'Comfort Women' Issue an Uncomfortable Political One
by Anthony Stasi
May 14, 2012 | 2646 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What happens in national politics also happens in local politics: issues are discovered below the surface.

The issue of history - as in World War II history - has surfaced in northeast Queens. Councilman Peter Koo is dedicating a street and, he hopes, a monument to Korean women who were used as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers, known collectively as “comfort women.”

People argue over history all the time. Some Japanese citizens are unhappy that Koo is recognizing an issue that they say Korean citizens and Korean Americans may have fabricated. Were these women voluntarily prostituting themselves or were they forced into this awful life? They claim that Koo is using the issue to curry favor with a largely Korean district that he barely won three years ago.

The proposal is still in the planning stages. Community leaders and Koo are talking about where they want the street named and what kind of monument, if any, will be sufficient. This would not be the first recognition of these women. There is a similar memorial in Palisades Park, New Jersey.

Why not have some recognition of these women in this community? In New York City, there is never going to be a better reason to rename a street, park, or build a monument than for an American war hero or local first responder to an emergency.

But after those important reasons, we do name streets for other people, and this could be a good healing effort. Is Koo using it to garner votes? If he was, he would have made it an issue last election, when he really needed it running as a Republican in a largely Democratic district.

(Koo has since switched parties, and will run as a Democrat for re-election.)

Local politics creates its own issues. I remember people telling me not to run a national election in a local race. Nobody cares about social security and the federal budget on the local level, they said. They were right. The district tells you what matters, and it told Koo about “comfort women.”

Even if the history here is a little blurry, prostitution is a sad situation that very few enthusiastically seek as a profession. This would give light to an invisible population of people. If this makes the plight of these women more visible, why not dedicate a street to them?

James McClelland, Koo’s chief of staff, explained that the councilman “listened to the community and Korean leaders indicated that this was something they had been thinking about.”

The city has this interesting way of dedicating streets, where the City Council votes on all proposals at once. Meaning they either approve the street namings in a lump sum, or they disapprove in a lump sum. They often try to vet these issues a little in advance, and that may be happening now.

Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill

Rhode Island’s State Senate has passed legislation that would establish a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which would, among other things, aim to prohibit potential employers from nixing the job applications of homeless people based solely on the fact that they might list a shelter as their address.

Rhode Island’s proposed bill has some good ideas in it, but it also has some language that can be improved upon.

Advocates in Rhode Island want the legislation to steer law enforcement from harassing the homeless, which can be a little subjective. There are laws on the books already to protect basic human rights, but police asking someone why they are in a particular place is a part of police work. Being arrested for no reason is an entirely different ball game.

This is a good time for all states to call on the federal government to adopt a change in how it defines affirmative action. Certain – slight – preferences can be made to people at the entry level that benefit those under the poverty level. Make poverty the barometer for a re-tooled affirmative action policy, and you will give homeless people who are seeking work a much bigger bill of rights that you can imagine.

Instead of their homelessness being a disqualification, it would actually get them a little break in the process. And you can do it without introducing a new law. Some African American scholars, such as Cornell West, support this idea.

The Rhode Island bill passed the State Senate by a large margin, which means the state is thinking about homelessness, and their Independent governor, Lincoln Chafee, is likely to sign it.

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