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Ancestry is Not a Crime

By Bob Shimabukuro, Associate Editor and PSARA Executive Board Member 

“Ancestry is not a crime,” said historian Roger Daniels, recalling Gordon Hirabayashi’s succinct criticism of President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066. The Executive Order established military zones in the western halves of the Pacific coast states, and empowered the military to remove all persons of Japanese ancestry from their homes, force them into makeshift housing in the animal stalls at the Puyallup Fairgrounds and other such “assembly centers,” then later “relocate” them to one of 10 concentration camps for 3-1/2 years.

Daniels made the comment during a “Day of Remembrance” event, February 22, 2014, at the University of Washington, during which the Hirabayashi family donated to the University Library the personal papers, journals and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, awarded to Gordon in 2012.

Why was Hirabayashi awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Because he broke a law (Presidential Order) which was ruled constitutional in 1944. And also because he steadfastly maintained that it wasn’t constitutional until the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated his conviction in 1987.

The Day of Remembrance (DOR) commemorates February 19, 1942, the date that President Franklin Roosevelt issued his infamous Executive Order 9066. We want people to remember how we were treated back then, and we want people to be aware of what’s happening now.

DOR also is very much in my mind because I am part of a community advisory panel helping to produce the exhibit “Resist: Asian American Acts of Struggle” about Asian American civil disobedience at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Now a recognized model, a community advisory approach was started to plan and curate “E.O. 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After,” the first major exhibit at the Wing after Ron Chew was hired as Executive Director.

At the time, attendance was lagging at most museums, and Chew said that the only way to get more people into museums was to open the door and invite people in. Simply put. But very revolutionary in terms of museums. Ask community members to decide what was important historically, he was saying. And the 50-year-old Executive Order 9066 became the centerpiece of a new way of developing exhibits and interpreting history.

“E.O. 9066” opened on February 19, 1992. It was a huge success, measured in terms of attendance, local and national reviews and the way the exhibit was curated. Most important was the community participation, with hundreds donating or loaning artifacts, designing and building the exhibit itself, and telling personal stories. Like the original DOR itself, it gave Japanese Americans the opportunity to speak of the way their community grew despite widespread discrimination, was destroyed by presidential edict with Congressional support, and rebuilt despite intense on-going discrimination.

So how does all this relate to the Wing’s exhibit on API civil disobedience? The first DOR, after all, was not on February 19, and was advertised as a “community potluck,” to “stand for redress with your family on Saturday, November 25, 1978.”

How could a potluck be considered an act of civil disobedience?

At the first meeting of the advisory panel, the question, “What is civil disobedience?” was up for discussion.

The quick answer was risking arrest to protest and dramatize an intolerable situation. During that discussion, the question was turned into, “What does civil disobedience do, what is it for?” And then the discussion turned to taking a risk.

Culture plays a huge role in determining how we think and what we do and what meaning we give to our activities. Being arrested should not be the only criterion for civil disobedience when people of a targeted ancestry/ culture are arrested, even killed, for walking down the street. Everything you do is risk-taking. As my dad always told his kids, “Watch out what you do. Rich kids can hire lawyers, poor kids cannot. And rich people make the laws.”

The main point of civilly disobedient action is to raise public consciousness, so that we all can take a stand against injustice. To stand up, in struggle and in solidarity with others, telling your story, and still not be sure that you won’t be carted off to some place behind bars or barbed wire, that is really what civil disobedience is. People’s fears, then and now, about incarceration, torture and, yes, murder, are realities for some populations, and need to be taken into account.

Some Japanese Americans did not attend the original DOR, fearing what might be done to them, but because it was a community potluck, sent food. Others were going back to “Camp Harmony” at Puyallup Fairgrounds, “which had been home for 7,200 Japanese Americans,” for the first time since they were shipped out to Minidoka or other concentration camps, and were apprehensive about what would happen to them. In fact, when they were allowed out of the concentration camps, they were cautioned to, “for their own safety,” not assemble with more than four at a time.

When some organizers first suggested folks chaining themselves to the fences of the Fairgrounds for the first DOR, local community organizers Henry Miyatake and Shosuke Sasaki nixed it, saying nobody would come. They proposed the potluck, along with the “Art From the Camps” display, a talent show, and to make sure nobody forgot, some even cooked “camp food” for the potluck.

With that change they got more favorable press for DOR and support for redress from Governor Dan Evans, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, and the entire Seattle City Council.

More than 2,000 Japanese Americans showed up at the event. As poet Lawson Inada observed, “It was the largest gathering of Japanese Americans since the camps.” It became a joyous and powerful community reawakening.

That reawakening is still needed by all of America. Ancestry is still treated as if it is a crime in this country. We need to stand up together, using whatever means we can, in struggle and in solidarity whenever we can with those who need help getting their stories heard, and demanding rights and respect for all.

Just as the first DOR broke open internally repressed doors for the Japanese American community, the “Executive Order 9066” exhibit showed a new way to document our experience and link the past with the present by using community advisory committees to help curate the show. Other museum exhibitions, such as the Museum of History and Industry’s (MOHAI) “Revealing Queer,” have followed the same process. Check out these exhibits when you can:

The “Revealing Queer” exhibit at MOHAI opened February 14 and runs to July 6, 2014. The Wing’s exhibit of Asian Pacific Islander civil disobedience will open May 1, 2014.

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