In one clip, Rep. Ron Dellums recalls angrily how in 1942 authorities took away his best friend, a six-year-old Japanese American boy named Roland who screamed that he didn’t want to go. “And this six-year-old Black American child screamed back, ‘Don’t take my friend!’ It wasn’t just Japanese Americans who felt the emotion … it was our community.”

The 2022 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance was organized by: Go For Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League – Pacific Southwest District, Japanese American National Museum, Little Tokyo Service Center, Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, Nikkei Progressives, OCA – Greater Los Angeles, Progressive Asian Network for Action and Visual Communications.

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