One of the phrases that I am heartily sick of hearing (from my own side, no less) in response to the treatment of immigrants and refugees is “This isn’t America.” I understand the sentiment—the people who are saying it mean that what is happening is horrific, and doesn’t match with our stated position of Greatest Country in the World.* But it’s a statement that is brimming with so much privileged ignorance and naivete it almost makes my teeth hurt. Because for anyone who is paying attention, this is and this has been America. We are pretty high in the rankings for “Treating People as Subhuman and Putting Them into Camps and Boxes.” It’s kind of our MO. And I should know, because I’m from one of the states where we very famously put people into camps and boxes.
Wyoming is one of those states that pretty much only shows up in your history books when something bad is happening. We get a couple early shining moments with the whole “Equality State” thing (Though long-time readers know how much of a crock that is) and then it’s basically “Things that Show Up on Depressing History Timelines: The Greatest Hits.” The Teapot Dome Scandal. Native American Resettlement. “Buffalo Bill” Cody exploiting a mythologized west. The hanging of Tom Horn and the death of the “Wild West.” Matthew Shepard. Missile silos. Being the last holdout to change the drinking age to 21. Dick Fucking Cheney. (We also brought you J.C. Penney’s. I’m never sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.) And of course, Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
From 1942 to 1945, legal US citizens of Japanese descent were involuntarily held at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. At its peak it held 10,000 people, which made it the third-biggest town in Wyoming at the time. (It wouldn’t be terribly far from third now.) Internees were torn from their jobs and careers and forced to do jobs in the camps for subpar wages, or were used as manual labor for nearby ranches. Children took classes indoctrinating them into the glories of the US, which I’m sure would have taken a bit better if they weren’t inside a fucking barbed-wire fence. Many Wyoming residents worried that the prisoners were being “coddled” or treated too nicely. Prisoners who thought that they should maybe have their constitutional rights back before they were forced to fight in WWII were charged in a mass trial as draft dodgers. Because if something can’t be described as “Kafkaesque,” then where is the fun in that?
Most of the people at the camps came from the West Coast. When I was learning about Heart Mountain when I was younger, I wondered if those people, used to warm weather, thought that they were literally being sent to the coldest part of Hell.
If you’ve never been in a Wyoming winter, then count your blessings. It’s not just the snow, or the cold, or the bleakness, though all of those things are terrible. It is the wind. The wind in Wyoming is vicious to the point of malevolence. It will find any crack, any crevice, and use it as an entry point so effectively you’d swear your front door was wide open. It will whisk the oxygen out of your lungs and leave you gasping like you just stepped onto the surface of Mars. It will howl like a demon being tortured by a cat. It will reach speeds that are referred to as “hurricane force” in places that have water, but here are referred to as “Wednesday.” And it is relentless. The wind is hard enough to deal with when you had the shitty fortune to be born here or the dumb idea to move here. It’s bad enough when you have access to adequate building supplies, and blankets, and heating. When you have indoor kitchens and bathrooms. For the prisoners in the camps, with their tarpaper walls, shared mess halls, and outdoor latrines, surrounded by barbed wire and prairie… I can think of few ways we could better show our inhumanity than by picking Wyoming as the location for these particular boxes and this particular camp.
And now, our country is looking at a period that should be one of our greatest shames and saying, “Don’t you guys think it’s time for a reboot?”
You don’t need me to tell you that Trump’s blustering is just that. That there is very little chance that the children who have already been separated from their families are ever going to see their parents again. That the private adoption industry, heavily Christian and heavily invested in by the GOP, anti-abortion groups, and of course, the fucking DeVos family, is going to make out like a bandit from this cluster. That Trump’s executive order, while seemingly kind enough to stop separating families, actually makes many things infinitely worse, including allowing for indefinite detention. That if we spent a fraction of the money we are wasting on holding these people on revamping the immigration and asylum system or addressing the humanitarian crises that drive refugees here we could save money *and* stop committing human rights violations. You’re all smart people. You’re all reading what I’m reading.
But what people apparently do need me to tell them is, “This is America.” It shouldn’t be. It sucks that it is. But like apple pie, putting people into camps and depriving them of their rights is something that we borrowed from the Germans and put our own spin on before rebranding as ours.
We can’t make progress unless we are being honest with ourselves, and with our past. Acting as if this is something new and unusual masks how frequently the US has used this as a tactic in the past, and the many iterations and practice runs that we’ve had. This idea didn’t spring out of nowhere, and acting as if it has will make it all the easier to happen again. We don’t need more tragedies in state histories. We don’t need more innocent people at the mercy of the elements. And we don’t need pretty lies about what kind of country we have in order to work towards having the country we want.
Signed: Feminist Fury
*Or at Least Greater Than a Lot of Other Countries, Fuck You, Swaziland, You Don’t Even Sound Like a Real Place.
Featured Image of five children of Japanese descent holding their hands over their heart during the pledge of allegiance in 1942, by Dorothea Lange, CC0 Public Domain