Lawrence Downes – An Uchinanchu on the NY Times Editorial Board

Last updated 10/5/14

Lawrence Downes. Photo from his Twitter page.

Lawrence Downes. Photo from his Twitter page.

The excerpts below are from Jerry Kammer’s “Sulzberger’s Voice.”1 Kammer, a nationally recognized journalist and a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, is openly critical of Downes, but he provides essential background on Downes and his passionate advocacy for illegal immigrants and the disenfranchised. In “Island Records,”2 an article written a couple of years ago, Downes describes Okinawa as “the place where my maternal grandparents were born but which I had never seen.”

Excerpts from Kammer’s “Sulzberger’s Voice”:

[Downes’s] maternal grandparents were Okinawan and his father a Caucasian from New York — Downes has written movingly about the complexity of being mixed race —”hapa” — in Hawaii, where he grew up. “Dwelling on it can tie a person in knots,” he wrote. “It can be disorienting to feel forced to choose between identities when you are both and neither. It can be infuriating to be stared at by people trying to puzzle out what you are.”

On immigration Downes is the go-to guy. His most passionate cause is the defense of illegal immigrants. He is their defender and advocate. He is the voice of Arthur Sulzberger. “In truth, our biggest domestic menace never was waiting outside Home Depot, hoping to clean your basement,” Downes wrote in 2009. “Unauthorized immigrants are not about to destroy anything, not even when they get angry and loud and march in large groups. On the contrary, they are inspiring. Their ethic of self-reliance and hard work is one that Americans should recognize and celebrate.”

In a recent NY Times editorial3, Downes took up the homeless issue, focusing on his hometown of Honolulu. He writes:

In Honolulu, a city that combines an insanely high cost of living with a dire lack of apartments, a significant segment of society has no permanent place to live. A state representative there thought he would help matters by using a sledgehammer to destroy homeless people’s shopping carts. That did not work. 

Honolulu’s mayor has a program he calls “compassionate disruption,” which means harassing homeless people while pushing them toward social services that are inadequate to solve the problem. New laws forbid sleeping on sidewalks in Waikiki, but news accounts have highlighted the loopholes and complications in that effort. For example: what if the law pushes the homeless to sleep on Waikiki Beach, where sunburnt tourists nap in public by the tens of thousands?

One proposal is to send the homeless to an encampment on Sand Island, in the middle of Honolulu Harbor. The place is close to downtown but conveniently out of sight of any out-of-towners. It happens to be the place where the military authorities in Hawaii imprisoned Japanese during World War II – that is, a concentration camp for undesirables. It’s funny how history has a way of echoing itself.

Interestingly, my father was interned at the Sand Island camp, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, before being shipped to the Jerome, Arkansas, relocation center.

Lawrence Downes. Photo from the NY Times.

Lawrence Downes. Photo from the NY Times.

Like so much of what I’m learning about Okinawa and Okinawans, I stumbled upon Downes as I was researching Akiko Urasaki, an Okinawan rapper who goes by Awich. A few days ago, she was featured in an article by Alex Frank.4 A search on Urasaki  led me to Downes’s “Island Records.” In his article, Downes spotlights Urasaki, Tetsuhiro Daiku, an Okinawan shima-uta (folk) singer, and Shoukichi Kina, the shima-rock artist who wrote “Hana.” Significantly, all four — Downes, Urasaki, Daiku, and Kina — are passionate advocates for social justice.

Downes’s “Island Records” is a must-read. It begins with:

I was in Naha, Okinawa, doing the Okinawa dance, where you raise your arms and twist your hands this way and that, brushing away invisible cobwebs, while you lift and lower your feet to the ka-chunk, ka-chunk rhythm of the song. A woman named Mimi thumped a taiko drum while Misako Oshiro plucked a sanshin, a slender, three-stringed, snakeskin-covered cousin of the banjo that gives Okinawan music its Appalachian twang. Oshiro, 76, is a legendary singer of shima uta, songs of the Ryukyu Islands, as Okinawa is also known. She sang high and strong, in that soulful, sorrowful voice Okinawan women use, the one the guitarist Ry Cooder once said was like Mother Maybelle Carter in great pain.

Read the rest here. The article includes exclusive Times videos of brief performances by Daiku, “Okinawa ni Kaese,” and Kina, “Hana.” Both are excellent. It also includes an interactive slide show of photos.

1Sulzberger’s Voice: How Arthur Sulzberger Radicalized the New York Times Editorial Page on Immigration,” Center for Immigration Studies, March 2013. (WebCite alternative.)
2Island Records,” NY Times, 11/16/12. (WebCite alternative.)
3Treating Homeless People Like Criminals,” 9/24/14. (WebCite alternative.)
4Meet the Okinawan Rapper Who Learned English From Tupac Songs — and Hear Her Favorite New Track,” Vogue, 9/30/14. (WebCite alternative.)

This entry was posted in Biography, Culture, History, International, Music, Op-ed, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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