“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have witnessed a revolution spread from the United States to the rest of the world. Millions of voices are speaking out against police brutality and in support of racial justice. These demonstrations send a clear message that we can no longer adapt ourselves to a world where racism and injustice prevail. We must be unreasonable in our quest for equality for all. Revolution is scary, but the alternative has been deadly for far too many.
We don’t have to look far in San Pedro history to find unreasonable people. Everyone affiliated with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) owes their livelihood to some of the most unreasonable people to ever swing a cargo hook. Do you think the shipping companies cared about fair wages and safety measures? No. Eager workers were plentiful and easily replaced if injured.
In May of 1934, dockworkers successfully shut down most of the west coast ports in what would become a maritime strike that included truckers, teamsters, and pilots. On the workers’ list of demands were a $1 wage increase, a six-hour workday and thirty-hour work week, union representation, and to replace the unfair hiring practices with a union hiring hall. The striking workers were called vultures, combatants, and labeled communists. When the shippers used the police and strikebreakers to force the ports open, violence ensued. On May 14, the first death of the strike happened in San Pedro when Dick Parker, a member of the International Longshore Association (ILA) for less than 24 hours, was shot in the heart by a guard. On Thursday, July 5, in San Francisco, strikers faced off in a deadly battle with strikebreakers and police armed with clubs, tear gas, and live ammunition. When the smoke cleared, Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise were dead, and 67 strikers were injured. Bloody Thursday has remained a sacred day of remembrance for the ILWU ever since.
Harry Bridges was one of the leaders who emerged from the 1934 waterfront strike. He became the president of the San Francisco ILA in 1935 and transitioned his membership into the ILWU in 1937. Harry Bridges was a visionary, the epitome of unreasonable. He was also considered militant, radical, and controversial. Big movements forward require the leadership of those with big ideas and the bravery to employ extreme acts to achieve them.
The recent protests have kept another big personality on my mind, someone who, like Bridges, was militant, radical, and controversial. Yuri Kochiyama was a human rights activist and revolutionary who fought for social justice. She took part in some extremely radical stuff, including joining the Revolutionary Action Movement, a Black nationalist group that inspired the Black Panthers. She also took part in the occupation of the Statue of Liberty in 1977 to call for the release of a group of Puerto Rican political prisoners. Kochiyama was also a member of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity and was seated on the stage behind him when he was assassinated. A picture of her holding his head as he lay dying appeared in Time magazine. Later in life, Kochiyama was part of the group who won reparations for all the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated by the government in concentration camps during World War II.
Yuri Kochiyama was also born and raised in San Pedro. Her “Pedro” name was Mary Nakahara, and she was extremely involved and popular. She taught Sunday school, was assistant editor of the Fore ’N’ Aft at San Pedro High School, and even served as student body historian. In 1942, the Nakahara family lived at the concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas. While in the south, Mary managed the Japanese USO in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she met her husband, Bill Kochiyama.
The descriptions of Yuri and Mary seem to be at odds with each other. Mary was reasonable, so much so that she called her life in San Pedro, “red, white and blue.” Yuri was unreasonable and unrelenting in her decades-long career as an activist. Mary was an adolescent during the waterfront strike of 1934. She was here to see the ILWU declare that an injury to one is an injury to all. Yuri emerged, at the age of 40, when the Kochiyamas moved to a housing project in Harlem, NY. She educated herself on the discrimination experienced by her African American and Puerto Rican neighbors. Her experience in the American concentration camps was the foundation of this activism. She envisioned a world where people build bridges instead of prison walls, and she was immovable in her pursuit until her dying day.
I tell these stories to force parallels between what we are witnessing today and the battles that seem obvious to us now because they happened long ago, and we have benefitted from them. I was heartened to see photos of longshoremen with a banner that read, “Black Lives Matter,” because I genuinely take their slogan to heart: an injury to one is an injury to all. When you hear people being called thugs on television for fighting for equality, keep in mind the names that longshoremen were called. When you think that some of the ideas that you’re hearing go too far, remember that the things we take for granted now, like union representation and fair hiring practices, were once considered radical enough to kill someone over. And when you think you’re too old or can’t make a difference, know that one of the most respected activists and allies was the girl next door who, at 40, educated herself and became a force to be reckoned with.
Revolutions are uncomfortable; be unreasonable. spt
San Pedro Heritage Museum’s Heritage at Home events for July:
July 1 – Virtual Landmarks Tour
July 8 – All About Vista Del Oro
July 22 – SNL Stars in SP
July 29 – San Pedro School Days
For more information about these events, please visit sanpedroheritage.org.