Photographer for images in this piece: Elyse Lightman Samuels
Photographer for images in this piece: Elyse Lightman Samuels
Photographer: Elyse Lightman Samuels

At a car wash in Lawton, Oklahoma, mid-morning on a Saturday in July, with the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, Buddhist priests dressed in black robes gathered next to a cohort of Japanese Americans, hundreds of immigrant youth, alongside indigenous communities, representatives of the Black Lives movement, of the Jewish community, and of the movement for climate justice. White allies held protest signs saying things such as “Make Racism Wrong Again,” “What Will You Do When It’s Your Kids?,” and “Mothers Against Caging Children,” and parents carried young children on their shoulders and pushed them in strollers. People looked for shade, drinking bottles of Gatorade, speaking to reporters. Many had flown across the country and ridden on 10-hour bus rides to be there. People from different communities shook hands, introduced one another, hugged, smiled in mutual recognition of each other’s presence; others stood at attention surveying the area, speaking into walkie talkies, awaiting the signal to begin. There was an electrical sense of possibility and anticipation.

All of these communities gathered together to protest at the gates of Fort Sill, an Army base covering 94,000 acres where the administration had said it would house over a thousand migrant children by late summer. The action was led by United We Dream Network, the largest immigrant-youth led network in the country and their local affiliate group Dream Action Oklahoma, alongside over two dozen local and national partners.¹

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The protestors stopped traffic, marching through the streets. People wore the same silver mylar blankets over their shoulders that migrant children are given at detention centers. They shouted, “What do we want? Close the Camps. When do we want it? NOW!!,” and “It is our duty to fight for our freedom! We must protect one another! We have nothing to lose but our chains!” Voices thundered and echoed in unison as everyone gathered in the shade beneath a highway overpass. Car horns honked; a few people hopped out of their car, angry at the traffic disruption; whistles blew. A band of protestors stood on the median with their arms linked, ensuring that the cars would not pass. Several counter-protestors followed the group on foot; at one point, a few members of the American Indian Movement stood with their arms crossed across their chest, face to face with the counter-protestors, protecting the crowd. That morning, Lawton, Oklahoma felt like the nerve center of the national conversation about family separation and detention.

Fort Sill has been a site of violence and trauma for generations: it is where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II, where the Apache chief Geronimo and families from his tribe were held as prisoners of war in the late 1800s, and where generations of indigenous young people were forcibly removed from their families and made to assimilate at Ft. Sill’s boarding school. Oklahoma was the end of the Trail of Tears, where in the 1800s, 100,000 Native Americans living between Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida were forced west. In Oklahoma, “You can feel the blood and bones crying out from the ground,” said Sheri Dickerson, Executive Director of Black Lives Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma representative of the Women’s March.

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Not only are all of these groups’ histories linked, but so are their current struggles — and all of our futures. When Cristina Jimenez, Executive Director of United We Dream, addressed the crowd as the march began, projecting her voice into a megaphone, she referenced the criminalization, mass incarceration, and family separation that all of these communities have experienced. United We Dream’s statement about the action said, “Our country has a dark history of family separation and mass detention of communities of color in concentration camps and it’s one that we haven’t fully addressed or atoned for.” They referenced the trauma that Japanese Americans and Native Americans experienced at Fort Sill, as well as how “millions of Black and Brown people today are trapped in our country’s mass incarceration system, away from their children and loved ones.”

Where these histories converge at Fort Sill, something unexpected, and transformative is emerging. “In my lifetime I’ve never seen this type of grassroots mobilization across communities,” said Serena Prammanasudh, Executive Director of Dream Action Oklahoma. “The victory today is the relationships that we intentionally built,” said Eli Cuna, National Field Director at United We Dream. “We talk a lot about cross-community movement building, but ‘throwing down’ together is different.” Mike Ishii described the action at Fort Sill as being part of “a great current, with everyone moving in the same direction.” The action, and the feeling that day, were at once peaceful, grounded, and dignified, as well as forceful and full of outrage.

Several people spoke about how racism and oppression have intentionally siloed their communities and issues in the past, one of the reasons why this action was so profound. “They understood that if we all stood together, we would be such a formidable force,” said Sheri Dickerson. Reverend Dr. William Barber, one of today’s great political activists and voices of moral leadership, talks about moving beyond this siloing and silencing, towards ”people coming together in fusion coalitions, discovering our common ground, by linking arms and refusing to be divided.” We need, he says, “a moral fusion movement blowing in every community across this land.”² That vision was alive at the gates of Fort Sill.

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“We are witnessing a sea change moment,” said Mike Ishii. This new commitment, or way of working together, is essential for our survival,” he said. “Middle class, suburban communities are waking up. People have been wed to comfort and safety,” but they are now showing up in higher risk and more escalated ways. “Because people can’t ignore what’s happening with concentration camps.”

To prepare for the action, two organizers from United We Dream came to Oklahoma two weeks in advance to begin working with Dream Action Oklahoma (DAOK), and other partners. Eli Cuna said they had prepared for all different scenarios. They didn’t know what kind of enforcements would be brought in at a military base. She had also spent months building relationships with the other leaders, going to healing sweats together, getting to know and build trust with one another.

“Without knowing what magnitude or scale this action would be on, we committed wholeheartedly,” said Serena, about hearing there was an action being planned. She and others have led DAOK as volunteers for ten years. “It was work, and then work until midnight with the UWD team. It was daunting but we were confident that we had the community to show up.”

After all of that preparation, and anticipation, the experience of coming together was emotional for many. Serena told me, “We were all crying together. That’s how moving and touching it was to work with not only our local partners, and our indigenous brothers and sisters, but groups like Tsuru for Solidarity. I am Asian American. I’ve never worked with an Asian American organizer in Oklahoma, because they don’t exist.”

At one point, surrounded by her Japanese American and Native American partners, Greisa Martinez, Deputy Executive Director of United We Dream, led the group in a song: We have come too far; we won’t turn around. We’ll flood the streets with justice. We are freedom bound. “I want you to sing it from this part of your heart,” she said, pausing for a quiet moment, hands on her chest, “the part that sometimes doubts whether we’ll have the power to take back our democracy from those who want to push us into the shadows. I want to make sure you’re digging in deep, because this is our moment.”

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Fort Sill, itself, has the darkest historical significance for Japanese Americans and Native Americans. During World War II, 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned; 700 Japanese immigrant leaders were interned at Fort Sill, and 90 of them were Buddhist priests. Some among the Japanese American community have long referred to the prisons they were held in as concentration camps. Karen Narasaki, whose parents were held in camps as teenagers, remarked at the National Japanese American Memorial in DC before the protest, “They were not Nazi death camps, but they were concentration camps nonetheless. [People] were rounded up and imprisoned because of their ethnicity, without due process of law, because of racism and wartime hysteria.” One of the prisoners at Fort Sill was Kanesaburo Oshima, a father of 11 children who, out of desperation, tried to climb the fence of the camp and was shot and killed.

Now, Tsuru for Solidarity invited a group of Buddhist priests from across the country to bring “healing, or transformation to the situation,” according to Reverend Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Buddhist priest who led the group. At one point, all of the protestors took a moment of silence and knelt with one knee on the ground, fist in the air, giving the stage to the Buddhist priests to chant the Heart Sutra in rapid succession. Reverend Williams told me that the Heart Sutra teaches that no one in the universe exists autonomously, but only interdependently. “Buddhists sometimes call this the ‘The Jeweled Net of Indra’ — that the cosmos is like an infinite net with jewels strung at each node of the net. The jewels are cut in a way that they act like mirror; in other words, that in each jewel or individual, one can see every other person.” That afternoon, the Buddhist priests held a remembrance ceremony for those who had been imprisoned or who had died at Fort Sill, including Oshima, as well as Native Americans and children who have been imprisoned or who have died in immigrant detention centers or at the hands of Border Patrol.

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It felt significant that the Buddhist priests participated in the march, as they typically do not engage in any political activity. The evening before, they practiced the ceremony, including what what would happen if they needed to quickly leave the scene. “My first concern is your safety and health,” Mike Ishii told the group. “[At this time,] we do not want you to get arrested. And neither do the police. The last thing they want is to show up on the cover of The New York Times for arresting Buddhist priests.” Mike told the group if they did need to leave quickly, to walk slowly and keep chanting. “This will protect other groups and people from the police. Be a shield for others,” he said.

Tsuru for Solidarity organized the Japanese American community, bringing cranes, which they referred to as “wings of compassion and love,” made by Japanese Americans and others from across the country. Tsuru for Solidarity was created in March, when the co-founders and other Japanese Americans traveled to the Dilley Detention Site in Texas, just 40 miles away from the Crystal City Camp, a former Japanese American internment camp. And in June, the group organized the first protest at Fort Sill, which Mike Ishii referred to as the first civil disobedience by a group of Japanese American concentration camp survivors. He and others said that they are speaking out now because “we need to be the allies that our families needed during World War II.” They seek to use the moral authority of their community to interrupt the cycle of intergenerational trauma and violence. Additionally, he said, standing up for other communities is healing for their own community.

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The indigenous communities of Oklahoma were also a powerful presence at the march. Mary Topaum, a Cherokee and Director of the American Indian Movement, which has been active in Oklahoma since the 1970’s, introduced herself as a descendant of survivors, of warriors. Mary said that her name, given to her by her grandfather when she was 14, means “Red Hawk Woman.” “We joined up with this [action] because we understand that the ones coming from the South, they’re indigenous, they’re our relations. We have a saying that means ‘all my relations.’ Everyone here, that’s what I call you, ‘all my relations.’” The phrase “All my relations,” comes from the Lakota prayer, “Mitukuye Oyason.” These words mean that everything on earth, and all beings, including all people, and every bird and bug, plant and rock, are interconnected.

I asked Mary’s husband, Michael Topaum, who is the spiritual leader of the American Indian Movement, how he felt about all of these communities coming together to stand with Native Americans after all this time. “I’m sad that it had to happen the way that it has, but I’m glad to see that there’s unity in this day and age… As we stand together, we are strength in numbers and one voice, whatever we’re going through. This is about our future.”

The Indigenous Environmental Network and the Comanches carried flags throughout the march. “The guardians with a connection to the land had come to add their strength and stand with us,” said Mike Ishii. “It felt like that was a moment when the reinforcements arrived. And when they led us with prayers and drumming I knew the ancestors had been called. All of the ancestors were with us that day.”

As the day wrapped up, I watched as a chain of hundreds of tiny cranes strung together were loaded into the back of the car of the United We Dream organizing team. Mike Ishii told me, with delighted surprise, that they were going to be brought to local United We Dream offices around the country. The organizers hugged and thanked everyone for their efforts. There was a sense of relief that the day had gone well; that so many new voices had come together, peacefully. The police had not interfered; rather they had been on the sidelines. People were also visibly hot, and exhausted, and soon the park where everyone had gathered that afternoon was empty.

After we all returned home, several days later, I spoke with Serena from Dream Action Oklahoma. Senator Inhofe had just announced that plans to bring migrant children to Fort Sill had been halted. “Of course they’re not going to attribute that to the action,” she said, “but we all know we made a difference; we had a direct impact.”

The march, people told me, was as much about keeping migrant children from being detained at Fort Sill, or at any other detention center, as it was about being a living example of a pluralistic future where everyone belongs. “We need to put forward a powerful and palpable vision for the society we know we can become,” said Stosh Cotler, Executive Director of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, who referenced the concept of welcoming the stranger as being woven throughout the Jewish value system. “That society is multiracial, multiethnic. It’s important for people to have actual experiences, images, of people living out what it means to be in solidarity. Because it’s hard to become what you can’t see.”

Are we born knowing that we are all each other’s relations, and then we forget? Or are we born fearing people who are different from us, and we have to learn that we are related? What does one child have in common with a woman whom she has never met? What do I have in common with you, and you with me?

When we experience firsthand that we are all related, or interconnected, it is a truth we know is real. And the response to this interconnectedness is that I will stand up for you, as you will stand up for me, because we are limbs of the same body. Cultivating, and acting on this piece of wisdom, which underpins so many religious and spiritual traditions and social movements throughout history, is the urgency of our moment.

Elyse Lightman Samuels attended the action in Oklahoma on behalf of Unbound Philanthropy, a private independent foundation that invests in leaders and organizations in the US and UK working to create a vibrant, welcoming society, and just immigration system. Last May, the Pop Culture Collaborative, along with GCIR, Unbound Philanthropy, and the RISE Together Fund convened a philanthropic learning immersion about the legacy of family separation. Bridgit Antoinette Evans, Executive Director of the Pop Culture Collaborative, noted how in the summer of 2018, when there was a breakthrough in the public imagination about family separation, the media, and some movements, described how what was happening at the border as an ‘unprecedented instance’ of family separation. But, she noted, there was something different felt by Black families, “who live with the generational effects of mass family separation during the slavery era,” along with all of the communities present at the action in Oklahoma, and Muslim families whose loved ones are being separated by the travel ban. “For these communities,” she said, “the inner tremor — that sensation one gets when you recognize yourself in someone else’s story — was real and palpable.” The convening, and Bridgit’s opening remarks, foreshadowed the recognition of shared history, and the creation of a shared narrative, that began to take place in Oklahoma.

¹About Face, ACLU OK, Women’s March OK, American Indian Movement — Indian Territory, Bend the Arc, Black Lives Matter Oklahoma City, Center for Popular Democracy, Community Change, Democratic Socialists of America — Oklahoma City, Dream Action Oklahoma, Indigenous Environmental Network, NACA-Inspired Schools Network, Native Voices Network, New Mexico Dream Team, North Texas Dream Team, Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice, Padres y Jovenes Unidos, Shawnee Nation, Sunflower Community Action, Sunrise Movement, Texas Organizing Project, The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, The Majority, Tsuru for Solidarity, United We Dream, UWD Houston, Workers Defense

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