The League of Revolutionary Struggle and the United Front to Win Redress and Reparations
Frank Emi habitually stood tall. Hands down his sides with slight bow legs like the typical judo-man he was. Coal black hair in his 70s, he didn’t talk much, a guy who expressed himself way more through action than talk. Frank was one of the leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. A group of at least 63 young men who opposed serving in the US military while they and their families were being locked up in violation of their civil and human rights. They were jailed at Leavenworth and McNiel Island Federal penitentiary after going through the largest mass trial in US history. Frank died in 2010.
During the Redress and Reparations (RR) movement, Frank said he would shake hands with the Japanese American Citizens League, (JACL) and work with them in order to win RR for the whole community. I asked him, how can he find it in his heart to do that? Some of the JACL were the one’s who ratted-out his people for being “disloyal” resulting in prison sentences and potential execution at one point.
He said he still has bitter feelings but that since the US government was playing off the JACL and the National Coalition for Redress Reparations, (NCRR), saying that “the community is not united” we need to show we are united.
I really admired him for that. I was more hot headed then and didn't know if I could do that. If somebody snitched on me and sent me to prison, someone’s going to pay. I had studied the tactics and lessons of the “united front” an essential strategy successfully used by revolutionary movements throughout history. But when the theory is applied to your own emotions, it’s not so easy.
I was a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle, (LRS) a nationwide group of activists who wanted to change the US from a predatory Imperialist system to a more humane system based on equality, justice and respect for working people and oppressed people of color.
Many of us who were Japanese American (JA) participated in the JA RR movement. The LRS was a purely voluntary organization, but once you joined and agreed to abide by majority rule, you had to implement the decision of the majority just like any other democratic group.
Most all of us were confidential members because at the time if you were public about being a socialist or revolutionary you could be ostracized by uninformed parents, questioned or even fired by some public sector jobs in some states and harassed and redbaited by your opposition.
Not too different to what the LGBTQ community still goes through. Today, a majority of youth between 18 and 34 are open to or supportive of socialist ideas but not the case back then.
I believe that the members of the LRS contributed very important ideas and actions which advanced the RR movement. A few of these ideas and actions were;
Mass mobilization of survivors to commission hearings and turning them into media events. This would allow us to come into contact with the most passionate and articulate supporters that can impact the country and grow NCRR. The JACL also wanted the Commission as a “concession” from the government letting them off the hook about providing monetary redress. But after the hearings, support skyrocketed for monetary redress.
Demand for individual monetary redress per survivor. Some conservatives said asking for money “cheapened” the sacrifice of Nikkei soldiers and the “principle” of getting an apology. The majority of JAs disagreed.
Outreach to African Americans, Native peoples, Latino and Chicanos to gain and give support for our mutual issues involving civil, human or labor rights.
We involved Chicano auto workers from the San Fernando Valley, ELA Chicano students, African American progressives demanding Black reparations in South Central LA and many others who ordinarily would not have been involved to broaden the base of support for RR.
A highlight was when the Jesse Jackson for President Campaign adopted JA RR as a platform plank along with the Equal Rights Amendment and opposition to South African Apartheid. In 1988 the first presidential candidate in history held a rally in Little Tokyo and demanded JA RR, which helped gain national exposure.
None of these ideas exclusively originated with members of the LRS. The Manzanar Committee, headed by Sue Kunitomi Embrey and the original JACL Redress Committee raised the idea of individual redress years before. But I believe that the LRS contributed to widely disseminating these ideas, getting feedback from the masses of people then refining and reintroducing them. And in the meantime brought in new activists from the campuses and community.
This process of latching onto the most revolutionary ideas that people had and refining it up and down was called the”mass-line”. One of our principles was that whatever we said or did could not bypass the democratic decision making processes of NCRR or whatever organization we belonged to.
As individuals we were free to offer our ideas and actions in the hope that people would agree in the marketplace of ideas just like JACL, veterans, church groups or any other group with their own philosophy.
We believed that by building a broad united front we can win. This meant we had to build the progressive forces, win over the middle and isolate the diehard forces. To this end we pushed for outreach to JA working people and small business people in churches, temples, youth clubs, social service groups. We also reached out to other people of color communities and the labor movement along with lots of non-LRS activists who felt the same.
This kind of physical expansion and projection of power (not just being nice and persuasive) would help us to win over the “middle.” Those chapters and individual JACL members who had disagreements with the national JACL’s more benign positions about redress. Others in the “middle” were elected representatives of all types, non-profit management people and business groups who didn’t want to strongly demand or participate in public demonstrations for a variety reasons. We “respected their interests,” while at the same time campaigning to win them over when appropriate.
The”die-hard” reactionary forces at the time were people like concentration camp deniers CA Senator S.I. Hayakawa, at the time the most powerful JA politician in the US. And southern CA Republican Party operative Lillian Baker, a former Hayakawa campaign staffer. Other republicans and democrats opposed RR but we believed they can be “won over” as very reluctant supporters, or minimum neutralized to remain silent, only if we were able to expand our base and win over enough of the middle.
We carried out the tactics above in a variety of creative ways tailored to local conditions.
For example, in LA, for the founding national conference of NCRR held in Little Tokyo in the fall of 1980, we wanted to send a message that NCRR’s position of demanding hearings and to establish a commission to investigate and report on the camps had broad support among JA people. We planned a big march as part of the conference.
Conveniently, a few of the members of the LRS were involved in organizing Japanese immigrant and JA warehouse workers who were part of the Teamsters Local 630. Ironically this local was at one time a Japanese dominated union centered in the produce market district, originally organized by JA socialists before the war. We had been bringing workers to NCRR events and actions for the past several months and as a group discussed and agreed to the demands of NCRR.
The workers big issue was that they were being paid about $8.50phr for harder work than what mostly white workers were getting (about $12 to $15phr) in the same union a few blocks away. Resentment grew among us since we had to hand carry 100 lb sacks of rice or 5 gallon shoyu cans into crawl spaces or basements of restaurants and hotels, while white workers could take a cigarette break while forklifts dragged out pallets on fancy loading docks.
After several unsuccessful meetings and confrontations with management of Japan Foods Corporation. The workers met with two other outfits, Mutual Trading and Nishimoto Trading and all of the160 workforce voted to strike during the winter holidays, when two-thirds of all profit was made on Asian food.
We were able to win over workers at JFC and the two other companies to suggest to the NCRR, why not have the workers “kick off” their strike by attending the founding conference of NCRR and state their support for the NCRR plan to establish a commission that would hold public hearings and in turn the conference could support their strike for “full equality for JA workers” and we can all march together in Little Tokyo.
NCRR agreed and the march turned out to be about 400.To this date, I do not know of a larger march in LT with the exception of the march to support Lt. Ehren Watada’s opposition to the Iraq War.
But the Teamsters Union leadership wasn’t in love with this idea. They wanted the strike firmly under their control and was not comfortable with any other message than, an economic “strike for better pay”. They fell into the “reluctant middle” of the UF. But just like the readings say, since so many workers supported participating in a big march in LT, the Teamsters officials had no choice but to come along and be introduced to the crowd as “labor leaders” smiling and pumping their fists while crying inside. We did compromise and agree that we would not hold any signs that say “redress” on it but we could chant it. In exchange they would endorse the strike, attend and pay for all costs associated with the strike and abide by the majority decision of the workers.
These kinds of large actions or events to express the masses of people’s support for individual monetary reparations and a commission to hold hearings was repeated in the bay area and other cities by NCRR allies such as Nihonmachi Outreach Committee in SJ and NCRR SF and San Diego. What appeared to be consistent was that the most passionate, articulate and rock-steady members were regular working folks like Jim Saito, a Dept of Water & Power meter reader, Bert Nakano, one time airline skycap or Sumi Seki, a Terminal Islander fisherman’s daughter. Attorneys, policy experts and other professionals contributed greatly to the UF without which our advancement would have been slower, but those always leading the pickets and doing the street work were the “salt-of-the-earth” JA fighters. Their hearts inspired and led us all.
Once the hearings were to happen, LRS members worked as members of NCRR to outreach and help prepare their testimonies. We also helped to provide transportation, translations and secure bento-lunches for people to eat on the lawn of the state building.
While we came up with good ideas and actions distilled from the masses of people themselves, we were even more proud of our “legwork”. Whether it was picking up drinks for a thirsty Issei or wearing suits and meeting with congress people, we worked hard and long no matter how small the job, and pushed for women and working folks to take on leadership roles.
We did all this because we were JAs and sons and daughters of former internees who wanted justice. We did this because we not only wanted RR but wanted to change the system that locked us up in the first place. And to that end we wanted to recruit people from NCRR and other groups and have them join the LRS while maintaining their involvement so as not to dilute the mass struggle.
We were not very good at this task. Most of the time we just participated in the day-to day work of the RR movement along with others and neglected recruitment for the future unaware of the grave political challenges that lay ahead in the wake of Reaganomics.
We had a leg up on other groups because LRS members in different cities would regularly discuss what’s happening and how to improve things so we that we can raise them at public NCRR meetings. The only other organizations who discussed their groups participation nationwide was the JACL and a spin-off, the National Committee for JA Redress, NCJAR.
But the LRS members worked tightly as a team while other groups appeared to shoot from the hip as individuals. This caused resentment among a few of the “cold warrior” types.
Would the RR movement advanced without the LRS and won an apology? Absolutely, the movement came from deep within our community as early as 1947, when the Nissei Resistors first raised the idea of redress during the presidential campaign of anti-imperialist Vice Pres. Henry Wallace (a modern day Bernie Sanders).
Would the RR movement have won the demand for a commission on internment? Likely yes, but it would have been a low keyed affair in some government back office. The militant broad character of the movement would not have happened. Would we have won individual monetary redress? Hard to say, but likely not. Would Jesse Jackson have adopted the RR issue? No. Would communities of color and other human and civil rights organizations all over the country known about and supported JA RR? It would have been limited.
I remain very proud that I was able to be a member of the LRS. We were just young kids in our 20s, so we made many mistakes, but the good that we did helped to win individual monetary redress of $20,000 per survivor and change society for the better and transformed our community.
I hope that people today can also learn from great revolutionary leaders who paid dearly to implement the UF strategy and tactics in their countries and apply those lessons to the situation in the US today to build a strong UF against Trump and his fascist-like regime.
Especially with respect to the relationship with democratic party members and politicians who oppose Trump but have intimate ties to corporate power. If these types are written off as the enemy from the jump, we would not be able to “narrow the target” much and unable to win over their bases. Revolutionaries in Germany before WW2 had hostile relationships with reformists and liberals for various understandable reasons, but we all know that didn’t turn out too good.
Some activists just dismiss any person or individual who does not support every single progressive cause as sell-outs and refuse to work with them. This is not revolutionary thinking, but is more typical of spoiled people regardless of nationality who are used to getting their way in life. Had we done this during the RR movement, we would have turned off hundreds of people, who later on were won over to RR.
On the other hand for revolutionary minded folks, our job in any united front is to advance ideas about the need to change the system and dig out the roots of racism and class oppression that is embedded in it’s DNA. We should not just “go with the flow” and only fight for the lowest common denominator, even if it is a righteous reform.
Most of all, I hope people today embrace the fact that mass struggle to change the system is a very serious and difficult endeavor and that unless groups like the LRS exist as a backbone against the corporate elites we will have a more difficult time moving ahead to victory. I hope that the strategy and tactics of the united front, oversimplified for purposes of quick illustration here, is studied and applied to win more housing, immigration reforms, jobs, racial and class equality and a new United States.