Patriot Act reawakens
memories of internment
On a balmy island evening, prominent civil rights attorney Dale Minami recalled a remarkable journey, a 40-year fight for justice. He was keynote speaker at the "Celebration of Justice" dinner held recently in Honolulu by the Consumer Lawyers of Hawaii.
In the 1980s, the San Francisco attorney led the legal team that reopened the historic U.S. Supreme Court cases of three Japanese Americans. Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui were convicted in the 1940s for refusing to be interned during World War II.
During the case, Minami presented evidence that the U.S. government had illegally concealed documents that proved the loyalty of Japanese Americans. The court found there was no military necessity to imprison 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. After a federal judge overturned those convictions, the U.S. government apologized and paid $20,000 to each surviving internee. But nothing can heal the impact of that tragic mistake.
Minami's own parents, grandparents and older brother were taken away, first to live in horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack and then to an internment camp in Arkansas.
"Like most Japanese-American parents, they were so shamed by what happened to them, they rarely talked about it," he said. In 1972, Minami co-founded the Asian Law Caucus, the nation's first Asian-Pacific-American community legal service organization.
These days Minami, 56, practices mainly personal injury and entertainment law, representing folks such as Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi. He recently was named one of People magazine's "Top 50 Bachelors."
At the Celebration of Justice, Minami shared the stage with 84-year-old Fred Korematsu. In 1944, Korematsu challenged the internment orders and lost. Forty years later, he won. He later was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Consumer Lawyers of Hawaii President Richard Turbin announced that the American Bar Association will present Minami with the prestigious 2003 Thurgood Marshall Award next month. "Touch Dale Minami's soul and you find a true warrior for justice!" Turbin said.
When I caught up with Minami, he expressed his concerns about new threats to civil rights.
"I'm not saying we can't have national security, because we do know there are terrorists in this country, we know there are dangers. But we have to balance national security with civil rights."
He's particularly worried about some of the measures spearheaded by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"This is a man who wants control over people's lives and (to whom) order is more important than freedom," Minami said.
He believes Hawaii is making a difference by becoming the first state to call for the repeal of the Patriot Act, passed by Congress without hearings following the 9/11 attacks.
"I feel that if you don't dissent, then you're not acting as a patriotic citizen. Nobody did that in 1942 and we experienced a civil rights disaster."
Minami is worried that Patriot Acts No. 1 and soon-to-come No. 2 threaten our liberties.
"Authorities can go to your library and find out what books you've read; they can find out what credit card purchases you've made. They can invade your privacy to a degree that is frightening," Minami said, adding that "our constitutional rights that were fought for during the Revolutionary War are enshrined in our Bill of Rights, and now they're being taken away."
In his closing remarks, Minami sounded a wake-up call.
"As we celebrate the courage of one man, Fred Korematsu, we should learn from this and we should know for the future that we must reject racial profiling, we must dissent when our consciences demand that we dissent, we must reject cutbacks on our civil rights, and we must stand with our Arab-American, Muslim-American brothers and sisters. We cannot let history repeat itself."
Heidi Chang is a freelance writer and producer. She is one of four local columnists who take turns writing "This Sunday."