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Incarcerating children, an unfortunate American tradition

“They don’t have ovens and gas faucets in this country yet, but they have electric fences. So I wrote a prayer about some wire cutters. I wrote a prayer so we’d find some scissors and get out!”

—Charles Mingus

Illustration: Alexia Huerta

I wish I didn’t have to write about the subject. I really do. As an archaeologist I get up in the morning and think about ceramics, or stone tools, or making some maps on the computer. But this week, I woke up to the news that Fort Sill in Oklahoma was going to be used once again as a detention facility, this time for undocumented migrant children.

Given the actions of this administration (and previous administrations), this announcement should have come as no surprise, and yet the reuse of a facility like Fort Sill is so offensive that I could no longer think about my ceramics, or stone tools, or my computer mapping. Using this facility is a continuation of a long history of reusing infrastructures of racial oppression. All I can think about is going to the store and buying some wire cutters.

The usual focus of my research is the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, a subject I’ve written about here before. During World War II, Fort Sill was used to hold approximately 700 Japanese Americans. Unlike many of the main War Relocation facilities, places like Fort Sill were reserved for people thought to be “especially dangerous.” This included the likes of community leaders, priests, monks, and presidents of local social organizations. These individuals were selected not necessarily because they posed any actual threat, but because they had positions of authority within the Japanese American community, and had maintained ties with people in Japan. Justifications which masked racism and xenophobia. One such person held Fort Sill was so traumatized by the forced removal from his home and his imprisonment, that he rushed towards the fence of his prison and began to climb, crying out, “I want to go home.” Despite the protests of his fellow prisoners that he was disturbed, guards shot and killed him.

Before it was used to detain Japanese Americans, Fort Sill imprisoned Native Americans, including the famed Indigenous leader Geronimo. Fort Sill was not so unique in this respect. Several other detention facilities used by the government had longer histories of racialized oppression than the unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

Two of the larger incarceration camps, Poston and Gila River (where my family was held), were forcibly built on Native American reservations. One detention facility, Old Leupp, was previously used as a Native American boarding school, where Indigenous children were taken from their homes with Euro-American culture forcibly impressed upon them. In other cases, the connections of oppression between Japanese American incarceration and other groups is less obvious. At Tule Lake, one of the incarceration camps in Northern California, many of the camp barracks were reused as housing units for migrant Mexican workers after the end of World War II. Substandard temporary shelters, shuffled from one oppressed people to another.

These recurrences of sites and materials are no accident. The infrastructure of oppression transcends historical moments and has been employed by those in power time and time again. Technologies used to confine Indigenous peoples in colonial contexts are reimagined in times of war or times of manufactured crisis, relegating children to sleepless weeks without blankets or mattresses, but only terror and uncertainty to share the night with. Critics and naysayers have downplayed these atrocities, scoffing at the use of the term “concentration camp” and denouncing those who employ as reactionary and hyperbolic.

In the epigraph of this piece, words that Charles Mingus uttered more than 40 years ago still ring true. When discussing a new work he had composed titled, “Meditations on Integration,” Mingus said that he sometimes called the work, “meditations on a pair of wire cutters.” Because if they were going to put people in camps, we should all at least go to the store and buy a pair of wire cutters first.

I first heard this story while listening to Bay Area musician Jon Jang perform a tribute to the friendship between Malcom X and the Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama. Wire cutters can come in the form of transformative music, or in revolutionary solidarity. You can cut not only the fences of captivity, but the lines between ethnic, religious, political, and generational factions. On June 22, a group of  Japanese Americans gathered at the gates of Fort Sill, standing with Indigenous groups and local community activists to call for an end to the violence, the imprisonment of children. They held strings paper cranes, donated by hundreds across the country, as expressions of solidarity. Now more than ever, as the administration is emboldened to take even more extreme actions, we all need to find our wire cutters—origami or otherwise—and break through the fences herding us towards an even darker future.

Story by: Koji Lau-Ozawa