Once upon a time, in the country many of us call our own, the government incarcerated American citizens in concentration camps solely because of the country of their ancestors’ birth. The United States was then at war with Japan, having been attacked (Pearl Harbor) by that country in December of 1941.
In 1942, American citizens of Japanese descent who lived in America’s western states were forcibly removed from their homes, required to give up almost all of their personal possessions, and sent to any one of a number of camp sites in wilderness areas often far from their homes. Men, women and children of all ages were rounded up and sent to the camps, which were (and still are) euphemistically called relocation camps (or, sometimes, internment camps). They were, in fact, concentration camps that were enclosed with barbed wire and were guarded by military personnel who held 24/7 watch from towers while armed with machine guns and guard dogs.
The camps were populated with otherwise ordinary American citizens who had done nothing wrong. They had not claimed allegiance to Japan with the advent of the war; they were not accused of espionage or of disloyalty to America; they were, in fact, never charged with any acts whatsoever, nor were they accorded any semblance of due process or other constitutional protections (e.g., habeas corpus). They were just deemed to be threats to national security by the same administration in Washington that was engaged in an effort to defeat a country that had resorted to, essentially, the same tactics in the maintenance of concentration camps that had, admittedly, far more severe repercussions.
If you are like me (born after the war in a suburb of New York), you may have learned very little about America’s concentration camps in school. I vaguely recall perhaps a single class hour in my junior year in high school being devoted to an accounting of the camps. I know that they were never called concentration camps. One of those euphemisms sufficed, with the intent thereby satisfied to downplay the offensiveness of the entire episode.
The truth about the camps was only acknowledged in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians. The Commission ultimately concluded that the mass incarceration was the product of racism. In 1988, reparations were paid to survivors of the camps ($20,000 to each) as part of the Civil Liberties Act of that year. In the years since, however, this dark period of American history has receded into the background, with today’s high school students taught little more about it than I was more than 50 years ago.
But with the election of Donald Trump, the Japanese-American concentration camps of the 1940s may be receiving revived interest. And if the new film, “And Then They Came for Us,” receives the kind of attention it did last weekend in Sacramento, that interest may become more significant than ever before. In the film, documentary film-maker Abby Ginzberg has captured the horror and tragedy of this period of American history, with interviews of many survivors of the camps and with official accounts and photographs of how the camps were maintained and of the conditions the Americans there incarcerated were subjected to.
Suffice it to say, those conditions were not pleasant. The camps were located in largely uninhabitable parts of the western part of the country (in deserts or in locales with adverse climates). Food was substandard; meaningful work was non-existent; schools were segregated (obviously) and maintained in far below acceptable standards.
Ms. Ginzberg’s film was shown to a packed house (over 750 highly diverse attendees) at the Crest Theater last Saturday. It was followed by an engrossing and diverse panel discussion that included a camp survivor (Mia Yamamoto), a Mexican-American who had been “repatriated” to Mexico as a child (former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso), a spokesperson for CAIR (the Council for American-Islamic Relations), and Ms. Ginzberg. Sharon Ito, the former TV news anchor-reporter, served as the moderator.
Why the interest in the film and the period of American history it recounts? The answer is probably best provided by the range of groups and communities that were represented on the panel and in the audience on Saturday. In addition to her experiences as a young child in the camps, Ms. Yamamoto is a transgender activist who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Justice Reynoso, as mentioned, suffered discrimination as a child when he was “repatriated” to Mexico, despite being an American citizen by birth. And Basim Elkarra, the director of CAIR, was born in San Francisco, but spoke of the prejudice now being experienced by those like him who adhere to the Muslim faith.
But the list shouldn’t stop there. Consider, for a moment, the groups and members of diverse communities who have reason to feel threatened by the Trump administration. It’s a long list, compiled in only eight months (since Trump took office): DACA children, Muslims, Mexicans, refugees, undocumented immigrants, transgender service members, climate-change scientists, mainstream journalists, professional athletes who claim free speech rights, Jews, African-Americans, all Democrats (except, perhaps, Chuck and Nancy), certain Republicans (especially Mitch and Paul), and, perhaps soon, bloggers who speak out against bigotry and demagoguery.
The showing of the Ginzberg film and the panel discussion that followed was the work of the Asian-Pacific Bar Association of Sacramento (ABAS) Law Foundation, of which my wife (full disclosure) is a board member and officer. In promoting the event, Yoshinori (Toso) Himel, the organization’s president, issued this statement:
“It (the film) raises issues vital to Americans as our national leaders propose a wall to prevent entry from Mexico, a ban on transgender service members, a Muslim registry and the Muslim entry ban currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, and as they encourage violent Nazi groups and official brutality. We are in the midst of a campaign of fear and hatred, the same kind of campaign of fear and hatred that caused the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II. We want to make sure it never happens again.”
Mr. Himel also explained the film’s title, which is drawn from the oft-quoted statement by German pastor Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist; then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Ms. Yamamoto issued the rallying cry from the panel, urging everyone to speak out, to march, and to protest. To which I will add my continuing plea in the era of Trump: Be vigilant; be very vigilant.