Most people don’t know where Rohwer, Ark. or Tule Lake, Calif. are located.
My parents’ families were interned in both those concentration camps during World War II. The U.S. government rounded up and jailed 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans for “posing a threat to national security.” The government knew there was no threat, but needed a scapegoat to rile up war hysteria. The imprisonment of Japanese farmers also enriched West Coast agricultural interests because their competition was eliminated.
The shock-and-awe effect of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, dictating the mass imprisonment, sent a dual message to Americans — get on board with the government’s war efforts or suffer the same fate.
War fervor is a dangerous disease. It provides justification for actions that are seen as intolerable during peace times. Rape, imprisonment, torture and killing become justifiable because “we are at war.” The internment of a group of people based solely on their race was generally accepted without question. The American Friends Service Committee was one of the few national organizations to oppose the criminalization. Disgracefully, the Communist Party supported the government and went further by expelling their members of Japanese descent.
In response to the lack of public outrage and organized resistance to their unconstitutional lock-up, Japanese and Japanese Americans resolved to never let another group suffer the same fate. I’m proud that my community is the first group to speak out whenever the state threatens to single out individual groups for imprisonment or criminalization based on their race, religion, immigrant status, sexuality, or ethnicity.
Today’s Muslims are yesterday’s Japanese Americans. Islamophobia, the “unfounded hostility towards Muslims,” is on the rise, as is the violence. The government has fueled anti-Muslim attitudes with the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, set up by President Bush after 9/11. This system was used to spy on and deport Muslims, South Asians, and Middle Easterners. Over 80,000 people were forced into the system, yet not one person was found to have any links to terrorists or violent actions.
Barack Obama belatedly dismantled the program before leaving office, but now Donald Trump has indicated that he wants to create a Muslim registry, put mosques under surveillance and ban Muslims from entering the U.S. One of President Trump’s supporters cited the Japanese American internment as precedent for the Muslim Registry. These proposals would criminalize innocent people based on their religion.
Scapegoating Muslims goes hand in glove with the current attack on civil liberties. Corporate America hopes to crush all resistance to its practices of scorching the earth, impoverishing the working class, subjugating women, and privatizing everything in sight. Shifting people’s anger onto Muslims is an attempt to disorient and divide workers so that they don’t unite against the bosses.
In spite of the crackdown, rebellion is occurring daily. The heroic battle led by Native Americans at Standing Rock is inspiring a new generation of activists. The Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests are exposing the cops as the armed force of the capitalist government. The anti-Trump demonstrations reflect the growing outrage against an inhumane profit system. All these battles are met with state-sanctioned violence that is aimed at terrorizing people to keep them submissive.
History teaches us that the way to stop this repression is to oppose it early on, even if it doesn’t appear to have traction. Ignoring or minimizing threats only emboldens the government and their corporate partners. Defending those under attack is key to building a united movement.
“We are all Muslims.” Indeed “We are all Japanese Americans”; “We are all Orlando”; “We are all immigrants” because “Black Lives Matter.” We are a multiracial, multi-generational, international working class. Let’s link arms and stand together to stop the repression and violence against each and every one of our communities. The unbreakable bond of class unity will ensure that when the government comes for any one of us, we will all be there to fight back. This is the lesson that history teaches.
Nancy Reiko Kato is a sansei (third generation) Japanese American born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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