Mitchell Matsumura of Save Our Seniors and Sansei Legacy leads a procession through Little Tokyo on Saturday in recognition of 118 seniors who have died at the Kei-Ai Healthcare Centers.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

A memorial procession through the streets of Little Tokyo began with about 100 participants on Saturday evening and grew to nearly 400 gathered to remember the 118 seniors who died from COVID-19 at Pacifica facilities in Los Angeles and the South Bay.

Minister Diane Ujiiye of AAPI Christians for Social Justice helped set the tone: “We mourn the 118 deaths at Kei-Ai Health Care Centers occurring while our community is being attacked, injured, and killed. These are shared attitudes that reduce our humanity, resulting in pain and anguish for all of us…Let us walk together as community, unbroken and unified.”

Pacifica’s combined Kei-Ai L.A. (Lincoln Heights) and Kei-Ai South Bay (Gardena) facilities have the dubious distinction of reporting the highest rate of COVID-related deaths in the state, according to **The Los Angeles Times.** Additionally, Pacifica is moving forward with plans to evict seniors from its 90-bed Sakura Gardens Intermediate Care Facility (ICF) in Boyle Heights to convert the structure to multi-family apartments.

Saturday’s demonstration culminated with a candlelight tribute in Hashimoto Plaza, beginning around sundown.

Tiffany Lam of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development

Bishop Noriaki Ito stressed the importance of honoring the deceased and also thanked everyone for the widespread support following the vandalism that occurred Feb. 27 at his Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. A Go Fund Me campaign launched to help pay for repairs and upgrade the temple’s security system has generated over $90,000 to date, far exceeding the initial fundraising goal.

On Feb. 26, a mass email from Pacifica, the private corporation that owns the former Keiro facilities, notified family members of the impending closure of the ICF. Francine Imai, representing the Family Council, noted that finding alternative residences while the threat of COVID still exists has been difficult.

“We are seeing a moment in time when we have nothing left to do but to fight back against the inequality and injustices that are happening in our neighborhoods,” avowed Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes Little Tokyo, Boyle Heights, Downtown L.A., and Koreatown.

Assemblymember Al Muratcsuchi, Bishop Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji, Assemblymember Miguel Santiago

Commenting on the broad spectrum of support reflected in the attendees, he said, “There is no way that we’re going to allow (our seniors) to be kicked out onto the street.” Then, directing his message to Pacifica, Santiago asserted, “When you picked a fight with our seniors, you picked a fight with a whole heck of a lot of people in this state.

Traci Imamura, co-chair of Save Our Seniors.

“It’s a disgrace that that many people should die in any location, let alone…when we just had a president attack our Asian culture at the start of this pandemic.”

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) told the crowd. “All the Asian Americans here, we all know we’ve been facing not one but really two pandemics — the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of hate against Asia Americans throughout this country.”

He also questioned Pacifica’s decision to open the nursing home as a COVID-designated facility without telling the residents or even telling the family members. “That is not respect and that is not love,” he pointed out, referring to the fact that kei ai translates to “respect” and “love.”

Santiago and Muratsuchi (D-Torrance) have co-authored Assembly Bill 279, which, if passed, would restrict the conditions under which the owner of an intermediate care or skilled nursing facility could make significant changes to services or transfer a resident to another facility during any declared state of emergency relating to COVID-19.

Francine Imai spoke on behalf of families of Kei-Ai residents.

Although the state attorney general has the authority to intervene in such a situation, that position has been vacant since Thursday when AG Xavier Becerra was approved by the U.S. Senate to become secretary of health and human services.

Save Our Seniors (SOS) co-chairs David Monkawa and Traci Imamura organized the demonstration. East L.A. Taiko performed.

Speakers included Rev. Ray Fukumoto, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha; Jan Yen, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress; Mark Masaoka, Nikkei Progressives; Miya Iwataki, Little Tokyo Historical Society; Nancy Takayama, Pacific Southwest District JACL; Carlos Montes, Centro Community Services Organization; Tiffany Lam, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development; James An, Korean American Federation of L.A.; and Rev. Allison Mark, Faith United Methodist Church.

East L.A. Taiko performed.

Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo

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