On June 22, a group of Japanese American WWII internment camp survivors and descendents gathered outside the gates of the Fort Sill Army installation in southwestern Oklahoma to protest the detention of more than 1,400 migrant children. Risking arrest to make their opposition known, they shared their stories of resilience before joining more than 200 supporters to protest the "repetition of history."
Throughout both the press conference on base and the protest in Lawton, advocates protesting the detention of migrant children highlighted Fort Sill’s dark and troubling history of incarcerating minority groups.
"Unlike 1942, when America turned their backs on us while we were disappearing from our homes, our schools, our farms and our jobs, we are here today to speak out, to protest the unjust incarceration of innocent people seeking refuge in this country," said Satsuki Ina, 75, who was born in the Tule Lake internment camp, where her parents were sent for protesting their incarceration during WWII. "We stand with them, and we are saying: ‘Stop repeating history.’"
As the five elders shared what is was like to be born and raised inside a U.S. internment camp, a uniformed Military Police officer—a lieutenant colonel—repeatedly told organizers they were not allowed to protest on Fort Sill. The officer interrupted the press conference while the third survivor, Nikki Nojima Louis, was sharing her story.
"Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, 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," the officer said. "Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! Now! Today!"
The elders were undeterred. After another tense exchange with the Military Police officer, the organizers confirmed they would not be arrested and pressed forward with the press conference. However, after only a couple of minutes, the officer returned to order the organizers to move.
"What don’t you understand? It’s English. Get out!" he screamed as he approached the group.
As Lawton police began to arrive on scene, the Military Police officer continued barking commands at the survivors and descendants who refused to move until they all had an opportunity to share their stories.
"What don’t you people understand?" the Military Police officer shouted at the crowd.
"We understand the whole history of this country, and we aren’t going to let it happen again," responded an unidentified organizer.
Following the exchange, the unnamed officer was suspended and is under investigation. "Additionally, the command has put appropriate measures in place to respect one’s right to protest outside our installation," Fort Sill Commanding General Wilson Shoffner said in a statement to The Army Times.
Founded in 1869, Fort Sill itself has a troubling history of imprisonment. In the 1860s and ‘70s, it was used to jail Native American families who were considered prisoners of war, including Geronimo who died and is buried on the base. It was used as a boarding school for Native American children, some of who were in attendance at the protest. During WWII, it was used as an internment camp for 700 Japanese American immigrant men, many of whom were legal permanent residents. More recently in 2014, the military base was used to detain unaccompanied migrant children under the Obama administration.
At the protest, Miki Ishii, a descendant of WWII U.S. internment camp survivors and originator of the organizing group Tsuru for Solidarity, described their act of civil disobedience at the gates of Fort Sill.
"If they ask [us] to leave, we answer to a higher law—and that is a law that protects children," Ishii said. He explained why internment camp survivors and descendents risked arrest to protest the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill, a place they call a "U.S. concentration camp."
At the rally, supporters from across Oklahoma drove to Lawton to stand with Tsuru for Solidarity—whose organizers themselves had flown in from across the United States—to protest the use of Fort Sill as a detention facility for migrant children.
Julie Reagle and Hannah Fernandez, trauma-informed teachers with the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, said they had to do something when they heard Fort Sill would be used to detain migrant children starting in July.
"These children are the age of my students, and I teach Hispanic kids, and some of them are undocumented, and I’m just picturing my kids in that situation," Julie Reagle said as her eyes filled with tears. "And it’s just not right."
They were among the Tulsa teachers who gathered supplies for the migrant children who will be detained at Fort Sill. When they learned about the protest, they volunteered to drive supplies to Lawton from Tulsa.
"We know what this does to the children who are put in these situations, and we knew if we just stood by we wouldn’t be doing what we are supposed to do as teachers, and that is to help the children," said Hannah Fernandez.
The supplies included personal care items such as toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap—items which the Department of Justice recently argued it did not need to provide for the children in their detention facilities. It is still unclear whether the government will accept the donations gathered for the children set to arrive at Fort Sill.
The speakers and organizations represented at the rally included members of communities who have been historically affected by relocation, detention, and incarceration, such as the American Indian Movement, Dream Action Oklahoma and Black Lives Matter.
"Because we share this history, unless we share our stories and talk to each other, we don’t really realize how much we have in common," said Nancy Ukai, an organizer with Tsuru for Solidarity.
Some supporters pointed to systemic racism and white supremacy as the reason for why the detention of children at Fort Sill is not just repeated history, but the latest example of an institution surviving through generations to be repurposed for another minority group.
"We’re dealing not with an immigration issue, but with a colonial, white supremacist issue," said Jordan Lee Harmon, who traveled from Tulsa to speak at the rally.
"As all the speakers have said, this is repeated history because this is a nation not founded on immigration, but on settler colonialism, and if we don’t try to reconcile with that then the legacy will continue," said Allison Childress, who is studying at Northeastern State University to be a history teacher.
Speakers also called on white allies to not just show up, but to put their "bodies on the line."
"We’re not just calling you to attend the rallies and say ‘We stand in solidarity,’" said Sheri Dickerson of Black Lives Matter in Oklahoma City, addressing allies. "I’m saying, ‘Get your asses down to the places where the faces don’t look like yours and say we matter!’"
Childress agreed, adding that entering uncomfortable spaces and relinquishing power is key to supporting movements like this as an ally.
"As a white participant in this … we have to do the work," Childress said. "There is only white privilege because there is white supremacy, so we have to relinquish the comfort and safety of [privilege], and that’s what this is about."
Organizers from Tsuru for Solidarity brought more than 30,000 handmade paper cranes, folded by supporters across the country, as a symbol of love and solidarity with migrant families. The cranes will be traveling to D.C. in May 2020 next. Organizers hope to grow their collection to 125,000 by then.