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Statue of Japanese American Civil Rights Icon Vandalized in Oakland

Amid the Oakland protests occurring over the weekend, the bust of civil rights leader and former city councilmember Frank Hirao Ogawa was defaced.

According to CBS Local News, Officer Johnna Watson noted an estimate of about 700 demonstrators who were a part of a “peaceful march Saturday night,” but come nightfall, some started to splinter off until there were peaceful protestors and those who started to smash windows, spray graffiti and point lasers at officers.

Frank Ogawa’s grandson, Matt Ogawa, posted the incident on Facebook expressing his disappointment from the latter.
“This statue was defaced during last night’s activity in Oakland. My Grandfather fought so hard for the Oakland community and always aimed to give all minorities a chance and a voice,” he wrote. “He wanted to take his experience and prove to America that Japanese Americans/minorities can make a difference despite what happened himself, and so many other Japanese (American born) Citizens. I can’t imagine what it was like to be an Asian on a US city council in the ’60s.“

Although dismayed, Matt told NextShark that it isn’t his intention to downplay the protests.

“For me, when I shared my post, it’s not about taking attention away from the injustices at play in society. It’s disappointment in those that are defacing symbols that are actually in direct support of what so many are fighting for. In my grandfather’s case, his entire platform was around fairness and everyone having an equal playing field,” he said.

This wasn’t the first time the statue was defaced, however, having been graffitied before in 2012 during the Occupy movement.
Frank Hirao Ogawa’s legacy
As the first Japanese American to maintain a position and serve in the Oakland City Council for 28 years, Frank held “the longest tenure of any Oakland council member,” according to Gene Anderson’s “Legendary Locals of Oakland.”

Born a Nisei (second-generation Japanese person) in Lodi, California, (May 17, 1917 – July 13, 1994); Frank and his wife, Grae Sumiye Ogawa, would live through World War II, be forced to sell what they owned and then detained in a concentration camp.

According to his archived records, Frank had never been to Japan.
For four years, the Ogawas were displaced. In the first six months, they “slept on straw mattresses in a horse stall,” and were then shipped to Utah’s Topaz War Relocation Center for the rest. They lost a 2-year-old daughter during that time.

Anderson wrote that despite all, “the mistreatment did not turn Ogawa against the United States; instead, he strived to prove his loyalty.”
Throughout his lifetime he would become more involved with civil rights, find employment as a gardener, eventually opening his own plant nursery, and then hold several positions in public offices.
Photo via Matt Ogawa

In 1961, Frank was on the Oakland Parks Commission and later became a Chair; in 1966, he started his near three-decade position on the City Council, having been “instrumental in opening the doors of trade and commerce to Asia for the Port of Oakland,” according to a 1999-2001 City of Oakland report.
During these times, Frank would also become a San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) member from 1972 to 1988, and be involved with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD).

Frank died in 1994 due to lung cancer, and eight days later, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo gave a heartfelt tribute in the House of Representatives.
In it, she mentioned his internment and spoke of his accomplishments as a “dedicated public servant, [and] outstanding civil rights leader” to the city, the Bay Area, and the Asian American community.

“Frank Ogawa was a remarkable person because he could take personal misfortune and turn it into a positive learning experience for himself and others,” she said. “[He] became an internationally recognized champion of Asian- Americans in the process.”
Calling Frank a breaker of social and racial barriers, and earning “a reputation as an even-handed leader who worked diligently to improve cultural awareness, enhance Oakland’s economy, expand its port facilities, and establish relations between Oakland and other countries, especially Japan”; Eshoo claimed Frank played a pivotal role in “establishing a sister city relationship between Oakland and Fukuoka, Japan.”

In 1998, the City Hall Plaza was unanimously renamed to Frank Ogawa Plaza to honor him. Also named after the civil rights leader are the Firescape Garden and the Torii Gate in Lakeside Park.
The Berkeley Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) released a statement to Nextshark on the current state of the bust reading:
The Berkeley chapter of the JACL protests the vandalism to the bust of former Oakland City Councilman Frank Ogawa by unknown persons, but stand — as we believe Frank Ogawa would have done — in solidarity with the rights of citizens who exercise their rights to protest injustice, with the movement for Black Lives, and against federal unmarked troops forcibly brought into our communities.

Frank Ogawa was the first Japanese American to serve on the Oakland City Council and experienced state racism when he was shipped to the Topaz concentration camp in Utah without due process during World War II. Berkeley JACL will always remember and honor Frank Ogawa’s great contributions to our community and will continue his work by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and all efforts to end racism.

Feature Image via Matt Ogawa

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