Memories of a Grassroots Man

It has been heartwarming and heartbreaking, inspiring and saddening, all at the same time, to see all the tributes to and news coverage about Native American elder and activist Dennis Banks, in the wake of his passing on 29 October at age 80.

Banks is most well known for having co-founded the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s at a turbulent time in modern history and the many confrontations he led or joined in during that time, most notably the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA. He was a warrior who stood up when his people most needed him, when the times most demanded it, and for that he will always be remembered and loved.

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The Boy in the Picture: A Remembrance

A 16-year-old Japanese boy lies face down on a hospital bed, his eyes closed and face partially obscured from view. His back and arms, oozing blood and pus, show the severe radiation burns he suffered during the atomic bombing of his city, Nagasaki, just five months before by the United States. He is still clinging to life and the Japanese doctors keeping him in a bath of penicillin to fight off infection seem amazed that the boy is still alive.

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Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (3)

High up in a skyscraper overlooking the port of San Francisco, California, Coral Talavera Baca began telling the story of “Dark Alliance” that no one in the USA had yet heard. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, 15 February 1997, and a TV documentary program crew from Japan (for which I served as coordinator) had her wired for sound and the video camera rolling. It was all going on the record — her first public comments ever in regard to the controversial “Dark Alliance” investigation by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb that was published the year before.

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Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (2)

There is nothing like a little police harassment to lend an air of authenticity to producing a TV documentary on the so-called “drug scourge”, and that, appropriately enough, is just what I and a couple other Japanese members of a video production team first experienced upon our landing at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon, 9 February 1997.

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Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (1)

It was late in the afternoon on a September day in 1996, when my wife and I and our young son, then just a couple years old, visited a small retail store in West Los Angeles that U.S. filmmaker Spike Lee had recently opened to promote merchandise from his various films. Being a fan of Lee’s work at the time, I knew his store, “Spike’s West”, was one of the places we had to visit during our brief vacation in L.A. before we returned home to Japan.

As we walked into the store that late afternoon, my eye caught a set of free newspapers sitting on a small vertical rack on the sidewalk just outside the shop. I paused to browse through them. They were local African American community newspapers, and a front-page story on one of them immediately pulled me in.

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Peace Be to Brother Ali

As the news spread about the passing of former boxing great Muhammad Ali at age 74 earlier this month, a deep sense of grieving and mourning seemed universal. Not since former South African president Nelson Mandela died in 2013 did we see such a collective sense of loss spanning the globe, and it moved me beyond words.

The comparison between the two men is perhaps an apt one, since Mandela, as a former head of state, was truly a People’s President, while Ali was a genuine People’s Champion in every respect. Both men rose to the heights of glory in their respective fields in their own countries, yet maintained a love of their people and of humanity, and were deeply loved and respected in return.

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