Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Gordon Hirabayashi 1918-2012

Gordon Hirabayashi died on January 2 at age 93.  Though he enjoyed a successful career as a sociologist at the University of Alberta, Hirabayashi is best remembered as one of the few Japanese Americans who fought internment during World War II. Backed by the ACLU, Hirabayashi intentionally disregarded a curfew, was arrested, and eventually brought his case, Hirabayashi vs the United States, to the Supreme Court where (surprise! surprise!) he lost. The government didn't have the funding to transport him to a federal prison camp in Tucson, so he hitchhiked from Washington DC to voluntarily serve out his sentence. Keep in mind that his "crime" was not serving out a longer sentence in a different camp simply for being Japanese. The decision was overturned in 1987, a late vindication for Hirabayashi.

The prison camp that once held Hirabayashi and other Japanese Americans is now the Gordon Hirabayashi Campground located along the Catalina Highway in Coronado National Forest. The Forest Service website has more history and photos of the internment camps here. It's strange that we've chosen to honor Hirabayashi by naming the site of his unfair imprisonment after him, but I suppose lending his name to the location reminds us of the injustice that occurred there. I've walked around in the foundations of the old prison camp a few times. It's not much to see, but prisons never are much to see.

Remembering Gordon Hirabayashi and his stand against racial injustice and paranoia seems particularly apropos during our current moment. We watch as our president signs a bill (with "reservations") that allows military detention of citizens without trial and as would-be presidents circle the country promising more foreign wars and greater "domestic security." TSA scanners, unmanned drones patrolling the border, racial profiling, private prisons, GPS tracking without warrant, and the list goes on. Will Hirabayashi's legacy be a recognition that we should not sacrifice rights to security? That fear creates injustice? Or will we just name a pile of decaying prison rocks in the Catalina Mountains after him and go on committing the same foolish errors he fought against seventy years ago? At least we can always remember Hirabayashi's dignity and bravery as our government denied him his freedom be reminded of what being American is supposed to be about.

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