Strong words, you might think. Maybe you’ll think again after reading this.

Manzanar has a very important place in my heart. Back in the late ’60s, when our movement was first developing, we were coming together from many “serve the people” programs in our community. We had learned from the black civil rights movement that we were not white, not even “honorary white” back then, although S.I. Hayakawa at S.F. State and the white liberal establishment were promoting us as the “model minority.”

The “serve the people” programs were the concrete expressions of our oppression and we didn’t “take care of our own” as popular myth claimed. Sistahs and brathas who had developed programs for youth, seniors, low-income folks, men coming out of prison, homeless, etc. were meeting at Centenary Church. We called ourselves the “umbrella organization” — our individual programs/groups were the spokes or tines of the umbrella and the handle/stem our meeting/organization.

We were coming together to try and define who we were and what was our guiding philosophy. We  argued like hell for months. Until Warren Furutani and Victor Shibata, who were also part of the group although working for the JACL, met Rev. Maeda. He had been going back to camp since it had closed and was conducting services there for the deceased. They brought his story back to us and we began to discuss what this meant.

In our community at that time, no one talked about camp, except when the older generations met, then they always asked each other, “What camp were you at?” or “What block?” But to talk about camp life, what they felt, or any negative stuff? Nah, it was a taboo subject. We victims were ashamed of our experience and therefore of ourselves, was the way we interpreted it. Since we were put in camp, we had to be guilty of something, you know, disloyal or something. And if you questioned it or expressed anger, you were disloyal according to the government and the JACL.

In our meetings, along with political direction discussions, such as reformism or socialism, self-help or go for funds.  We also talked about who we were, what our identity was going to be. We were sick and tired of both liberal and conservative whites, radicals and hippies, and especially those in our own community who we thought toadied to the white establishment telling us who we were. We took our guidance from the black, brown and red power movements that were also shedding the white man’s/establishment stereotypes and definitions, just like the sistahs and brathas overseas who were overthrowing colonialism.

In hindsight, it is clear we were a part of a worldwide movement of people of color who were standing up to white supremacy/racism/colonialism.

I went up on a bus, sponsored by the Lil Tokyo Pioneer Project. Issei, Nisei and Sansei even slept in the bus up at Grays Meadow. At our program I remember Jim Matsuoka telling us that although we were released, we had left our souls in the camps; that’s why we were so beat down. I always felt that he was right — how else to explain our community leaders’ stance towards the power structure and our dissent?

The umbrella organization that evolved into the Manzanar Committee was in many ways a mirror of our community, with many trends and currents both conservative and radical. The two I remember most clearly were: 1) a revolutionary national trend that called for self-help, self-reliance, self-determination, self-defense through internationalism and mutual aid; 2) a petit bourgeois trend that wanted the powers that be to be responsible for maintaining a project that recognized our victimization.

And as our movement lost its strength through our defeat by the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the slaughter and repression of Panthers and AIM warriors, and our own capitulation and turn to the right.

Remember Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition”? The Manzanar Committee also mirrored that shift.

After the passing of Amy Ishii, the committee took up the ideas of Sue Embrey as the guiding light and the consolidation is set. So much so that in the late ’70s or thereabouts, a friend of mine who was the representative-at-large on the committee from the old Japanese American Community Services-Office of Asian Involvement tells me that the committee received an offer from the L.A. Department of Water and Power to the community to lease the camp grounds for a dollar a year for 99 years! The committee turned the offer down without sharing it with the community.

One of the dreams I’ve always had deals with us taking over the camp and turning it over into a communal/cooperative farm where those who were sick and tired of the rat race could go and get away, work the land, grow stuff for our people in the city, take at-risk youth and let Mother Nature, good hard work, clean air and the love and guidance of their elders help clear their minds. And of course a place for our movement folks to retreat to, to re-energize ourselves and bond.

And it can still happen, with the feds cutting back everywhere. Of course the problem then and now is still the same — getting dedicated, selfless womyn and men who would be willing to see the project through.

The evolution of the committee can be seen by who recognized Manzanar. First the city and the DWP. At one point we even had local politicians flying in by helicopter to our pilgrimage. Then the state and finally the feds through the national parks. Smokey the Bear and his gang now are going to run the show. The folks who put us in camp and violated our civil, constitutional and human rights thru E.O 9066 are now going to be responsible for running a program that memorializes our oppression, right?

In my opinion, if you believe that, what do you think of the Patriot Act or the National Security Act?

However, before Smokey arrives, I watched something beautiful develop: Lone Pine high school students helping clean up the graveyard, the town helping out on our day, community groups like the Asian American Drug Abuse program helping out directing traffic, setting up, prior to the program. In other words, a people-to-people working together that was a sight to behold. It made me proud that a place and event that represented a total disrespect of our humanity could now be a program where folks were coming together, not to mention the cooperation and working together that the MAD (Manzanar After Dark) program represents.

After Smokey and his boyz arrived, one of the first things they did was disrespect us. When the first boss of the new park was introduced to us, he started patting himself on the back and said that he considered himself “the father of Manzanar”! And we been going up there 40, 50 years! And then at their (their?) grand opening, I heard they were going to leave Sue out of the program and she wasn’t invited (invited?) to speak until members of the committee protested! I am not talking  about the “Interpretive Center,” I’m talking about the Manzanar Pilgrimage program.

And then, get this! When we got there, there were men in uniform carrying guns! Now I’m asking all of you who were in camp, who was wearing uniforms and carrying guns and what was their function? I don’t know about the rest of you, but it don’t sit right with me!

When I protested to that white boss, all he said to me was that there was a regulation that stated that if they strapped a gun on, they couldn’t take it off. OK, I said, then couldn’t he have the guys (gals) with guns away from the center of our festivities (in the parking lot or graveyard)? He ignored me.

I raised this again when the new guy who looks like one of us took over, and his response was that it was a matter of demeanor, you know, like a John Wayne, not, but someone without a swagger! He also said that he told Kanaka Maoli, indigenous Hawai’ian elders, at their sacred places that’s a national park now — the same thing.

So much for sensitivity, but that’s not all. A couple of years back, we wanted to sell our T-shirts at the pilgrimage. We were told we couldn’t, rudely  and with disrespect, without any prior warning. When I approached the “banana,” he told me that one of his underlings had gone to some meeting and there he learned this rule, that they had to have complete control of what goes on and what is sold at the park, and that he was going to enforce it. Without consultation, nothing! Just “It’s our rules!”

My thang is this. They can do whatever they want at the Interpretive Center, which I’m sure that they’ve done. They built it and staff it; it’s theirs as far as I’m concerned. BUT, the pilgrimage is ours and has its roots in our movement and it represents to me our retaking our dignity, pride and humanity, not to mention our fighting spirit!

What do you think? Hope to see y’all at Manzanar.

Kokoro kara
mo nishida

Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. I visited Manzanar alone in June 1991. Back then it was ignored and abandoned property. Now that it is administered by the government, the bureaucracy inevitably comes with it. I recall how the people of Lone Pine were not happy when I told them why I was there. Now it is all different as the local economy is boosted by visitors dollars.