A Year After the Ferguson Uprising, Reflections on Mauna Kea

Part 3 of 4 in our series on 'Resistance at Mauna Kea'

To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

Laurel Mei-Singh, CUNY Graduate Center

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson uprising catalyzed by the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Missouri, people are gathering from the summit of Mauna Kea to the streets of Waikiki to oppose the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the top of Hawai‘i’s highest mountain. We are demanding the protection of land, resources, and sacred sites across the islands. In this struggle, we are declaring: Kū Kia‘i Mauna! (Stand Protectors of the Mountain!)

What do the Black Lives Matter and the Kū Kia‘i Mauna movements have in common?

From Hawai‘i to Ferguson to New York City, we are arriving at a tipping point. In this post-9/11 era of endless war, environmental destruction, financial crisis, and gentrification, everyday people are facing a new degree of insecurity and precarity. In response, people are rising to reclaim our land, our streets, and our lives. We are also witnessing a new round of policing and enclosure to contain these movements for justice.

On August 7, 2015, the Wai‘anae Coast community (a poor and working class predominantly Hawaiian and Pacific islander part of the island of O‘ahu) hosted a community event on Mauna Kea. An audience member, Pake Salmon, asked why $1.4 billion is going toward astronomy research when we are barely surviving on the planet on which we live. UH Law School professor Williamson Chang later pointed out that we are living in a time and place in which we are mired in debt, most of us can barely afford a place to live, and it takes three hours to drive 23 miles on the H-1 during rush-hour. Not to mention that military bases continue to occupy nearly a quarter of O‘ahu’s land. Hawai‘i is becoming increasingly unlivable, and, in response, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) are rising up to reclaim their lands and lives, a driving sentiment behind the Mauna Kea struggle.

People brought this movement to Waikiki streets on Sunday, August 9, when thousands dressed in red participated in the Aloha ‘Aina march. In addition to the protection of Mauna Kea, demands included the protection and promotion of sustainable agriculture, specifically crops that do not rely on toxic pesticides and genetic engineering. After the march, community leaders spoke out against the hypercapitalism advanced by the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the illegal overthrow of Hawai‘i’s queen in 1893, calling for Hawaiian independence. Some wore T-shirts memorializing Kollin Elderts, an unarmed 23-year-old Hawaiian man, shot and killed by Christopher Deedy, an off-duty federal agent, in a Waikiki McDonalds during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Honolulu in 2011. After he shot Elderts, Deedy claimed he was "protecting" the other people in the restaurant and was acquitted of his crime, despite the fact that witnesses say he was drunk. So far, five people in Hawai‘i have died at the hands of the police this year, including a man tasered to death on March 16, 2015, which the Honolulu medical examiner ruled a homicide.

Across the world, police are increasingly using militarized law-and-order tactics to maintain racial and economic hierarchies in the name of “public safety.” According to an arrestee at the August 7 Wai‘anae event, the number of arrests conducted by the State of Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) enforcement officers at Mauna Kea has reached 70. Hawai‘i Govenor David Ige signed new “rules” on July 10, blocking their access to the road at night and forbidding tent and other camping structures. The enforcers of these arrests and rules are the Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement (DOCARE) officers of the DLNR who have “full police powers [to enforce] all State laws and rules involving State lands, State Parks…as well as…county parks.” In Hawai‘i, DOCARE officers police conservation areas, and they are increasingly harassing subsistence practitioners in places like Ka‘ena, a fishing ground on the westernmost tip of O‘ahu.

Many people in Hawai‘i—from fishers to hunters to activists—have remarked recently that DOCARE’s policing has amplified in recent years (even though one officer cried as he made arrests on the mountain summit). Lori Halemano, one of the arrestees from Mauna Kea, confirmed this amping of policing when I spoke to her after the Wai‘anae event. When I asked her why, she replied: “people are rising up.” They’re learning about Hawai‘i’s history and the ongoing illegal occupation and joining the struggle for Hawaiian independence. As DLNR and DOCARE claim to “protect public lands” through the arrest and removal of protestors who are challenging the very meaning of this concept, we must acknowledge that a major function of policing is the containment of the real threat that a movement of people pose to an existing social order.

Shelley Muneoka of the KAHEA: Hawaiian-Environment Alliance stressed to the Wai‘anae audience that the Mauna Kea struggle is about who has the power and authority to decide how land is used. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movements in places like Ferguson, New York City, Charleston, Baltimore, Texas, and Oakland are fundamentally about who has power and authority over our streets, lives, and living space. As a diasporic woman of color from Hawai‘i who lived part-time on the islands over the last couple of years while making my primary home in Brooklyn, I see that both movements can learn from each other. For the movements against racist policing in United States urban centers, we must align ourselves with movements for indigenous self-determination, and the understanding that our relationships with land are fundamental to all of our survival. For the movements in Hawai‘i, we must acknowledge that we are fighting the same military and police machinery that working class people of color in the U.S. are up against, and we are not alone in our fights for justice and self-determination.

Laurel Mei-Singh is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center earning a certificate in American Studies. She was born and raised in Honolulu near the base of Leahi (Diamond Head) and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Laurel Mei-Singh is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center earning a certificate in American Studies. She was born and raised in Honolulu near the base of Leahi (Diamond Head) and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.