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Why Would a President Schmooze With Vicious Autocrats and Repressive Monarchs?

Mother Jones

A version of this story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Much outrage has been expressed in recent weeks over President Donald Trump’s White House invitation to Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, whose “war on drugs” has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings. Criticism of Trump was especially intense given his warm public support for other authoritarian rulers, including Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (who visited the Oval Office amid presidential praise weeks earlier), Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who got a congratulatory phone call from Trump on the recent referendum victory that cemented his powers), and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha (who also received a White House invitation).

But here’s the strange thing: The critics generally ignored the far more substantial and long-standing support US presidents, Democrat and Republican, have offered to dozens of repressive regimes over the decades. These regimes have one striking thing in common: They are all on an autocratic honor role of at least 45 nations and territories hosting scores of US military bases—from tiny outposts to installations the size of a small city. All told, these bases are home to tens of thousands of US troops.

To ensure basing access, American officials regularly collaborate with regimes and militaries that have been implicated in torture, murder, suppression of democratic rights, systematic oppression of women and minorities, and countless other human rights abuses. Never mind Trump. These collaborations have been the status quo for nearly three-quarters of a century. In fact, since World War II, US administrations have often shown a preference for maintaining bases in undemocratic and/or despotic states—Spain under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, South Korea under Park Chung-hee, Bahrain under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, and Djibouti under four-term President Ismail Omar Guelleh, to name just a few.

Many of our 45 undemocratic base hosts qualify as fully “authoritarian regimes,” according to a democracy index compiled by the Economist. Which means American installations and the troops stationed there are effectively helping block the spread of democracy in countries like Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kuwait, Niger, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

This support for dictatorship and repression should trouble any American who believes in the principles of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. After all, one of the long-articulated justifications for maintaining US military bases abroad has been that our military presence protects and spreads democracy. Far from it, such bases tend to help legitimize and prop up repressive regimes, while often interfering with genuine efforts toward political and democratic reform. The silencing of the critics of human rights abuses in base nations such as Bahrain, which has violently cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators since 2011, has left the United States complicit.

During the Cold War, such bases were often justified as the unfortunate but necessary consequence of confronting the “communist menace.” Yet in the quarter-century since the Cold War ended, few of those bases have closed. So today, while White House visits from autocrats generates indignation, the presence of American military installations in the same countries receives little notice.

The 45 nations and territories with little or no democratic rule represent more than half the roughly 80 countries now hosting US bases—countries that often lack the power to ask their “guests” to leave. They are part of a historically unprecedented global network of military installations the United States has built or occupied since World War II.

While there are no foreign bases in the United States, we have around 800 bases in foreign countries—almost certainly a record for any nation or empire in history. More than 70 years after World War II and 64 years after the Korean War, there remain, according to the Pentagon, 181 US “base sites” in Germany, 122 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea. Hundreds more dot the planet from Aruba to Australia, Belgium to Bulgaria, Colombia to Qatar. Hundreds of thousands of troops, civilians, and family members occupy these installations. By my conservative estimate, manning and maintaining these installations costs US taxpayers at least $150 billion annually—which is more than the budget of any government agency other than the Pentagon.

For decades, our leaders in Washington have insisted these foreign bases spread American values and democracy—and that may have been true to some extent in occupied Germany, Japan, and Italy after World War II. But as base expert Catherine Lutz suggests, the subsequent historical record shows that “gaining and maintaining access” for our outposts “has often involved close collaboration with despotic governments.”

Consider the Philippines: The United States has maintained military facilities in the archipelago almost continuously since seizing it from Spain in 1898. America only granted the colony independence in 1946, conditioned on the local government’s agreement that the United States would retain access to more than a dozen military installations there.

After independence, a succession of US administrations supported two decades of Ferdinand Marcos’ autocratic rule in the Philippines, ensuring the continued use of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, two of our largest overseas bases. The Filipinos finally ousted Marcos in 1986 and ordered the US military to leave in 1991, but five years later, the Pentagon quietly returned. With the help of a “visiting forces agreement” and a growing stream of military exercises and training programs, it began to set up surreptitious, small-scale bases once more. A desire to solidify this renewed base presence, while also checking Chinese influence in the region, may have driven Trump’s White House invitation to Duterte. It came despite the Filipino president’s record of joking about rape, swearing he would be “happy to slaughter” millions of drug addicts just as “Hitler massacred six million Jews,” and bragging, “I don’t care about human rights.”

In Turkey, President Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule is only the latest episode in a pattern of military coups and undemocratic regimes interrupting periods of democracy in Turkey. Since 1943, however, US bases have been a constant presence in the country, where they have repeatedly sparked protest—throughout the 1960s and 1970s, prior to the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and more recently, when US forces began using them to launch attacks in Syria.

Although Egypt has a relatively small US base presence, its military has enjoyed deep and lucrative Pentagon ties since the signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979. After a 2013 military coup ousted a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, the Obama administration waited months to withhold some forms of military and economic aid, despite more than 1,300 killings by security forces and the arrest of more than 3,500 members of the Brotherhood. According to Human Rights Watch, “Little was said about ongoing abuses,” which have continued to this day.

The United States also has maintained deep connections with the Thai military, which has carried out 12 coups since 1932. Both countries have been able to deny they have a basing relationship of any sort, thanks to a rental agreement between a private contractor and US forces at Thailand’s Utapao Naval Air Base. “Because of contractor Delta Golf Global,” writes journalist Robert Kaplan, “the US military was here, but it was not here. After all, the Thais did no business with the US Air Force. They dealt only with a private contractor.”

In monarchical Bahrain, which has had a US military presence since 1949 and now hosts the Navy’s 5th Fleet, the Obama administration offered only the most tepid criticism of the Bahraini government despite an ongoing, often violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. According to Human Rights Watch and others (including an independent commission of inquiry appointed by the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa), the government has been responsible for widespread abuses, including the arbitrary arrest of protesters, ill treatment during detention, torture-related deaths, and growing restrictions on freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The Trump administration has already signaled its desire to protect the military ties of the two countries by approving a sale of F-16 fighters to Bahrain without demanding any improvements in its human rights record.

This is typical of what the late base expert Chalmers Johnson once called the American “baseworld.” Research by political scientist Kent Calder confirms what’s come to be known as the “dictatorship hypothesis”: that “the United States tends to support dictators in nations where it enjoys basing facilities.” Another large study concluded that autocratic states have been “consistently attractive” as base sites. “Due to the unpredictability of elections,” it added bluntly, democratic states prove “less attractive in terms of sustainability and duration.”

Even within what are technically US borders, democratic rule has regularly proved “less attractive” than preserving colonialism into the 21st century. The presence of scores of bases in Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Guam has been a major motivation for keeping these and other territories—American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands—in varying degrees of colonial subordination. Conveniently for military leaders, they have neither full independence nor the full democratic rights—voting, representation in Congress—that come with US statehood. Installations in at least five of Europe’s remaining colonies have proved equally attractive, as has the base US troops have forcibly occupied in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since shortly after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Authoritarian rulers are well aware of the desire of US officials to maintain the status quo when it comes to bases. As a result, they often capitalize on a base presence to extract benefits or help ensure their own political survival.

The Philippines’ Marcos, former South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee, and more recently Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh have been typical in the way they used bases to extract economic assistance from Washington, which they then lavished on political allies to shore up their power. Other autocrats have relied on US bases to bolster their international prestige and legitimacy, or to justify violence against political opponents.

After the 1980 Kwangju massacre—in which the South Korean government killed hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators, strongman General Chun Doo-hwan explicitly cited the presence of US bases and troops to suggest that he enjoyed Washington’s support. Whether that was true remains a matter of historical debate. What’s clear, though, is that American leaders have regularly muted their criticism of repressive regimes lest they imperil US basing rights. And the US presence tends to strengthen military, rather than civilian, institutions because of military-to-military ties, arms sales, and training missions that generally accompany the basing agreements.

Opponents of repressive regimes often use the bases to rally nationalist sentiment, anger, and protest against their ruling elites and the United States. In some such cases, fears in Washington that a transition to democracy might lead to base eviction leads to a doubling down on support for the undemocratic ruler. The result can be an escalating cycle of opposition and US-backed repression.

While some analysts defend the presence of US bases in undemocratic countries as necessary to deter bad actors and support American interests (primarily corporate ones), backing dictators and autocrats frequently leads to harm—not just for the citizens of the host nations, but for US citizens as well. The base buildup in the Middle East is the most prominent example. In the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution the same year, the Pentagon has built up scores of bases across the Middle East at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. These bases and the troops stationed in them have been a “major catalyst for anti-Americanism and radicalization,” according to former West Point professor Bradley Bowman, who cites research noting a correlation between the bases and Al Qaeda recruitment.

Outposts in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan have helped generate and fuel the radical militancy that has spread throughout the Greater Middle East and led to terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. The presence of US bases and troops in Muslim holy lands was a major recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, and part of Osama bin Laden’s professed motivation for the 9/11 attacks.

With the Trump administration seeking to entrench the renewed base presence in the Philippines, and the president commending Duterte and similarly authoritarian leaders in Bahrain and Egypt, Turkey and Thailand, human rights violations worldwide are likely to escalate, fueling unknown brutality and baseworld blowback for years to come.

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Why Would a President Schmooze With Vicious Autocrats and Repressive Monarchs?

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Everyone On The Internet Is Fighting About This Image. What Do You Think It Is?

Mother Jones

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd”>

Good afternoon.

What is this?

Twitter user @wayne5540 made this amazing observation today. But what exactly is the observation? People can’t agree!

Do you know? Because I know. The internet isn’t sure. “What is this drawing?” asks the internet.

Is it a cat?

An Elephant?

The United States of America?

What do you think?

#qp_main1071606 .qp_btna:hover input background:#00355F!important #qp_all1071606 max-width:815px; margin:0 auto;

What is this?

Cat

Elephant

USA

Something else


survey maker

It’s an elephant.

Have a nice day.

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Everyone On The Internet Is Fighting About This Image. What Do You Think It Is?

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Republicans Who Backed Trumpcare Aren’t Holding Town Halls. So Democrats Are Going in Their Place.

Mother Jones

On Monday evening, about 500 residents of New York’s 19th Congressional District gathered at a wedding venue near the Hudson River to ask a local congressman about the American Health Care Act. But the congressman holding the town hall wasn’t the area’s newly elected representative, Republican John Faso, who had voted for the bill. Instead, they heard from Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents a neighboring district.

Members of Congress don’t often invade each other’s turf without an invitation—and Faso had most certainly not invited his colleague—but Maloney told the attendees he hoped to start a trend. “Let’s just imagine for a minute if in every district in this country where a member of Congress voted for this terrible health care bill and they won’t hold a town hall meeting, what if somebody else adopted that district?” he said. “Might be a Democrat! And then went in and did what we’re doing doing tonight. What do you think? We can adopt a district anywhere.”

It was a gloves-off affair from there. “He may be upset that I’m in his district, but I will just point out that he is not,” Maloney joked, noting that Faso was at a fundraiser in Albany. “I mean, they say nature abhors a vacuum, right?” Before Maloney began taking questions, he asked attendees to take out their phones and send a mass of tweets to Faso about the town hall. Maloney even brought an empty chair—just in case, he said, Faso decided to show up after all.

“This guy should not be on some milk carton—he’s your congressman,” Maloney said. “He should be here.”

Maloney’s stunt may indeed mark the beginning of a trend. On Tuesday evening, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) followed suit, appearing at a Tucson high school for a “Rally to Stop Trumpcare” in a district represented by one of its supporters, Republican Martha McSally. Unlike Maloney’s event, which he attended as part of his official duties, Gallego’s town hall was sponsored by the Arizona Democratic Party and more closely resembled a campaign function. McSally, who was not seriously opposed in 2016, is one of 14 Republican “yes” votes in districts won by Hillary Clinton.

Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan has planned a town hall in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and a rising star in the party who was (briefly) floated as a 2020 presidential candidate, has also expressed interest in adopting a district, although he would have to travel a bit further to find one; there are no Republican congressional districts in southern New England. A group in Yolo County, California, has launched a campaign to get local Democratic Rep. John Garamendi to hold a town hall in a neighboring district represented by Republican Tom McClintock, a supporter of the bill. Organizers even included a sample call script to help constituents lobby Garamendi.

The adopt-a-district campaign is a new form of trolling for the Trump age. But it also marks an evolution for the Democratic grassroots, which since January have seized on town halls to put their representatives on the spot, express their anger, and produce viral moments. That was part of the idea behind the Indivisible Guide, a user’s manual for bugging the hell out of Congress, drafted by a group of ex-congressional staffers in December. Indivisible quickly went from a Google Doc to a movement with thousands of registered groups, in every congressional district in the country. It offered a blueprint for badgering congressional offices ahead of key votes and showing up to hassle officials in their own districts.

The problem: Most Republicans aren’t holding town halls, and many of the town halls that are being held require constituents to enter a lottery or present a driver’s license to get in. As Maloney noted, of the 217 Republicans who voted for the House health care bill last week, just 14 have scheduled town halls to talk about it. So the tactics of raising hell had to evolve, too. Indivisible groups have turned the town-hall schedule into a guerilla marketing campaign. They’ve put images of their representatives on milk cartons and cardboard cutouts and put up “missing” posters on telephone poles. In February, the national Indivisible group put out a “Missing Member Toolkit” to encourage local groups to set up their own “citizen” town halls. One of the suggested ideas for giving the events some zest (and legitimacy) if the local representative turned down their invitation was to invite another elected official to the event instead.

What’s happening in Faso’s district neatly illustrates the role these new (and some old) progressive grassroots groups have played in the Democratic Party’s attempts to block President Donald Trump. New York’s 19th District is a sprawling, largely rural swing area that veered hard toward Trump in 2016 after twice voting for Barack Obama. In early February, Indivisible CD-19 held its first big rally, a demonstration and concert outside Faso’s office in Kinderhook followed by a march to the congressman’s home nearby. Faso was not home at the time, but when he arrived 40 minutes later, he came out to speak to the protesters. Among them was a local woman named Andrea Mitchell, who has a brain tumor. She asked Faso if he would protect the Affordable Care Act’s ban on denying insurance on the basis of pre-existing conditions, and when Faso said yes, the two hugged.

But Faso voted for AHCA, and Mitchell—and NY-19 Indivisible—want answers. “I honestly believed after the first vote he wouldn’t repeal it,” Mitchell said in an interview with Rachel Maddow last week. “A lot of my friends and constituents thought that that was very naive of me.” It was Mitchell’s interview with Maddow that first got Maloney thinking about adopting a district, and when he saw that the group’s invitation to Faso to attend the Monday event had gone unanswered, he accepted on Twitter. If Mitchell couldn’t get a straight answer from her congressman, Maloney concluded, he could at least offer one.

Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for the national Indivisible group, said the group is hoping the Maloney and Gallego events are the start of something bigger. “This is going to be a major push over the next several weeks across the country, with what we hope is a huge turnout during the Memorial Day recess in a few weeks,” she said. On Wednesday, the group unveiled a new “toolkit” on how to promote adopt-a-district town halls. Four months after the inauguration, with national Democrats bickering over a big-picture strategy, the cart is still dragging the donkey. And for now, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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Republicans Who Backed Trumpcare Aren’t Holding Town Halls. So Democrats Are Going in Their Place.

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Inside Marine Le Pen’s "Foreign Legion" of American Alt-Right Trolls

Mother Jones

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd”>

Vladimir Putin isn’t the only one trying to attack the French presidential election. Far-right trolls and meme warriors like the kind who helped elect Donald Trump have found a new calling: “The Battle of France.” There’s no way of telling what real-world impact it’s having, but with the vote just a few days away, activity in support of right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen has reached a fever pitch on Reddit, 4chan/pol/, and other online forums popular with the American alt-right.

“All shitposting units are required to man their battle stations,” declared a recent 4chan post. “Meme war recruits: prove your worth. Veterans, lead the charge…. MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN.” The post urged 4channers to join a Discord forum dubbed “Operation: Marine Le Kek,” where at any given moment up to about 450 participants are conducting meme “raids” to hype their candidate and attack her centrist rival, Emmanuel Macron. Using fake French identities and sock puppet social media accounts, they’ve hijacked Twitter hashtags, social media posts, and comments sections on news sites with memes portraying Macron as a stooge of Jewish financiers who will sell out the working class and capitulate to Muslim terrorists.

Though “Operation: Marine Le Kek” is named after the ironic Pepe-inspired god of the alt-right, organizers of the forum have urged participants to mask their alt-right affiliations by avoiding the use of Pepe memes altogether:

On Twitter, the group has focused on hijacking popular hashtags and pushing pro-Le Pen hashtags in coordinated tweet-storms:

The Discord chat for “Operation: Marine Le Kek” includes a sub-forum called #rent-a-twitter, where participants post login information for sock puppet accounts:

The group has pursued a different strategy on other social media platforms. Here’s a how-to manual for Facebook trolling that was circulating last week (by then, Facebook had already banned 30,000 French accounts that violated its terms of service):

The meme warriors of 4chan have been careful to conceal their American identities. A number of posts on Discord urge users to adopt French-sounding social media identities and avoid using Google Translate to convert English phrases into French. Instead, they’ve collaborated with the French equivalent of 4chan and a related French-language forum on Discord called La Taverne des Patriotes. English-speaking visitors to the French site hang out in a sub-forum known as #Foreign_Legion, where they often solicit help in translating their anti-Macron memes into French.

A recent post on the #Foreign_Legion section of La Taverne des Patriotes

They’ve also been careful not to draw too much attention to their efforts:

The French and English-language Discord groups include forums where meme creators share their work. Organizers have pushed a strategy focused on targeting specific ideological factions of the French electorate, as detailed in a recent 4chan thread:

1) “Portray Macron as a French aristocrat. Really hammer in the point that he doesn’t give a fuck about the common man, and that he is a SIC elitist who know SIC nothing about the common folk.”

“Let them enrich themselves,” an anti-Macron meme posted on Discord

2) Make memes tailored to supporters of candidates who failed to reach the final round of the election:

Voters who in the primary had supported the center-right candidate François Fillon should be hit with memes focusing on “Islam and immigration, and how Macron won’t stop it.”
“If you are in the Islamic State, Vote Macron,” a meme posted on Discord

Memes targeting supporters of the socialist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon should “focus on how bad the EU is, and how Macron is a rich banker globalist puppet.”
“Trust me, I understand the difficulties of the French. Vote for me!”

3) “MOST IMPORTANT: French voters hate current president François Hollande” and will vote against Macron if it means “another 5 years of Hollande.”

Macron to Hollande: “Shhh! Don’t reveal our plans to help the rich!”

Other memes have focused on the age difference between Macron and his older wife. Late last month, 4channers used doctored images to spread the conspiracy theory that he was secretly sleeping with his wife’s 30-year-old daughter.

Ultimately, it’s hard to assess the impact of these various efforts. The number of people participating in the the Discord chat rooms and 4chan threads I visited was relatively small—as of Tuesday there were less than 1,000—and they didn’t typically discuss specific targets. Participants have boasted of tweeting and retweeting pro-Le Pen hashtags tens of thousands of times, though it hasn’t typically been enough to cause them to trend on Twitter’s homepage. What’s clear, however, is that anti-Macron and pro-Le Pen memes abound on French social media. On Tuesday, anti-Macron memes from the 4chan playbook dominated Twitter in association with a trending hashtag about France’s upcoming presidential debate:

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Inside Marine Le Pen’s "Foreign Legion" of American Alt-Right Trolls

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Why Remembering Japanese-American Internment Really Matters This Year

Mother Jones

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd”>
Flowers were distributed prior to the interfaith service at the end of the ceremony. Matt Tinoco

As the long line of cars, trucks, and more than two dozen charter buses pulled into dusty, makeshift parking lots in the high desert below California’s snowcapped Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains on Saturday morning, they were greeted by a National Park Service ranger. “Welcome to Manzanar,” she said. “It is very dry. Drink a lot of water.”

They’d descended on the remote Owens Valley, four hours north of Los Angeles, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066—President Franklin Roosevelt’s February 1942 decision to forcibly detain 120,000 Japanese Americans until the end of World War II. Manzanar War Relocation Center, as the facility was formally called, was one of 10 internment camps nationwide; at its peak, the 5,415-acre site held more than 10,000 people in army-style barracks behind barbed wire.

In the language of the Roosevelt’s order, these actions were taken to establish “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense.” Approximately two-thirds of those incarcerated without due process were fully enfranchised American citizens by birth. The remainder were lawful permanent residents.

President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans, and other immigrants has reignited scrutiny of this dark period in American history. Internment even made headlines in November when Carl Higbie—the former spokesman of the pro-Trump Great America PAC—cited American treatment of Japanese residents in WWII as an example of appropriate action to protect national security.

Banners signifying the 10 camps erected by the US government Matt Tinoco

So perhaps it was no surprise that the 2,500 people who showed up as part of the 48th-annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on Saturday were a record for the event, according to the Park Service. The blowing dust, the whipping wind, and the beating sun all set an elemental tone for the day’s program—a not-so-subtle reminder how, as Manzanar Committee co-chair Bruce Embrey later would tell me, “there was a vicious, just despicable drive to make sure that these camps were sites of suffering. That the people here were going to be isolated psychologically and physically, far from civilian populations, in desolate areas intended to make people suffer.”

Though the camp was almost entirely disassembled after World War II—concrete slabs and the occasional piece of rusted metal are all that remain of the camp’s former living areas—the pilgrims visiting Manzanar walked past full-size reconstructions of the camp’s latrines, its mess halls, and its tar-paper barracks on their way to the day’s ceremony. Wooden Park Service signs marking the locations of long-disappeared structures—a recreation hall, an outdoor theatre, a pet cemetery, an elementary school—dotted the path.

Matt Tinoco

Several people in the crowd wore shirts from various California-based Muslim organizations. Among them was Syed Hussaini, an organizer with CAIR’s Los Angeles chapter. Hussaini explained that, for the past few years, CAIR-LA has participated in the Manzanar Pilgrimage in order to keep alive the memory of internment—it is only briefly mentioned, if at all, in most schools—in the Muslim community.

“We have to stand very vigilantly, and make sure that we are upholding the tenants of democracy. If good people don’t do anything, this is what could happen again,” said Hussaini, who came to Manzanar on one of the three buses CAIR-LA chartered this year.

“When the executive order was signed back in the ’40s, only the Quaker community openly voiced dissent,” said Hussaini, echoing a point made a few minutes earlier by one of the event’s speakers. “But we have seen an outpouring of support from many other faith communities and many other civil rights organizations coming out to say that Trump’s words are not in keeping with American values, and will not stand.”

Preserving the memory of internment is the guiding mission of those who organized Saturday’s pilgrimage, as well as those who work to maintain and expand the facilities at Manzanar National Historic Site. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the generation of Japanese Americans born after internment began pushing for recognition and reparations. The Manzanar Pilgrimage, for example, began in 1969, kicking off decades of work to establish Manzanar as an officially recognized National Historic Site, which finally happened in 1992.

Matt Tinoco

The theme for this year’s pilgrimage was “Never Again, to Anyone, Anywhere,” emblazoned in red text on black banners and T-shirts scattered throughout the event. That message, it seems, is resonating more than ever: In 2016, more than 105,000 people visited Manzanar, a record attendance year. A few employees noted that, since Trump’s election, there have been better, deeper conversations between Manzanar’s guests and those who work at the site.

A couple of hours after the ceremony concluded, several hundred people made their way to Lone Pine High School, about 10 miles south, for Manzanar at Dusk. In the school gymnasium, the Nikkei Student Unions at several LA-area colleges put on a three-hour program that spawn intergenerational conversations about their daytime experiences at the Manzanar Pilgrimage, and to spread the oral tradition of those who spent years confined in the camp.

After a spoken word performance that wove together FDR’s E.O. 9066 with Trump’s E.O. 13769, a.k.a. the travel ban, the 300 attendees broke into two-dozen randomly sorted small groups for an informal, hourlong conversation. Sprawled out on high school’s front lawn in the twilight shadows of the Sierra’s highest peaks, the small group I joined consisted of 10 people, the youngest in high school, the oldest in his 70s.

We listened to the grandson of a woman who lived at Manzanar relay one of her stories about the dust, and how she remembered seeing the outline of her sleeping body sketched out in her bedsheets when she got up each morning. We discussed why people remained quiet about their time in camps for years following their internment. And, by the end of our hour, we were sharing the history of our own personal names, comparing notes about whether our parents gave us a name from the old country or one considered more traditionally “American.”

“History is always relevant. But there are times when what’s happening in the world magnifies that relevancy,” said Alisa Lynch, the chief of interpretation at Manzanar National Historic Site, said to me after Manzanar at Dusk had concluded. “Our job is to share history, not to please whoever’s in office. We’re here to help people learn about the history, and if they want to make parallel connections, they’re free to. People see them. We don’t have to point them out.”

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Why Remembering Japanese-American Internment Really Matters This Year

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