Memory is Solidarity: Ogawa-Grant Plaza as Opportunity

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

By Kenji Liu

“The unity of the 99% must be a complex unity.” --Angela Davis, speaking at Occupy Philly

Historical records tell us Mexico and Spain’s names for the Oakland area, but finding out what the Ohlone call it presents difficulty. Obviously, one community’s memory, imagination and aspiration has become dominant over others. The ability to name reflects a community’s power to leverage that memory into an official story.

In hundreds of cities there are streets and schools named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. César Chávez’ name is found in fewer places, and Malcolm X’s list is shorter still. There are also places renamed informally, such as DeFremery Park in West Oakland, which is often referred to as Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park.

It’s hard to find a public place named after an Asian American (much less Asian American women). When I first moved to Oakland years ago, I was amazed to find that the plaza in front of City Hall was named after a Japanese American man, Frank H. Ogawa. It made me feel like it was okay for me to be here, that I would be acknowledged as real.

Ogawa was the first Japanese American to serve on the Oakland City Council, which he did as a Republican for 28 years until his death in 1994. He was also imprisoned in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, during World War II for three and a half years solely on the basis of race. Along with about 120,000 Japanese Americans, other notables interned at Topaz include Black Panther Richard Aoki, civil rights icon Fred Korematsu, and artist Mine Okubo.

When the Occupy Oakland encampment changed Frank H. Ogawa Plaza to Oscar Grant Plaza, I initially didn’t think too much of it. I was more concerned about the term “occupy,” which for me has always had a very strong colonialist and imperialist connotation. (In New Mexico, protestors have renamed their movement (Un)Occupy Albuquerque to connect their fight against corporate greed to the fact that American Indian land has been occupied for centuries). I felt the plaza’s renaming reflected a bridging of the movement to a prominent local issue: police brutality.

But I gradually became aware that many people, not just Asian Americans, felt unsettled about the renaming of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. It was not hard to see the irony of an “occupy” movement displacing a man of color with another man of color, both targets of different kinds of state violence.

The idea for these images was sparked from a thread on Oakland artist Melanie Cervantes’ Facebook wall, where there was an exchange on this issue. It was Melanie who thought of creating some kind of poster addressing the issue, so I want to acknowledge her and her long track record of creating powerful visuals for social justice movements (please see and support Melanie’s work at It was the work of Melanie and other local artists who supported the Justice for Oscar Grant campaign–as well as the accompanying “I am Oscar Grant” meme–that largely inspired the posters I created.

I started with the poster featuring Frank H. Ogawa against the background of the Topaz War Relocation Center. Then, based on a brilliant suggestion from Jen-Mei Wu (the development process was supported with feedback from many people), I created the reversed poster with Oscar Grant stating “I am Frank Ogawa.” The latter has become the more popular of the two.

The goal is not to flatten and imply the two men’s situations are equivalent. Ogawa and Grant are from different communities and times. However, we can reflect on how a country founded in institutional and structural racism has directly impacted both. This binds the two figures together.

These posters draw arrows between one case of state-sanctioned injustice and another, and try to raise questions about the move to rename the plaza. What do we choose to remember, what do we forget in the process, and why? What are the forces that institutionalize our selective memories?

This isn’t unrelated to the anti-capitalism of Occupy Wall Street. The ability to name a place informs what future generations know about it. If few know, for example, that Wall Street was once a real wall dividing the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam from the indigenous Lenape, or that African slaves were once sold nearby, then what connection can anyone make between exploitation of the Americas with exploitation of Americans?

We can have a more complex and nuanced movement for economic and racial justice by honoring both Ogawa and Grant, not as equivalents but in solidarity. This is not just about inclusion, but about having a complex analysis from which to act together. As Audre Lorde has written, “difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark.” We can recognize the different ways capitalism has attacked each of our communities. We can bring this imagination to our aspirations for our places, our movements and our society.

Kenji Liu is a designer, educator, poet and cultural worker. His essays, poetry and art have been published in numerous places. He lives in Oakland.  He is currently raising money to get these images printed, both as 11” x 17” posters and as double-sided 4” x 6” postcards. These will be distributed for free at (Un)Occupy Oakland. To donate, go to - any amount will help! 


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and necessary post - I was really irked by the renaming as well when I first heard it and all I turned up was an old Youtube tour of downtown Oakland.