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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Manzanar: 70 Years Later It's Business as Usual

Manzanar: 70 Years Later It’s Business as Usual

In 1942, as people of Japanese ancestry were being removed to the concentration camps throughout the interior west, the primary mission of the newly-formed War Relocation Authority (WRA) was to sanitize gross injustices and criminal violations of the Constitution, and to control the people illegally forced into these concentration camps.  To this end, the WRA created the facade of self-governance in the camps.  At Manzanar, this took the form of the “freely-elected” block leaders.  

The problem with this form of representation was that the Issei (people born in Japan) and anyone who was critical of the forced removal and illegal incarceration were immediately disqualified from participating in this self-rule.  This left a very small subset of the people eligible to participate in system that served, at best, as a rubber-stamp for WRA unilateral administration policies.  Many of the block leaders were reluctant and apathetic about their positions (this can clearly be discerned in statements made in the block leader reports available in the Manzanar archives). 

Providing the 10,000 + people in Manzanar with food became the biggest endeavor of the people incarcerated in the camp.  Unlike the block leaders, the kitchen workers represented a true cross-section of the population at Manzanar.  The Kitchen Workers’ Union formed at Manzanar in the summer of 1942 to help address working and health conditions in the camp and to assure equitable pay and distribution of food.  This union rapidly grew into the peoples’ most vocal mouthpiece for human and civil rights within the camp.  The WRA response to this threat against their authority was two-fold: 1) to persuade the FBI to enlist some of the hyper-loyal elements of Manzanar to act as informants and stir-up trouble, and 2) to discredit and criminalize the loudest voices of opposition to the WRA tyrannical authority within the union.  These actions directly contributed to the incident referred to as the “Manzanar Riot.” This incident resulted in military troops (called into the concentration camp by the WRA director of Manzanar) firing weapons, including a machine gun, into an unarmed crowd of the illegally imprisoned people.  This resulted in 6 people receiving gunshot wounds and two innocent young men dying from these injuries.

The WRA used the “Manzanar Riot,” as a catalyst to blame all the problems in the concentration camp on the kitchen workers’ union and subsequently outlawed all union activity in all the concentration camps.  These actions and this rhetoric by the WRA obfuscated the true causes of the unrest at Manzanar: systematic violation of civil and constitutional rights and illegal imprisonment.  As a result of actions by the WRA, the leaders of the union at Manzanar were removed from the camp to prohibit them from questioning the decisions and rhetoric of the camp administration.  Any true form of representation within the concentration camps vanished with these actions.

In the fall of 2011, the National Park Service (NPS) was presented with the required paperwork and the sufficient number of votes from NPS employees at Manzanar National Historic Site to become full-members of Labor Local 220.  The management of the NPS is notoriously anti-union and refused to recognize the union status of employees at Manzanar.  Eighteen months and two court decisions later (both decisions were in favor of the rights of Manzanar National Historic Site’s employees to unionize), the NPS management is still being obstructionist and filing sequential appeals to keep the employees from organizing at Manzanar.  Like the actions of the WRA before them, this action by NPS management is designed to deny the current workers at Manzanar their rights as employees and as American citizens.

It is no mere coincidence that the WRA and the NPS were both formed under the same department of the federal government, the Department of the Interior.  The agenda the WRA and the NPS converge over the span of 7 decades.  Their shared objective regarding authoritarian control over people is identical: to deny true democracy and representation to the people in their charged.   I would compel each of you to consider whether or not it is in the best interest of Manzanar, a historic site dedicated to human rights, social rights, and justice, to be administered by an agency that is so flippant and dismissive of employee rights as the National Park Service. Or do some people take perverse pleasure in knowing that Manzanar is once again in the hands of an agency that is mirroring the obsession with tyrannical power and the disregard for social justice and individual rights that characterized the WRA’s tenure over America’s concentration camps 70 years ago?

Please think about these things the next time you visit Manzanar.  And think about the amount of tax-payer dollars that have been squandered by the NPS to fight against the right of American citizens to organize.  Nearly every NPS employee you will meet and interact with at Manzanar, from the maintenance staff, to the grounds keepers, to the interpretive rangers, to the tour guides that lead school programs are qualified to join the union and have, in fact, shown an interest in doing so.  As these dedicated federal employees talk to you about the rights violations experienced by those incarcerated at Manzanar in the 1940’s, they themselves are experiencing similar rights violations at the hands of an agency, the NPS, that differs only by degrees from the WRA. But please, do not ask these hard-working folks about the union or the efforts and risk they have taken to bring the union to Manzanar.  The management at Manzanar, the upper NPS management in San Francisco, and the utmost NPS management in Washington, DC are all viciously anti-union.  If this management knew which employees at Manzanar were pro-union—let me just say, the NPS, like the WRA, has many avenues to discredit people and destroy lives. 

As we move toward a more democratic future, perhaps we should reconsider whether an agency of the same government historically responsible for civil and constitutional rights violations can be an effective steward of a site dedicated to revealing these types violations.  At best, the NPS interpretation of Manzanar can only be an ironic hypocrisy.  Perhaps it is time to consider removing Manzanar from the administration of the NPS and creating a non-governmental agency to operate and interpret Manzanar in a manner that is in the best interest of social justice and the American people. 

Chad Montreaux
Newell, CA

If you would like to know more about NPS anti-union activities, particularly at Manzanar contact:
Laborers Local 220 representative Douglass Kessler <estellack@aol.com>
Former NPS employee Nina Weisman <ninaweisman@hotmail.com>