Defiance and Solidarity at Fort Sill

Japanese American Concentration Camp Survivors Galvanize Opposition to New Immigration Detention Center in Oklahoma

By: John Ota. Posted June 27, 2019.

Lawton, OK — On just 11 days’ notice, Japanese American concentration camp survivors and supporters on June 22 brought together over 200 people to protest the recently announced plan to make Fort Sill, OK the site of a new immigration detention center for up to 1,400 children.

During World War II, Fort Sill was the site of a concentration camp in which up to 700 Japanese Americans were held, watched by armed soldiers in guard towers. A few German nationals were also held there.

The protest was organized by Tsuru for Solidarity, ACLU of Oklahoma, Densho, Japanese American National Museum, National Detention Watch and many other organizations.

The first report that the U.S. had chosen Fort Sill as a location for a new immigrant detention center surfaced on June 11.

Although there is some controversy about using the phrase “concentration camp” to refer to the sites where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the war, the U.S. government itself used the phrase in many of its internal documents at the time in reference to these incarceration sites.

Prior to World War II, hundreds of Native Americans were imprisoned at Fort Sill, including Chiricahua Apache chief Geronimo, after capture or seizure by U.S. military forces.

In 2014, Fort Sill and other sites were used for about four months as temporary shelters for immigrants.

Although Trump officials claim that Fort Sill will be a “temporary” center, the administration’s continuing illegal separation of families, zero tolerance policy and tolerance for horrendous, filthy and disease-ridden conditions at some current centers gives rise to concerns that the Fort Sill concentration camp will be more of the same inhuman treatment of children and other immigrants.

Defying Military Police

Led by six Japanese Americans, 75 to 89 years old, who themselves had been confined as children in U.S. concentration camps, about 30 protesters gathered in front of a wall with a “Welcome to Fort Sill” sign at fort’s Bentley Gate.

While supporters held up an improvised curtain of colorful tsuru (origami paper cranes), the concentration camp survivors each spoke in turn about why they were there to oppose the plan to locate a detention center for immigrant children at the army base.

Satsuki Ina, 75, from Oakland, led off. ““Unlike 1942, when America turned their backs on us while we were disappearing from our homes, our schools, our farms and our jobs — we’re here today to speak out, to protest the unjust incarceration of innocent people seeking refuge in this country. We stand with them and we say, ‘Stop repeating history.'” Ina said.

While Nikki Nojima Louis, 81 and Chizu Omori, 89, were speaking, a military police officer interrupted her, barking in his best drill Sergeant voice, “You cannot protest on Fort Sill. If you want to protest you have to go across the street by the highway and that needs to happen right now! Let’s go! Now!” 

In response, Louis, Omori and the others calmly stood their ground and continued to read their statements as planned. Seeing no response, the officer yelled out more loudly, “Apparently you didn’t hear what I said. You need to move — right now, today!”

Organizer Mike Ishii told the officer that the group was not going to move. Satsuki Ina asked the officer “What will happen?”

Apparently surprised by the group’s defiance, the officer stammered in response, “I  — I don’t know … I’m not going to arrest you, but you need to move,” no longer yelling. Ishii replied, “Then we’re not going to move.”

The officer insisted, “Yes, you’re going to move.” “If you’re not going to arrest us, we’re not going to move,” said Ishii firmly. At that, the officer skulked away.

 

Military police officer confronts Michael ishii who refuses to move. Photo by John Ota.

The survivors and others continued with their statements. The officer returned shortly, telling the group they had two minutes to leave.

Ishii told the officer, “We feel that this is an important enough statement and we want to stand up for the children who are going to be brought here. All of our elders who are incarceration survivors have stated publicly that they are willing to be arrested in defense of the children.”

When he saw that the group was not moving, the officer yelled, “What don’t you people understand?” “We understand the whole history of this country and we aren’t going to let it happen again,” Ina replied.

After the last statement was given, the group calmly gathered themselves and left Fort Sill as planned to go to nearby Shepler Park for a support rally.

 Turning Point?

Chizu Omori, who spent her years 12 through 15 at the Poston concentration camp in the Arizona desert, said she was willing to be arrested to “call attention to . .  Fort Sill, which has been the site for many detentions, from Native Americans to American Japanese, and now, Latin American children — all people of color. Here’s American racism loud and clear.”

Nikki Nojima Louis, from Albuquerque, was 4 when she and her family were put behind barbed wire. She explained her willingness to be arrested: Because she was herself once “a child in confinement, I feel a need to speak out.” Rosa Parks and others were her heroes. “It’s my time now, and I feel privileged to do it [be arrested],” she said.

“Imprisonment of children, with or without their parents is not right. It happened to me 77 years. It was not right in 1942, and it STILL is not right today. It is my duty to protest this cruelty.” said Paul Tomita, 80, from Washington state, who was imprisoned when he was 3.

Satsuki Ina, Kiyoshi Ina and Emiko Omori were the other concentration camp survivors who had volunteered to be arrested, if it came to that. Several others also were prepared to be arrested.

Although not designated to be arrested, Mike Ishii, 53, from New York, remembering his mother, was willing to be arrested. “Nobody advocated for her as a child in a camp, and I know she would be outraged and sickened by what is happening to people and children seeking asylum here”

Ishii sees the Fort Sill action as a possible turning point: “I think what we are witnessing is the birth of a non-violent civil disobedience movement within our own community. One with potential to intercede on behalf of others and one that can heal our own intergenerational suffering stemming from the wartime Japanese American incarceration,” he said.

Support Rally

Having made their statements and taken their stand at Fort Sill, the group moved to Shepler Park in Lawton for a larger gathering attended by 200 or more supporters.

The Japanese American organizers and supporters came from New York, Washington state, Wyoming, New Mexico and California, but others at the rally were local or came from around the state or nearby states, many saying they drove two or three hours or more to attend.

The rally began with Michael Topaum, spiritual advisor of American Indian Movement (AIM) Indian Territory of Oklahoma, performing a blessing ceremony, with fellow member Toma Hubert Stands.

AIM Indian Territory, the Autonomous Brown Berets of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma People’s Party provided security for the rally, and ACLU Oklahoma provided legal observers.

Buddhist minister Duncan Williams chanted sutras while survivors offered incense. Supporters were then invited to come forward to hang strings of tsuru on a cord held up by volunteers.

A broad range of speakers followed. At least three of the speakers were Native Americans who addressed their long history of oppression, including at Fort Sill.

Michael Topaum, spiritual leader of American Indian Movement (AIM) Indian Territory of Oklahoma said, “Fort Sill is an American concentration camp. . . It is heart-wrenching to see the government participating in locking up children.”

Supporters included members of the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, ACLA Oklahoma and other groups. Photo by Kiyoshi Ina.

Former Fort Sill Apache tribe chairman Jeff Haozous, 57, said his grandfather and grandmother were imprisoned at Fort Sill with Geronimo for 20 years. Geronimo, he said, had only one condition before he surrendered: “keep the families together.” He denounced as “inhumane, intolerable and unconscionable” the practice of separating children from their parents.

Kiowa tribe member Lavetta Yeahquo, also of AIM Indian Territory of Oklahoma, described herself as a “descendant of the Fort Sill Indian School atrocity,” in which she and other children were “snatched from their homes.” She spent two years at the Fort Sill Indian School.

Sheri Dickerson of Black Lives Matter, Oklahoma noted that her experience growing up in the foster family system made sensitive to the issue of forced family separation. “Black and Brown and Asian and Native bodies have been killed and slaughtered and disrespected and forgotten for far too long!” She exhorted supporters to join the movement to “melt the ICE,” referring to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Tom Ikeda, Executive Director of Densho in Seattle told the story of Kanesaburo Oshima who was imprisoned at Fort Sill in 1942 after being arrested at his home in Hawaii.

Oshima became so distraught at being separated from his family that one day, he ran to the fence and began climbing it, shouting, “I want to go home! I want to go home!” A guard shot Oshima in the head, killing him.

Edson Alvarado of Dream Action Oklahoma and Veronica Caizure of Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR), Oklahoma also gave spirited, fiery statements.

It was no accident that Fort Sill was chosen for a new immigration detention center since Oklahoma leads the nation in the rate of incarceration generally, as well as for Black and indigenous people in particular, noted Nicole McAfee of ACLU Oklahoma.

McAfee wrapped up the rally by saying, “Today is just a small showing that the people of Oklahoma care and are willing to fight!”

What’s Next?

Asked what Tsuru For Solidarity plans to do next, Ishii said, “We are now making plans with Detention Watch Network to take Tsuru for Solidarity to Washington, D.C. in May 2020.

We also want to work with organizations in the Japanese American community to develop a campaign to oppose regional detention sites around the country.”

Ishii said there are two goals: “the first  is to end detention, to eliminate U.S. concentration camps and stop separation of families. The second goal is to facilitate intergenerational healing in communities affected by detention and separation of families.”

Those interested in joining the effort or following its progress can contact Tsuru For Solidarity at TsuruForSolidarity@gmail.com, or follow the group on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The group will also soon have a web page at TsuruForSolidarity.org. Donations can be made on the group’s Gofundme page at https://www.gofundme.com/japanese-american-protest-at-fort-sill.

Author’s Bio: John Ota is a member of the Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee and a supporter of Tsuru For Solidarity.

1 Comments

  1. Taiji Miyagawa on June 30, 2019 at 2:37 am

    Sign and share this petition: http://bit.ly/2LnbQnl
    Support legislation that opposes for-profit incarceration e.g., in CA: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201920200AB1282&

    Business interests drove Japanese American concentration, just as they drive the current criminal and immoral human trafficking operation. To stop it, we must challenge the money-flow that is financing it and the political support for it.



Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.