Mike Tagawa was walking down a Capitol Hill street when he saw a group of Black men marching in formation, dressed in powder-blue shirts, black berets and machine guns.
Among the seemingly spontaneous militia were two of Tagawa’s high school friends, Bobby White and Bobby Harding, who called out and encouraged him to join this new organization making waves on the West Coast.
“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but Bobby, I ain’t Black,” Tagawa remembered saying.
His friend countered: “Maybe you haven’t figured it out yet, but you ain’t White either, in this country.”
Tagawa, 73, reflects on this 1968 encounter as his introduction to the Black Panther Party.
Through the windows of his Beacon Hill home, Tagawa can see many of the scenes that define life in Seattle: the arch of the city’s skyline, ships passing through Puget Sound and the dominant presence of Mount Rainier. Inside his home, he can see the city’s memories through photographs and documents.
The Minidoka War Relocation Center served as Tagawa’s birthplace Feb. 19, 1944, exactly two years after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the executive order that incarcerated Tagawa’s Japanese-American parents in the Idaho facility with their first four children.
After being released in September of 1945, the Tagawa family returned to the Seattle area, moving into a housing project in the Renton highlands. Seven years later, Tagawa’s father died after a cocaine treatment for tuberculosis resulted in an overdose.
On Tagawa’s desk sits a copy of the sanitarium letter that brought his mother news of her husband’s death. She was suddenly left alone with five children and aging parents to take care of.
“She was always at home because daddy was working, and she had to now take over for seven people,” Tagawa said. “She had no skills at all, no experience in the work field really to speak of.”
The Tagawa family soon moved to the Rainier Housing Project in Seattle’s Central District, and by the age of 10, Tagawa was spending his summers working for Japanese farmers in the Kent Valley. The rest of the year was spent attending Seattle schools and working a newspaper route for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Tagawa described the Central District in the 1950s and ’60s as “nirvana.” Despite countless intersections between members of different economic and racial backgrounds, Tagawa said there was a sense of solidarity and understanding that he would not find anywhere else.
“Growing up in the CD, it was like everybody got along,” Tagawa said. “Red, yellow, Black, White, polka-dotted; everything that you can think of was living in the CD.”
Tagawa met a diverse cast of friends at Garfield High School, including James Marshall Hendrix, who Tagawa would later be surprised to find fronting his own band under the name “Jimi.” Garfield would also play host to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s only high school visit in Washington state.
After graduation Tagawa joined the Air Force, spending the early 1960s traveling through Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. The peaceful cohabitation of Seattle’s Central District left Tagawa unprepared for the racial tensions he witnessed in the Deep South.
Tagawa’s exploration of social issues would increase after landing at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. Recurring visits to the Bay Area introduced the Seattle native to new cultures and ways of thinking.
“There was some pretty crazy, magical stuff going on there at the time,” Tagawa said. “That’s basically where I got politicized, where I started getting a little bit more thoughtful about what’s going on in the country, in the world.”
It was in Berkeley, California, that Tagawa discovered the blues, as well as some of its most prominent Black performers from the South. Tagawa emphasized the importance of that music and the racial implications that came with it.
The Bay Area was also where Tagawa discovered social activism, and by the time he returned to Seattle in 1966, Tagawa was firmly dedicated to supporting civil rights and anti-war movements while attending Seattle Central Community College (SCCC). It was two years after returning that Tagawa would join the Black Panthers.
The Black Panther Party’s Seattle Chapter was founded in 1968 by members of the University of Washington’s Black Student Union (BSU), including brothers Aaron and Elmer Dixon, who were only 19 and 18 years of age, respectively.
Tagawa could name only two other Japanese-American members of the Black Panther Party: early member Richard Aoki, friend of cofounder Huey Newton, and Guy Kurose, son of Seattle teacher and activist Aki Kurose.
The flashy displays of bravado and intimidation were means to a more peaceful end, Tagawa said. The real goal of the party was to serve marginalized populations.
“It was necessary to let people know that there was a new game in town,” Tagawa said. “It wouldn’t have worked at all if we put up little fliers on telephone poles.”
The former Panther insisted that the party was not promoting violence as much as encouraging oppressed civilians to stand up against the governmental forces pushing down upon them. Tagawa said the mindset was that if police would come after minorities with guns, the Panthers would come after the police with guns.
Tagawa remembered riding in cars full of Black Panthers and assault rifles, tailing Seattle officers on patrol. Tagawa said the paranoia would often keep the police from resorting to brutality.
But as quickly as the Black Panther Party’s Seattle branch gained steam, it fell to shambles. Paralleling the party’s collapse on a national level, the Seattle branch within two years lost most of its members. Although it would formally exist until 1974, the Seattle Black Panther Party by the start of the 1970s was essentially a nonentity, he said.
“The party really started getting fragmented around 1969 because we all started getting wise to the fact that the cops and COINTELPRO [the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program], the FBI, were infiltrating the party,” Tagawa said. “Brothers and sisters all over the country were getting shot and killed and incarcerated.”
After his departure from the Panthers, Tagawa helped found SCCC’s Oriental Student Union with Alan Sugiyama and immediately gained attention with a 1971 sit-in that protested the administration’s reluctance to add five Asian employees to its staff.
The 1970s also saw the beginning of Tagawa’s support for Seattle’s Freedom Socialist Party, a self-proclaimed “revolutionary feminist” collective that is still around today. Tagawa cited radical feminism as a cause he has supported since his time in the Bay Area.
Things settled down in 1980, when Tagawa secured a job driving buses for King County Metro, a position he held until the end of 2016. Tagawa said the steady work kept him from the roles of leadership he had previously played in social activism.
“I didn’t get too much involved with much of anything for all those intervening years,” he said. “I would always support groups and movements that I thought were important, but I was holding a full-time job down.”
Tagawa’s house feels like a museum of sorts, with books, maps and photos telling stories from Seattle and beyond. From maps of the Minidoka facility to Garfield yearbooks depicting a teenaged Tagawa and Hendrix, the home is full of memories.
In one box, Tagawa revealed remnants of the counterculture era: a black beret and leather jacket, each adorned with a Black Panther Party pin. After a half-century, hardly a wrinkle is noticeable.
A look into Tagawa’s basement reveals that his love of the blues has survived all of the decades spent away from Berkeley. Tagawa’s driving job coincided with a warranty technician position at Martin Guitars, where Tagawa described himself as the longest-serving repairman on staff.
Tagawa’s work with Martin began in 1978, and the Pennsylvania-based luthiers have been sending instruments his way ever since. Dozens of guitars, mandolins and other stringed instruments await new life in Tagawa’s workshop, and the work keeps his retired life busy.
Although his tenure in the Black Panther Party was short, the bonds of brotherhood Tagawa shared with members of the Seattle branch have remained strong. Tagawa has attended numerous reunions in the party’s Oakland birthplace, including a 50-year celebration last fall.
Members that once shared vehicles chasing down corrupt police officers now share conference calls as Tagawa routinely talks to the Dixon brothers in preparation for the Seattle branch’s own 50th anniversary in 2018.
A celebratory event will commemorate the chapter’s founding and instruct contemporary activists using lessons gained during the Black Panther Party’s tumultuous existence.
“We’re trying to get people used to the idea that they can make a change, and they really need to think about making a change these days,” Tagawa said. “Hopefully this will be just one way of getting more people involved.”
Apart from celebration planning, Tagawa has occupied his time in retirement with a different type of community engagement: ukulele classes at Keiro, an assisted-living center for older Japanese-American adults.
“This is pretty peaceful, I don’t think I’ll need to carry my .38 to any of the ukulele practices,” Tagawa said with a laugh. “I don’t think any of these little old ladies are going to be too revolutionary.”
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