There would be many other acts of resistance that followed but the Santa Anita riot, begun as a strike, was the first mass action by Japanese Americans while under confinement. Administrators at the Santa Anita assembly center employed citizen laborers to manufacture camouflage nets for the U.S. military. Japanese Americans worked 44-hour weeks in eight-hour shifts, and in the summer of 1942, some 800 of them produced 22,000 nets or about 250 large nets each day.
One day in a June 1942, a net worker sat down, and refused to return to work. He said he was hungry and could not work. Soon others joined him, and by the day's end all 800 workers sat down and shut down production. The quantity and quality of food in the assembly center was an issue, but so were job conditions such as the dust from the netting material triggering allergic reactions and the dye fumes that irritated the eyes, nose, and lungs. Moreover, workers had to labor under the hot sun, often kneeling for eight hours on a concrete floor for which they were paid a meager $8. The strikers also charged the administration with using pressure tactics to force the nisei to “volunteer” for the net factory work by closing the high school, which many nisei attended and freezing all other jobs until the net laborers reached their quotas.
There were rumors about white administrators profiting from the assembly center's supplies, stealing them and selling them on the black market, and of a blacklist kept by the administration of nisei who refused to work at the net factory. A few workers returned to work the afternoon of the strike, and by the next day, when Santa Anita's administrators agreed to improve the food and allowed women to work four hours a day, the strike ended. But the strike prompted grievances to surface among the general assembly center population. Two days after the strike ended, Japanese Americans called a meeting to discuss conditions in Santa Anita, and the administration responded by apprehending six Japanese Americans who allegedly attended that meeting. Before long, 11 were taken in and held in a jail.
The southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed to defend several of those charged with participating in the “illegal” meeting where Japanese, a forbidden language for meetings in the assembly center, was spoken. Two Japanese Americans, Ernest Wakayama and his wife, Toki, sought a writ of habeas corpus to test the grounds for their confinement. The ACLU's plan was to use the Wakayama case to challenge certain aspects of the government's program of forced removal and confinement. Later, the ACLU dropped the Wakayama case in favor of more promising actions that more directly challenged
the constitutionality of EO 9066 and the army's program of mass evictions and confinement.
Meanwhile, the army eliminated Japanese American councils in all Wartime Civil Control Administration “assembly centers” and tightened the rules. In August 4, 1942, three days after having ended the councils, the army launched a search for contraband in the Santa Anita center that even the military head characterized as overbearing. The military police took electric hot plates used by parents to warm baby formulas and by family members to prepare food for their sick, and their high-handed intrusion into private spaces angered many Japanese Americans. Soon crowds formed, and a suspected informer was beaten. The army called in 200 troops in anticipation of a riot, and for three days held the center under martial rule.
Before the soldiers arrived, a crowd of hundreds of people marched toward the administration building cornering and driving away white administrators and assembly center police. “They were absolutely terrified,” a Japanese American eyewitness remembered, because they were afraid the protestors would tear them “from limb to limb” (Girdner and Loftis, 192). But the army arrived, and they stood shoulder to shoulder with their helmets on and holding rifles with fixed bayonets. An elderly woman with a cane walked between that line of soldiers and the crowd, halting the troops' advance and breaking the tension. She prevented what could have been a bloody confrontation.
In the aftermath, several police officers resigned, and the army identified and removed 23 young nisei, 20 men and three women, for no apparent reason except to institute discipline among the center's Japanese Americans. A nisei wrote to her former teacher about the events of August 4 and the army's rule. “People have had to put up with so much here,” she began, “most of which was unnecessary: the ban on Japanese literature; Japanese records; and the denial of free speech, assembly, press, freedom of religion … the search, and many other things” (Girdner and Loftis, 193–94). The Santa Anita riot, she knew, was essentially a protest against injustice.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Girdner, Audrie and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. London: Macmillan, 1969.