Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mike Tagawa, Black Panther Party Member & Activist

Mike Tagawa. Former Metro Driver and Black Panther Minister of Education 

Photo: Madeline Crowley

Do you think that in any way that there was a connection between you being born in a concentration camp and you becoming a Black Panther Party member?

Yeah. I think that figured into my psyche, that we because of our race - our ethnicity - were
thrown into a concentration camp. In other words, we were treated badly, because we were different. That’s exactly what’s happening to all my black brothers and sisters who were
getting treated badly.

Tagawa Family. Minidoka Concentration Camp. Collection: Mike Tagawa

How did being from the Central Area affect your life?

To begin with my maternal grandparents came from Japan. My mom, Masako Nagashima, was born in America. Her husband, my daddy Takeo Tagawa, was born in Hiroshima. They got married and then had kids. Prior to 1942, we were living in the Central Area on about 18th and Yesler. 
With the war (WWII) they (the US Gov’t) shipped us out to the concentration camps. Our family initially was sent to Puyallup staging area and then to Minidoka in the high southern desert of Idaho. On the west coast, Japanese Americans from southern Oregon and north were shipped to Minidoka, (those south of Oregon) were shipped south to Tule Lake

Mike & Eugene Tagawa with Maternal Grandfather. Collection: Mike Tagawa

My family was in Minidoka (Camp) until 1945, so I was born in a concentration camp in February, 1944. I was 18 months old when we left the camp, so I don’t remember anything about it. When we moved back to this area, of course we didn’t have any money or any means to afford to live as we had in the Central District. We had to temporarily reside in the Renton Housing Project (with pictures of the vast barracks of that time). A lot of those old housing projects are still there. We were there until I finished third grade.  

Then, we moved back to the Central Area in the Rainier Vista Housing Projects. The Rainier Vista projects were a little fancier than in Renton but there was no mistaking that they were projects. I went to Columbia Grade School, in Columbia City, until the fourth grade.
Mike & Eugene Tagawa . Renton, WA. Collection: Mike Tagawa
Next, we moved to 25th Ave. S. between King and Lane Streets. I went to Colman Elementary for the 5th and 6th grade. That building is now the (Northwest) African American Museum (NAAM). We moved again to 15th and Columbia near Providence Hospital and I started going to (the old) Washington Jr. High School.

It was in a different location then. The old School was a three-story building between 18th and 19th Avenues and between Yesler Way and Main. It was a great looking school like an old time castle. After that, I went to Garfield High and graduated from there but only because I went to summer school. 

I wasn’t (pause) an ideal student or such a great guy when I was in high school. I have a kind of a wild streak. School was very easy for me, but I was interested in other stuff. I had to go to summer school to graduate on time with my class of 1962. Growing up in the Central District was really
good. One reason was because of a guy by the name of Gary Owens, who was my friend from grade school on. 

One interesting thing about this topic to me is that it’s always been known as the Central
Area. Yet, for of us who grew up here always called it the CD. People would ask, “What does the CD mean?” and we would say, “Well, it means Central Area.” It was always kind of a joke amongst us, so some of us would just answer that question with, “The CD, that’s the Central Area.” (laughs)

Renton Nazarene Sunday School. Collection: Mike Tagawa
Anyway, at Colman Grade School I had a lot of Japanese friends and a lot of Black friends. That’s where I met Bobby White and Bobby Harding who I would hook up years later in the Black Panther Party. I also became good friends with Richard Fisher, who spent his entire life being a cop, a Washington State highway patrolman. So many things happened then, I don’t know where to begin. So, I’ll give you a brief overview.

The Central Area at that time was a real potpourri. There were a lot of Blacks and Asians and a lot of Jewish kids. The Central Area used to be the home for the Jewish population of Seattle. That’s why there are so many Jewish temples in the CD. Those buildings, though, aren’t Jewish temples anymore. There were Jewish businesses like Brenner Brother’s Bakery on Empire Way (which became Martin Luther King) and Cherry Street. A lot of people are surprised to learn all that because they think of the Central Area as being a Black neighborhood. Yet, there were so many Asians and so many Jewish people at that time.

Back in the 1950s into the early ‘60s people from my class of 1962, were almost blissing out because everybody got along: Blacks; Whites; Asians; Filipinos and the few Chicanos. Garfield High School at that time was known as being this great, integrated school. Everybody loved each other. Everybody got along. It had quite a reputation for being the school with all different races.

Yet, nationally the late 1950s and early ‘60s was when the divisions in the country well, people started becoming aware that the country was divided. This was putting us on a road to trouble. The segregation in the Deep South was going to have to be eradicated. People were going down south and protesting; there were bus boycotts. 

Tagawa Family. Central District. 15th & Columbia. Collection: Mike Tagawa

But up here in the Central Area during the late 1950s, we all knew about that but it didn’t seem quite real. It just seemed like something very far away. It was something that we really couldn’t relate to. Those of us who were politically astute were a little bothered by it and concerned. But here at that time, it was just normal to have great race relationships. Everybody got along. There was interracial dating.

There was no problem because most of us stuck together in the Central Area. We didn’t walk around or drive around to other parts of the city. It was a whole lot different when I was a teenager than it is now. Now, there’s more mobility. Back in those days, you stayed in your own neighborhood.

You didn’t have access to a lot of things; certainly you didn’t have access to computers and knowledge of things all over. What you knew about was what you read in the newspaper or heard from friends. Today, even little kids have probably more knowledge available to them than we did as young adults. It amazes me how sophisticated little kids in grade school are compared to us back in high school.

Still, we knew there were problems elsewhere and Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King came to Garfield High School to talk. 

Nagashima Grocery. Grandparent's store. 18th & Yesler. Collection: Mike Tagawa

 We knew elsewhere that race relations were bad, that the Deep South was a hotbed of racism and violence towards Black citizens. In comparison, the Central District  was like Nirvana. Everything was good. Everything was just perfect.

After I graduated, I joined the Air Force. By June, I was down in San Antonio, Texas at Lackland Air Force Base marching around in the hot sun in a fatigue uniform. I went from San Antonio, Texas to Greenville Air Force Base in Mississippi. I went from the most integrated neighborhood and the most integrated school in the country to Greenville which was known as the very epicenter of all the racism. The next place I went to for more tech school training was in Montgomery, Alabama (See Civil Rights Actions). Finally, I was stationed in Sacramento, so I’d go to San Francisco and see all the hippies and to Berkeley to listen to the protestors.

I get born in a concentration camp, go to the housing projects (because we were poor), go to the Central District (because we were poor), go from the best, most integrated high school in the city and then (directly) into the deepest part of the Deep South with most problems, and from there then end up in the hippie capital where a cultural revolution was taking place. The whole thing was just extremely fortunate, and was almost like a dream state, to see that whole spectrum, you know? 

Cowboys in Renton. Collection: Mike Tagawa

Can you take me through what that was like? You go from a place where race, at least from your perspective, wasn’t an issue to the Deep South. That must have been very shocking.

It was. For instance, on our way to Greenville Air Force Base we had to stop at a restaurant. The sergeant in charge said, “Alright, this isn’t like what you guys might be used to wherever you came from in this country. We’re going to go to this restaurant after hours because they don’t want us coming in in a mixed group during normal hours. You guys can’t all be sitting together; we got some Negroes and some white guys, you know, different races here. They don’t like that. They don’t want us bringing a mixed bunch of people into the restaurant during business hours. After hours, we get the whole restaurant to ourselves.” Then, there was a “Colored” and a “White” bathroom. At first we all thought that was kind of a big laugh, because we were now really in the heart of Dixie.
I should mention here that some of the guys who joined the Air Force with me were from Garfield High. There were a bunch of black guys that joined and I met other Black air force guys from all over the country. I had become good friends with them. I was running around mainly with the Black guys. They were all from the North and from areas that all weren’t as segregated or blatant about it as the Deep South. We would laugh about that kind of stuff, even though underneath we realized this is deadly serious. I mean, literally deadly serious. There were a lot of violent deaths in the Deep South.

When we were at Greenville Air Force base, I used to go into town.

Mike Tagawa. Middle, 3 rows down. Garfield High Yearbook 1962 

What would happen if you were by yourself?

This sounds very strange to everybody that I tell this to. I didn’t feel any more (pauses) uncomfortable in the Deep South than I did here in the Central District. This was a very strange thing for me, because I had a lot of friends who were white, and a lot of friends who were Black. I would go into town with the white guys, no problem. I could go into every single restaurant; we went bowling together. Then when it came to do something that might be good, I would go into town with black guys.

I would never have any trouble with the Blacks or the whites when I went into town with either group. The people in Greenville didn’t seem to know quite where to put me, so I could go into town with either group. The officers would tell us don’t go into town as mixed groups, white and Black guys because you’ll be asking for trouble. You won't have the protection and the sympathy of the people on the base. Some of them white boys wanna kill your ass. So, don’t be tempting fate just because you know what is morally right. When you’re around people who are ignorant and racist they don’t follow any higher level of thinking. They just think, “Hey, look at that! A bunch of white guys and colored guys together. We should go kick their ass.” Don’t do something that’s going to agitate them. The black guys can go into town together, and the white guys can go together. They didn’t know quite where to put me, so I went into town with either group. I got treated well by the white merchants and all the people I would meet in Greenville, because I met a lot of civilians.

Garfield High Classmates. Collection: Mike Tagawa

When I went to town with the Black guys; they were befriended by the people in the Black community. A lot of the food service workers in the mess halls were Black, and they were very friendly towards the Airmen. When I went into town with the Black guys, we went to a lot of dances. It was a dry county, but you could buy your own booze and sit there in the bottle club. They would give you a glass for a dollar and you’d pour your own booze into it. All these civilians, they treated me just fine. They were just as wonderful and loving to me as anybody. And the white people were the same way too. It was very interesting for me.

You were able to kind of pass no matter where you were. You think that was partially the uniform?

No, because when we went into town we were wearing civilian clothes. We never wore our uniform to town.

It was the same way in Montgomery, Alabama. There was only one incident I remember. A bunch of us, all black except for me, were walking towards the Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama. I think it was probably on a Sunday, the city was basically shut down. All the shops were closed. A car came by, slowed down, full of white guys. They said, “AAAAAY, look at there man! There’s a bunch of niggers! Man, look at ‘em, a bunch of niggers out there!” Then there was a slight pause, and then one of them in the car yells, “There’s a Jap too!” Of course we’re all, “Fuck you guys.” We were talking shit. They were giving us the finger and yelling about niggers and Jap and all this stuff. Then, they just drove off. That was the only real incident I had in Montgomery. Same thing, I would go into town either with the white guys or with the black guys.

Washington Junior High Classmates. Collection: Mike Tagawa
As a matter of fact, the only time that race was an issue (for me) was when I went to town socially. I went to town with the black guys to a black college there. There was a dance there one weekend. We got to the door to pay admission, and when I got to the guy taking admission he asked, “Are you with these guys?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Uh, nah man, You can’t be comin’ in here.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he says, “You ain’t colored man. This is for colored people. This is for Negroes, and you ain’t no negro man.” I said, “Hey man, I’m with my friends. A couple others came up and said, “You can’t come in here.” That was the only time that I had any discrimination practiced against me was when the blacks wouldn’t let me into the dance at the college there. As far as going into a town full of white guys, never had any problem.

Did you ever try to go to any local dances where it would have been white?

No. None of the white guys seemed to socialize with the population like the black guys did. In Greenville and Montgomery, Alabama, the black guys seemed to flow easily into the community, become a part of the community and go to events in the community. The white guys always were just ‘the guys from the base. They didn't socialize as much with the population. It was just very interesting to me that it was that way.
Photo: Courtesy Faith Bible Church. History.

I always noticed um, (pauses), blacks have a tendency to be more friendly and open to people that aren’t necessarily part of the community, just because they recognize people as human beings. That we’re all together, whereas white people tend to be more inhibited. Black people tend to be less inhibited about socializing with other brothers and sisters than white people, and certainly way more than Asians. In comparison, Asians can be so stuffy and a bit uptight. Now, I’m making some stereotypes here. But you know, these are kind of generalizations that I’ve noticed are pretty true.

That leads me to something I was wondering. When you were at Garfield you said everybody was just friends with everybody. Your parents, though, didn’t grow up in an environment like that. How did they receive your friends?

No problem at all. My daddy died when I was nine years old. He died at Firland’s

Sanitarium… It was a tubercular sanitarium that was located up there between 150th, 160th and 15th in the north and. It was a huge complex where all tubercular patients from around the northwestern states went. 

My father contracted tuberculosis after we got out of the camps. He was a great outdoorsman. He was known in the community as being a great fisherman; one of the best fisherman ever. He won a lot of awards. He used to work at Tashiro Hardware down on Prefontaine Place and Yesler. That was a big place for the Japanese community, because that was Japantown before the war.

Photo: Courtesy of the Wing Luke Asian Museum 
My daddy used to work down there; he used to make split bamboo fly rods. Daddy was always out fishing. He was fine when we got out of the camps, and then he contracted tuberculosis. At Firland’s they did some exploratory surgery on him, and he died. I tell this to people and they freak out and don’t believe that could have happened.” He died from the cocaine used as an anesthetic and it killed him. He had an anaphylactic shock and he died. 

After he died we moved into the CD. Now, my mother was raising five kids plus her own father. Her father, Ojii-san or grandfather, was still living with us. She went from being a housewife do doing nursing assistant work in various places around the Central District.

That really was too bad because when Mom graduated from high school she was Valedictorian. My mom was just brilliant but she ended up being a housewife and with no real skills. After Daddy died she was left with the task of taking care of six people. It was a tough life for her. We didn’t have much money in our family; I’ll tell you that. That’s why we lived in the Central District and in housing projects.

Number Assigned to Mike Tagawa at Minidoka Concentration Camp. Photo: Madeline Crowley
Was your family a part of the Japanese community?

All the Japanese families knew each other. All the kids knew each other. We all went to school together at Washington and Bailey Gatzert, Colman, Cleveland, Franklin. As far as being part of the social fabric of the Japanese community… since Mom was a working mom and not having a daddy, our family wasn’t part of the movers and shakers of the Japanese community like some more well off families. All the Japanese families knew each other; it was very easy that way because we were contained.

Did your family participate in any of the religious communities?

Mom made sure that we went to church. We went to the Faith Bible Church up there near 18th and Yesler, and then we went to the Japanese Presbyterian Church. But, because Mom was by herself we didn’t do a whole lot of social things with the churches. Hardly at all. A lot of families didn’t either. 

Those that did tended to be part of the Buddhist Church, or St. Peter’s or the Japanese Presbyterian. I don’t remember that there was one particular church that drew all the Japanese together. The church that came closest to being the center of the Japanese community would have been the Buddhist Church. They did the Bon Odori (Festival) A lot of the older Japanese leaders of the community went to that church. Although a lot of people weren’t Buddhists or didn’t go to church or didn’t have any religion at all, but a lot of social events happened at the Buddhist Church.

Jumping back to Minidoka, did your mother talk to you about her experience there, or was that something that was not spoken of?

She didn’t speak much about it. When I was growing up, the elders, our parents and those old enough to remember the camps tended not talk about it. It was like they were ashamed of it. When they would talk about it they would talk about it among themselves but they would not usually talk about it with us kids. I always thought it was kind of strange that they wouldn’t tell us about it.

I understood why later, a lot of them were ashamed. It was about honor. They had basically been told, “You guys are a bunch of sneaky, disloyal Japs and goddamn spies. You’re the ones that killed all our people over in Pearl Harbor with that Jap sneak attack.” They heard that and faced that when they got out of the camps and came back to Seattle. They faced a lot of bullshit like when the white population put signs up saying, “Jap go home” or “Jap stay away.”

So there was a lot of reluctance to talk about the camp. It wasn’t until roughly the late 1970s or 80s when they started talking about reparations that the Japanese elders started really becoming more vocal. They talked about how horrible it was. Even in that time some people were saying, “Oh, we don’t want any reparations. We don’t need any reparations. Let’s just forget about it.”

I remember there was a lot of negativity about talking about the camp because there was still embarrassment and ambivalent feelings. I mean, all these different people (in that community) with a universe of different feelings and opinions about it. Some were more like,” Hell yeah, let’s make Uncle Sam pay for this. They took our land, our property and they let us take one goddamn suitcase to camp. While others said, “If you guys win reparations, I am not going to accept it because I am above that kind of thing.” There was this whole wide, incredible wide range (of opinion). In the 1980s more and more people felt at least open to talking about it, especially when during the hearings prior to Reagan authorizing the reparations to the Japanese that were in camps. After that it became easier for people to talk about the camps. 

What was interesting to me was for years their attitude had been embarrassment because we were the enemy, we were damn Japs. It was like they almost believed that we really were the enemy and deserved this because we were Japanese. That really irritated my ass, but once they got over that, then they started taking on this attitude like, “Hell yes, I was in the camps and we survived. We did good. We made the best of it.” Then, it started becoming a matter of pride for a lot of people. Not because being in the camps was a good thing but they survived it and made a better life for themselves. They came back and fully recovered and showed the goddamn government and all those racist son-of-a-bitches that who we really are. And they were proud of it.
Mike Tagawa. Photo: Madeline Crowley

So they lived and thrived.


I’ve spoken to Yosh Nakagawa and Herb Tsuchiya, whose family is also from Hiroshima. They both told me that they both received an enormous amount of pressure to not talk about that. That there is a split to this day of people who still feel like they are actively shaming their community when speaking of it. That split might not have really gone away.

Oh no, I didn’t mean to imply that we all came together finally. No, there’re still a lot of people that don’t want to talk it, who felt the reparations were not a good thing. It was like excusing the government for that bullshit by taking the money, it was like getting paid off. They felt you sold out all of us who suffered in the camps by accepting a few lousy bucks on the money that you lost because in today’s dollars you’re only getting pennies on the dollars. You are gonna accept that? That doesn’t make it right. There are people like that. There are others who say that Uncle Sam finally owned up to it, paid for it, and acknowledged it. Now, it can go down in history, the official word of the government that it screwed up. So for some people that’s a good thing, and there’s everybody in between.

War Protest. Collection Aaron Dixon

Now, where did your political consciousness come from? Clearly that was a big motivation in your life.
I started getting really political when I was at Travis Air Force Base and I used to go down to the Bay Area. I love American traditional music and traditional blues. Lo and behold, I was in one of the hotbeds of traditional American music in the folk clubs of Berkeley, California and San Francisco. Folk music was a big thing back then, everybody from the Kingston Trio to the Brothers Four and all that. Hearing them made me realize that they’re singing an old traditional song from the Deep South. I’d wonder, “Who wrote that?” So I went out and explored. 

In Berkeley, at the Cabale Creamery, they had the greatest American traditional blues singers ever. I saw: Lightnin' Hopkins, Booker White, the Chambers Brothers. The Cabale was a small, long room, and I remember sitting there and having the Chambers Brothers sweating and having the sweat fall on me. That was how close in this place was. 

What do you think was what spoke to you about that?

It appealed to me because it sounded so real. It sounded to me like it part of their culture, a part of their growing up, a part of their life, a part of their lifestyle. When I was listening to these great blues singers who were still field hands. The Carter Family was the same way; they were doing stuff for their friends and family. They were sitting around in their home and then that music became commercially viable for them. That kind of music appealed to me, whether it was black or white, because it sounded right, it sounded sincere.

The Bay area was just great, but also there was all this stuff on the campus of Berkeley. In 1965, I saw Joan Baez. Once on the campus of Berkeley there were tens of thousands of students there yelling and screaming about all these political things: end segregation, end the war, free speech and all that. I had an inkling of that but then I started realizing that there were huge, major issues going on. 

Collection: Aaron Dixon

That campus might have been unusual because back at the base and in other parts of America, everything was fine, there wasn’t any racism, there was no need for integration. People didn’t need to get involved in things like free speech. The more I started to think about it the more concerned I got about it. I was left leaning. I supported the idea of integrating the faculty of Berkeley and getting more minority students. By that time, I was coming to a close of my four year hitch in the Air Force, I was getting pretty political.

When I was in the Air Force I was a psychiatric ward medic, and on the closed psychiatric ward at Travis Air Force Base. Back in those days in the 60s, Travis Air Force Base was the main embarkation/debarkation point for servicemen going to Vietnam. All these medical patients would land in Travis Air Force Base. If they had psychiatric problems that were really bad then they would come up to F3; that was the ward that I worked on. Seeing all these guys from the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, Marine Corp, even some (south) Vietnamese coming from bases in the United States where they had been getting tech training and they cracked up. Well, it struck me as odd that they would take a Vietnamese soldier and bring them all the way over here. I figured, if it’s something that can’t be treated in Vietnam and he is one of our allies, then you better take care of him; he’s wounded or screwed up because of America so you better take care of him.

BPP Breakfast Program (pre-Head Start) Collection: Aaron Dixon

Did you have much choice about that?

You mean about becoming a Psychiatric Tech?

No! When me and my friend joined up together, Vince Matsudaira, we both kind of had the idea that we would get on a flight crew being boom operators. They’re the guys at the back of these fuel tanker airplanes that feed this long boom into airplanes and do midair refueling, because that’s what Vincent’s brother Mitch did when he was in the Air Force. But we didn’t even come close to getting any flying status.

I didn’t get exactly what I wanted. But looking back at where I went: Texas, the Deep South, and then in the Bay Area, I think, I was one lucky son-of-a bitch, because I got to actually step there into those moments of history.

Was there anything in particular that you saw down south that you think really brought home to you what it meant to live down there?

We were driving into Montgomery one day, and we’re going down the highway and there’s a big old billboard. It has a huge graphic of this guy on a horse in a Klu Klux Klan outfit on his horse with the ropes flying. It read, “The Klu Klux Klan welcomes you to Montgomery, Alabama!” I thought, this is what it’s like in the Deep South. It was just sort of a wakeup moment. This is not like Seattle.

When you were in Travis Air Force Base and generally everybody’s pretty content with the status quo. Yet, you’re developing some radical ideas that the anti-war movement was interesting, that racial issues in this country did need to be considered, and maybe the status quo wasn’t really such a great thing. Did that create problems for you?

It created a problem for me in a way because after I started getting political, I became more distant from the guys that I used to hang out with a lot. I was pretty much going down to the Bay Area by myself to go to these rallies.

I was taking this anti-war position and being supportive of protests in the Bay Area on my own free time. I think that had something to do with the fact that one day I went to work in the psychiatric ward and they said, “Mike you’re not working here anymore. You’ve been assigned to the squadron.” What that meant was the squadron commander and a 1st sergeant, the 1st shirt, would just have you do little chores and things that needed to be done around the squadron area.

Mike Tagawa. Photo: Madeline Crowley

So you go from having a position of responsibility to being a floater.

To being a floater, but that meant I worked Monday through Friday as that was the Officers’ and 1st shirts’ hours. Big guys get the weekends off, and the flunkies like us have to pick up slack for the other seven days, but because those guys were now in charge of me I worked Monday through Friday, 8-5. I got to trim and mow the grass, do whatever things needed to maintain the barracks. That’s the way I finished out the last month or so of my air force career. I asked why, and they’d say, “This is best”, and nobody knew why. The 1st shirt didn’t know, the squadron commander didn’t know.

Do you suspect that they really didn’t know, or do you suspect that they didn’t want to tell you?

They didn’t want to tell me! They had to know, this is the military, this is the Air Force! Everything’s on paper, everything’s done for a reason. But they never told me, and I’ve never been able to find anything, and I tried again just not too long ago to get something through the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI. And nothing.

And you came back after your service?

I got discharged and came right back to Seattle.

And you would have been about how old then?

I would have been 22.

So you were a little older than some of the Panthers.

Yes. I got discharged in June of ‘66. So it was a little over two years, 1968, until I joined the Black Panther Party here (in Seattle).

Do you think that in any way that there was a connection between you being born in a concentration camp and you becoming a Panther?

Yeah. I think that figured into my psyche, that we because of our race - our ethnicity - were thrown into a concentration camp. In other words, we were treated badly, because we were different. That’s exactly what’s happening to all my black brothers and sisters who were getting treated badly. They had been lynched and persecuted ever since the 1600s when they first started bringing them over here. It’s only because of their race. It was very easy to identify with that.

Having grown up in the CD, I wasn’t thinking strictly about it being a black, white, yellow kind of thing. It was like we were all the same people, you know? These were my friends. When I joined the Black Panther Party, I was married then. My wife and I were driving through the Arboretum, and we could see all these people marching around. So we pull into the parking lot and watched, and it was the Seattle Black Panther Party. They were doing drill practice there.

Photo Courtesy Eugene Tagawa. All rights reserved.

We pull into the parking lot there and we were watching the brothers marching around there in their black leather, black pants, powder blues and their berets. They were milling around. Bobby White, who I knew from grade school, told me this is the Black Panther Party. They just started the Party here. He was just hyped, he told us, we’re gonna fight all this racism. It all made sense, but he encapsulated the whole thing. He said, the Black Panther Party is here to fight for us because all the other stuff is too passive.  He ended by saying, “Man, you gotta join the party.” I said, “Man, I can’t join the party; I ain’t black!” He looks at me and said, “You ain’t white either!”
Bobby said come up to the headquarters on 34th and Union. So went back, got together with the brothers, and two days later I joined the party. It was just that simple.

(Returning to the question of the concentration camp experience and the Black Panther Party (BPP)

The experience of being in the concentration camps and singled out as being the enemy on the West Coast, I think it was a real unconscious thing. We didn’t think about it in any of those terms, but it was kind of like, we have to prove ourselves. For Richard Aoki (Oakland BPP) he knew about the Exclusion Act and he (was old enough to) remember the camps, but he still was ok with going into the military. Vince and I had no problem. For a lot of us, it may have been part of the subconscious motivation for a lot of us doing exactly what we did. In a way, that might have been the reason for a lot of people of color (joining up) because going into the military is the great equalizer, it makes you and validates you as an American. 

Memorabilia: Mike Tagawa Collection
The thing about discrimination, it’s always based on so many things other than just who you are. It has to do with things particular to a certain community or perception of how things are from an economic standpoint or a cultural standpoint. I think of America and all the different groups that have suffered. You know there was a time when the Irish were looked upon as being the scum of the earth on the east coast. Now Asians are starting to get a little more respect, but for a while they were the sneaky Japs and money hungry grubbers.

These stereotypes and prejudices go in and out of fashion. To me, from time immemorial, there’s always been this stuff. It just kind of shifts back and forth, but it never goes away, it just kind of changes its shape a little bit, and we’re gonna have it forever. There’s a production of the Mikado with an all-white cast in Seattle.

All the Japanese roles are being played by white people who act stereotypically. Now, if they tried to do this with blackface, they know that wouldn’t go over, there would be riots in the street. The perception still is that Asians are passive and they’re going to put up with this shit.

With some of the Japanese Americans I’ve talked to, there’s this very clear sense of the amount of pressure that they feel from that community. You clearly chose not to let that affect you.

Photo Courtesy Eugene Tagawa. All rights reserved.

I’ve always felt like, you got to do what you think is the right thing.

Some of my cohorts in the Japanese community will only hang out with Japanese people. They only know Japanese people, they only socialize with Japanese people. I’m friends with them, good friends with them, but they’ll say that people just think I’m kind of strange because I have so many different kinds of friends and I’m interested in so many things.

Yeah, it’s really true. It seems like you respond to what resonates for you.

I’m just trying to find my way through life. Just doing what’s comfortable and what I can deal with. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that think I’m pretty flaky because I seem to get involved with a lot of different things. I have supported things that others didn’t think were particularly good. When I was first in The Black Panther Party, some Japanese were like, “What’s wrong with you, man? You’re hanging out with them black guys and talking about guns and shit.” Other people over the years have said, “Why were you supporting that gay pride stuff? Or, “Why do you wanna be against the war, man?” I hear that quite a bit, still today I get some of that.

Enough time has gone by that with the Black Panther Party stuff so nowadays people say, “Michael, was in The Black Panther Party.” They ask what I did back then. It’s funny, give it enough time and things become less serious.

Did you get any pushback from your family about the Panthers? A lot of people were afraid that they might get shot.

Well, my little sister Kathy (who passed away about a year and a half ago) she was very supportive. She said, “Right on!” Still, she was kind of worried when she found out about it. And my brother too, he was kind of ok with it too. They might not have been activists themselves but they supported equality, anti-war protests and supporting the community. My mom was kind of worried. She wanted me to be careful. My mom was just a wonderful, sweet person. When I was younger, I had a lot of conflict with Mom because I was crazy. She was always saying, “Calm down!

Mike Tagawa in the center. 1968. Photo Courtesy Eugene Tagawa. All rights reserved.

  After I got out of the Air Force I came to a resolution with Mom about having been a crazy kid. Still she was concerned about the BPP. Once, my then wife’s mom, when were having dinner she paused and asked, “Mike, did I see you on TV?” I said, “Me? I don’t think so. Why would I be on TV?” I thought she was joking. Laying it down for me she says, “I thought I saw you on television the other day. I saw this protest at this place called Bluma’s Delicatessen in the Central Area. They showed all these Black Panther Party people with guns lined up on the street. I thought I saw you there.”

I’d never told her about being involved. I was just thunderstruck. I said, “Yeah, that was me.” I wasn’t really paying attention to the fact that the news crews were up there so I didn’t know I was on TV. She just thought in a little silence. Basically she said, “Well, I understand being involved in those kinds of things, but just be careful. Just be careful because we love you.” That was all I ever heard of that.

Do you think the TV stations picked you out because you weren’t black, or do you just think you were noticeable to people watching TV because you weren’t black?

I think I was just noticeable to people because I was the only one who wasn’t black.

Why was there protest against Bluma’s? It was a Jewish bakery right?

It was a Jewish deli near Garfield High on Cherry Street. Now, it’s a little barbeque joint.

Apparently someone started selling drugs out of the Bluma’s there. Well, that was one of the main things we were against.

They eventually opened up another place on 1st Ave. after they were basically chased out of the Central District (link about their 1st Ave kiddie-crime ring). For years, Bluma’s Deli was a staple of Garfield students on their lunch break. It was a great place to go. After my years in High School, I guess it had gradually gone downhill.

I have the feeling that, from listening to people that there were some who took it upon themselves to call themselves Black Panthers and run around setting fires and had nothing to do with the Panthers. Is that your impression as well?

Well (long pause) did you ever hear about that Rainier Beach incident? We (BPP) went down to Rainier Beach High to shut down the school once.
At that time, it was a white high school with a few black students, now everybody thinks of Rainier Beach as a black high school.

Collection Aaron Dixon. Photo by Mr. Gilbert. Seattle Times. 1968
The few black students were getting picked on and discriminated against on by the staff. That’s why we went down and invaded the school. I think Aaron talks about that a little bit in his book. We ended up going down there and chasing the Principal out, or he ran away from us when we marched into the office with our guns. Then, we had a little discussion out in the middle of Henderson Street with the Police. We had black brothers and sisters down near the park standing by with their guns. Aaron and Bobby and (either Bobby Harding or Bobby White), the three of us were talking to the police sergeant. That helped define the Black Panther Party and brought attention to the party so that got people interested in joining.

At the same time, in the neighborhood some people were interested in taking things to another level of radical politics, becoming more actively involved instead of just signing petitions or going on marches. Some people, some people took it upon themselves to do some pretty radical things in the Central District, and for better or worse, they would say they were representing these various organizations.

It’s hard to say who did what, but in reference to what your question about who was setting the fires and shootings and stuff, a lot of what was ascribed to being Black Panther Party activities… Well, for a while Seattle was known as the fire capital of North America. There were more fires set in Seattle than any place. There were a lot of shootings and a lot of fires set in the Central District. But who knows who was doing it?

Some people think that a lot of it was Black Panther activity, some people think that it was activity by other groups like the Black Nationalists or the Weathermen or others. The best I can tell you is that (at that time) there was a lot happening.

Collection: Aaron Dixon. Washington State Archives.
One of the people that I talked to was a former fireman, Jack Dunn, who used to play tennis with the Dixon kids, particularly with Aaron’s sister. So he was the only person in that firehouse (now a library on 33rd) who was from the neighborhood and knew the Dixons. It was his impression that there were kids who were calling themselves Black Panthers that had nothing to do with the Party. It was their chance to make trouble as teenagers do, but the Panthers tended to get blamed for some of that.

Yeah, once Bobby White and I went one time to Washington Junior High School, just to be a presence walking around the school. I remember seeing these kids in black leather, berets and calling themselves Panthers but they were doing stupid stuff like bullying people and stupid shit. There was a fair amount of that. Then, there were also those guys that Aaron referred to as ‘summertime Panthers’ who would show up our rallies and marches so they could be seen marching down Cherry Street with us. But if there weren’t going to be a lot of people to see them and take pictures, then they wouldn’t show up. They wanted to show off, but when it came to doing classes, political education classes up at the church on 33rd. When we used to have political education classes, there would be very few people who would show up.  
Was that Madrona Presbyterian?

We used to have political education classes there. It would be very rare for me to have more than two or three brothers or sisters come into the political education class there. So, that’s the interesting thing about it (all the people claiming to have been Panthers).

Madrona Presbyterian. Photo: Madeline Crowley

I’ve heard the reading was rigorous in the political education class.

We wanted it to be rigorous and we wanted to talk about topical things. I’ll be completely honest the political education classes I did, I could see it right away.
Now, see I was 24 years old.

So you were a little bit older.

A lot of these guys were between 18 - 22 a lot of them hadn’t been around much. They didn’t know about Franz Fanon or “The Wretched of the Earth”, they didn’t know about a lot of stuff. They knew about racism and segregation, about the Black Panther Party and police violence. 

Partial Page 1, BPP Book List
I remember early on bringing out a book and wanting to talk about it, but seeing that wasn’t going to work. It was not going to hold their interest; it was not going to be something they could relate to. That was really important, being able to relate what we were talking about it, tying it in with the community and what they’re going to do in the community and for the community.

Some of the political education classes I taught, didn’t follow that list of Black Panther books. It was instead talking about how the Black Panther Party works in the community. How what we do in the community is the important thing, and tying it together on into the large picture of racism and the history of racism in this country with violence against black people, about how black people have to fend off this aggression against them and be their own leaders. That’s what I taught in my classes. I’m not exactly sure what Bobby Harding and Bobby White did in theirs, but from I’ve talking to them over the years, I’m pretty sure they did about the same thing.

Photo: Eugene Tagawa. All rights reserved.
It was almost like an impossible task to talk to all these young people about W.E.B. Dubois, or Franz Fanon, or any theories. It was instead, let’s have a discussion about what we’re dealing with and what we can relate to. This is despite the long list of books from the Black Panther Party, at least up (that’s how it was) here in Seattle. Now, I think all over the country in all the Black Panther chapters, I’m pretty sure that a lot of it looked really impressive when you looked at the book list. Still, when it came down to having the political meetings and the political education classes, a lot of it had a lot to do with talking about the shit going on in the neighborhood and how it relates to history. It didn’t go into a lot of discussion of all these intellectual books by all these scholars. I can tell you that.

Maybe you and Aaron were also different in that you were readers.

We might have read a little more than these guys. It’s hard to hold somebody’s interest and attention when you’re talking about stuff that’s theoretical. When you talk about what’s going on in the neighborhood. When you talk about experiences they had and their mother, father, sister, and brother had, then you can get them interested and involved. We had to keep it relevant, something that they could relate to. If they couldn’t relate to it, after a while I wasn’t going to talk about it.

There was no point. It was just wasting time. I think the attendants of these Black Panther Party political education classes was a reflection of that, there were more people in the beginning, but once they saw what the classes were about, interest dropped off real quickly. There weren‘t a lot of people who showed up for the classes. 

Photo: Eugene Tagawa. All rights reserved. 

Now, I know Aaron was determined and sometimes afraid. He’s talked about it in his book (My People Are Rising) and in his interview. How about you? Did you feel you were you followed and did you feel physically afraid during that time?

No, I didn’t really feel that at all. I didn’t feel like I was being followed. I felt like there was a couple of times where we were being observed and followed by the Seattle Police, when we were out there putting up posters for rallies or selling papers. I never felt threatened or felt there was any danger. I guess I felt like there weren’t many other people that can mess with us because we might shoot back at them. What’re they going to do in front of witnesses and crowds? They knew we were armed to fight back. Cops that just want to practice their racism or to fuck with you aren’t going to with someone that has a gun that may be more powerful, a rifle or a shotgun that can outgun them. Remember, back in those days, generally we had firepower that was equal or better than the cops’.

Nowadays cops have these special units.They’ve got bulletproof vests and helmets, high-powered rifles; they’ve got everything under the sun. Back in those days beat cops carried a .38 Special they didn’t have all these special SWAT teams and all that. 

Then, the cops on the streets, we were equal with them as far as firearms. Once they found out that… let me put it this way, you’ve got people who are citizens of the black community, unarmed and not radical, and you’ve got other people over here with powerful guns and are radical. Now, which group are you gonna fuck with?

I think that’s why a lot of us were able to go around and be seen and visible in the party. Marching down Cherry Street without a permit, carrying guns and rifles, and they never messed with us. They would follow us, check us out, there’s a cop car here and there, but they ain’t saying, “Get off the street” or pushing us. They do that to people they can pick on.

Maybe that’s why it was so appealing to young people. They had seen prior Civil Rights marches with people from churches getting yelled at and spit on. Having seen all that, the Panthers were more attractive because you were being respected. You weren’t being spit on. 
Yeah, because for one thing all these marches and rallies and such were in the CD, so most of the people that were there were black people, and there was a palatable sense of pride and anger. You could just tell that even if they didn’t want to join the party or carry a gun like us, they could relate to it. They could maybe vicariously be a Panther. They knew what it was like to be fucked with by the police or the authorities, so when they saw us, it was like, Right On! We got a lot of support that way. People would come out on their porches on Cherry Street and clap; kids would run alongside of us.

BPP Breakfast Program. Collection: Aaron Dixon

It must have been a great feeling.

It was a great feeling with a lot of these things we did, yeah. The politics and the energy levels back in those days was just intense. You could just feel the adrenaline running for a lot of the things that we used to do.

One thing I asked Aaron was about how many Japanese families and businesses gave money to support the BPP breakfasts and the food drives. He said he’d always wondered why. Maybe it was internment. Do you think that might explain that?

I think some of the contributions we got from Japanese American was because some families could look at The Black Panther Party and think, Here’s a group of people that are standing up to the United States Government. The government that suppressed you because you were a minority, because you’re different. Here is the Black Panther Party saying, ‘You ain’t gonna fuck with us anymore.’

There were a lot of people who weren’t into radical politics at all but they certainly understood and identified with people who were standing up to the government. They were certainly happy to give and contribute to the party. Absolutely. A lot of Japanese, remember this was only 20 years after we had gotten out of the camps, were still pretty pissed off and pretty burned about what the government did to us because we were different. So they felt, “Well, here’s a bunch of people who instead of taking this bullshit, they’re standing up and talking back with guns. So here, have some bucks. We’re gonna support you, but we’re not gonna get out in the street with you.” They could identify with us.

The area then was still predominantly black. The Central Area, the CD, was known as the black area of town, the Colored, the Negro area. Whatever they wanted to call it in those days.

Yeah, in the 50s it was more mixed, in the 60s it was more black.

Yes, because a lot of the Jewish people had started moving out of the neighborhood because they were afraid of the black activism going on and stuff.  I think a lot of the Asians started moving out of the area too. But the CD has always been a black area. 

BPP Reunion. Mike Tagawa, far right 2nd row down. Collection: Mike Tagawa

[Mike was recommended for this project by Aaron Dixon, author & former Captain of the Black Panther Party]

The People of the Central Area & their stories is very grateful to Eugene Tagawa for his beautiful photos and Zachary Hitchcock for his tireless transcription of this interview.

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part by
4Culture's Heritage Projects program


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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The CentralAreaComm.blogspot.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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