Occupying Hawaii: Paradise Lost and Found

Source: Truthout

Ever since the Garden of Eden headlined the Torah, savvy marketers have realized that we all deeply desire a slice of paradise. Utopia is woven into America’s national fabric starting with the Puritan ideal of a “city upon a hill” and progressing through the centuries to Shakers, Mormons, Manifest Destiny, socialists and suburbia. These days, paradise is all around us from potato chips seasoned with “harmonic convergence” to bath soaps that “take me away” to Steve Jobs’ “quest for perfection.”

Utopia has always been half the equation, however, the balance being the extermination of indigenous people, who already inhabited the land, and denial of entry for all manner of people from blacks and women to immigrants and the poor.

This dichotomy is evident in Hawaii where competing visions of paradise blend with dystopian realities. Now, Hawaii would soften even a cynic’s heart. I’ve been visiting Kauai, the “Garden Island,” for 20 years and remain intoxicated by the undulating emerald mountains of the Na Pali Coast, the warm, aquamarine waters of Hanalei Bay and the “Aloha spirit” of its people.

The natural splendor of Hawaii draws about seven million tourists a year as well as thousands of transplants, many wealthy, who relocate to the Pacific island chain for the relentlessly balmy weather. At the same time, the tropical Shangri-La barely conceals teeming tent cities, droves of poverty-wage workers and the legacy of the conquest of native Hawaiians.

Hawaii would thus seem both the unlikeliest and most appropriate location for the Occupy movement to appear and Occupy groups have popped up on all the major islands. Like other occupations, Hawaii’s occupiers say they are opposed to the concentration of power and wealth that have stripped the 99 percent of a meaningful voice in how society is run. But the occupiers are also trapped in the same boat with tourists, natives and transplants, navigating among clashing visions of a new society. They are grappling with how the Occupy movement is a utopian project, in vision and practice, in a place that is at once a tourist paradise for millions and a paradise lost for many natives and long-term residents.

After the Fall

If paradise offers up an enticing vision of a perfect world prior to a fall from grace, some in Hawaii think a new fall will return them to the lost ideal.

Members of Occupy Kapaa on Kauai, Toni Liljengren, 54, and Andy Fitts, 57, are transplants to the northernmost island they now call home. Toni, a lomi lomi massage therapist, relocated over 20 years ago, while Andy, director of a local Tibetan peace park and a real estate developer, and his wife are more recent arrivals. Speaking over lunch in a sun-washed café, both warned of an imminent global “systems shift.”

Andy said a speculative and debt-driven monetary regime has accumulated excessive wealth and power in the top 1 percent. “The amount of debt that has been created is unsustainable. They can try to create these austerities, but the people aren’t going to take it.” He believes complete financial breakdown may happen in weeks and will cause “chaos, supply interruptions and a real interim period of difficulty until things stabilize.”

One would think that in Hawaii – which imports more than 85 percent of its food and ships in every drop of oil that accounts for 85 percent of all energy used – imminent collapse would invoke terrifying visions of the last days of humanity akin to “On the Beach” or “The Road.” But not for Toni: “I feel really safe on Kauai. There’s fish. There’s fruit. This is a very sustainable place. It’s probably one of the best places to be at the time of the collapse.”

Toni is confident she can survive a crisis because she already barters for food, shelter and chelation therapy. While Andy is more wary, he concludes that a systems shift will “bring out the best in everyone because all the intelligence will be called upon. It will be survival time. Everyone will be scrambling for a new paradigm. But it will be a wonderful time because people will actually stop sleepwalking.”

Echoing other occupations, occupiers on Kauai propose a back-to-basics lifestyle – a return to the untroubled paradise of the past. “Sustainability is our main platform,” says Toni.

“People have become too dependent on shipments, on pop-tarts and food that we weren’t going to be making here in the first place,” says Brian Herrick, 34, an Occupy Movement Kauai member. “If we become more self-sustainable, we won’t be giving our money to corporations.” The movement thus supports local organic farming and renewable energy, which has grown rapidly in recent years, but accounts for less than .3 percent of electricity generation.

Whether Hawaii can sustain itself today is questionable. Centuries before Captain James Cook “discovered” Hawaii in 1778, up to 200,000 people thrived on seafood, native plants and the staple porridge called poi, made from the taro plant introduced by the Polynesians. Brian praises taro as a nutritional powerhouse that islanders should be eating. But to feed the 1.4 million people who call Hawaii home today would mean boosting taro production 100-fold from current levels, using tens of thousands of acres of farmland for one crop. Currently, the biggest cash crop is pesticide-dependent, genetically modified seeds for export. Sustainable food and energy systems will take decades to construct; meanwhile, Hawaii has a seven-day supply of food.

While they share a deep concern for a global system in crisis and its effects on ordinary people, Toni and Andy see Kauai as a safe harbor. Occupy Movement Kauai, which drew about 120 people to its first protest on October 15, and Occupy Kapaa, an offshoot Occupy group, do not yet have encampments. Andy says that’s because there is no need to confront a public that already supports them. “We’re our own little world. We’re all brothers and sisters here, so we’re not really in opposition to each other. We’re all in love with this place and we all share the good fortune of being here. Most of the haole [white people] are alternative types with like minds … so we have a totally different scene here.”

Trouble in Paradise

At this point, Occupy Movement Kauai sees its primary role as educational. At a recent general assembly meeting on the steps of the Kauai Historic Country Building, Cathy Easter, 57, a social worker and activist, said the group is planning an educational encampment on the large front lawn of the building beginning in 2012 and continuing through the fall elections. Jeff Fishman, 53, a multimedia producer who works on big-budget film shoots on Kauai, envisions tents representing, among other causes, the genetically modified organism-free Kauai movement and Power to the People, an organization devoted to regaining control over the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.

Their encampment won’t be the first on the island, however. For long before the camps of the Occupy Movement modeled an idealized future society, tents have housed the forgotten human detritus of present-day Hawaii.

Hawaii lives and dies by tourism, which accounts for 15 percent of the economy and has driven homes prices to almost triple the national average. Yet, when tourism drops, as it did in 2008 when the economy shriveled, jobs vanish from construction to retail. In the leisure sector, low-paid, part-time work is the norm, forcing islanders to take on several jobs to make ends meet. And those jobs are often grueling. Sam Tanigawa, 20, a community organizer and college student active with Occupy Honolulu, claimed cleaning staff at one of the major resorts have a quota of 16 rooms a day and have to work at a breakneck pace to meet exacting standards.

Add in the high price of consumer goods, gasoline that is over $4 a gallon and the result is a homeless population of more than 6,000, the second-highest ratio in the nation after Nevada. Tent cities have sprung up on Oahu, some as large as 50 acres. To address the issue, Gov. Neil Abercrombie introduced a 90-day plan on May 17, 2011, to place homeless in “safe zones” off the streets, but critics called it a cynical attempt to make Honolulu “safe” for visiting diplomats before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last November. While hundreds have been housed in recent sweeps at least temporarily, many more are marooned on the streets, buffeted by harsh economic conditions and unable to grasp one of the few social service lifelines.

Occupy Honolulu’s encampment started on November 5 with eight arrests. On a bright Saturday in December, a dozen tents hugged the sidewalk at the edge of Thomas Square Park, which has a 10 PM curfew. Some occupiers were a mile away, engaging in a flash meditation mob at the Ala Moana mall, bursting with holiday shoppers and ringed by densely packed traffic.

A few occupiers held down the fort, each armed with their own causes. Michael Tada, 44, spoke about discrimination against the disabled such as himself. Scott Winfrey, 28, a shaggy, bespectacled transplant and self-described ascetic, focused on income inequality and war. Stephanie, a middle-aged “iPhone artist” and anarchist, said she was homeless. “I have never been homeless on the mainland, it’s the third time here. The food is expensive, the rent is expensive, the space is limited, so you see the effects even more.”

According to Sam, there are probably hundreds of active supporters of Occupy Honolulu, but only a few camp out. According to posts on their web site, threats of violence by disruptive individuals are driving some away, while others are burning out. And the recent passage of Bill 54, which the ACLU describes as “facially unconstitutional,” authorizes the removal of private property on public lands, opening the door to the eviction of the Occupy camp as well as homeless everywhere. “Homelessness is just being criminalized here,” Sam fumed. “What are people going to do, if you keep making laws restricting their ways of life until they have nothing?”

Hawaii: Occupied Since 1893

There is another group that has suffered restrictions on their way of life. For there was – and is – another occupation prior to the Occupy movement.

“Hawaii’s been occupied all along,” said Kekane Pa, 48, speaker of the House of the reinstated Hawaiian government and a construction worker, father and grandfather. Sitting down to talk at an outdoor table neatly covered with government documents (birth certificates, citizenship applications, posters encouraging voting), he launched into the story of Hawaiian occupation, pausing only when a tropical shower pelted the tarp above our heads like a burst of applause.

In 1893, the US minister assigned to Hawaii and non-native residents overthrew the Kingdom, an independent nation recognized by 27 other countries at the time, including the United States. A provisional government of plantation owners, missionaries and financiers eventually ceded the territory to the United States without the consent of the native Hawaiians.

One hundred years later, President Bill Clinton signed the “Apology Bill” on November 23, 1993, which acknowledged the history of the overthrow. The bill renewed the push for the return of native lands, which is often referred to as Hawaiian “sovereignty.” The reinstated Hawaiian government sees no need to ask for sovereignty or secession, however, because they claim the land is already legally theirs, so the onus is on the United States to prove ownership with their elected government in place and new citizens repatriated and naturalized, Kekane says the reinstated Hawaiian government plans to reoccupy lands for which the Hawaiians still have title. “We’re just using their own laws against them,” he said.

Kekane claims 15,000 people support their cause, but other proposals and campaigns exist. Most prominent is the native Hawaiian Reorganization Act promoted by Sen. Daniel Akaka. The “Akaka Bill” offers native Hawaiians federal recognition on par with Native American tribes, allowing them to form a government and provide for the health, safety and welfare of their citizens. But Kekane and other activists claim the bill would foreclose the opportunity to lay claim to their lands.

What Is Occupation?

When asked about Hawaiian “sovereignty,” Lonnie Sykos, 57, a sharp-featured ex-merchant marine and a member of Occupy Movement Kauai, blurted out, “I am an American and I don’t bow down to any king. Period.” He views secession as treason. Andy echoes this position, saying a return to Hawaiian monarchy doesn’t seem like a solution because it is “an even older paradigm than the one that’s falling apart now.”

Nonetheless, they sympathize with the plight of the Hawaiians and acknowledge their loss of land, power, culture and well-being. While he does not support independence per se, Lonnie does support the Hawaiians’ right to work for independence “as long as it’s constitutional.” Andy says Occupy and the Hawaiians are both fighting inequities in society, so there is “a way to work together.” Scott in Honolulu sees a dialogue between Occupy and sovereignty as the “main issue.” Toni believes when the current world government falls apart, the Hawaiians will “have their land back anyway,” which she fully supports.

Kekane is used to hearing reasons for opposing a return to the native Hawaiian government and he patiently provides answers. “If they had been coming to our meetings for the last 15 years, they would know what we stand for.” He says the reinstated government has no intention of returning to a past system or way of life. The new government is a constitutional monarchy without king or queen; citizenship will not be based on race; all are welcome to join the nation; property will not be seized, but owners will have to pay taxes to the new government, not the US. And even though the overthrow happened over 100 years ago, it must still be addressed.

“Today, Hawaii is a political question,” said Kekane, “but the question does not want to be addressed by the thief.”

Some Hawaiians who attended early Occupy Movement Kauai general assemblies balked at the term “occupy” in an occupied land. “It is an unfortunate choice of word,” said Brian, “but we wanted to stand in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and also to be found.” So they inserted “Movement” between Occupy and Kauai.

Others have also made the linguistic distinction. Occupy Honolulu calls itself (De)occupy Honolulu in recognition of the current occupation in Hawaii. On the US mainland, (Un)occupy Albuquerque, in a region with a large Native American population, states that a “movement to end economic injustice must have at its core an honest struggle to end racism, colonization and all forms of oppression.” Likewise, Occupy Seattle has a Declaration of Decolonize/Occupy Seattle that declares, “we are invaders and squatters upon stolen indigenous land that has already been occupied for centuries.” Despite the negative connotations of “occupy,” the Occupy movement is trying to reclaim the term, just as it is trying to reclaim democratic control over the economy and political system.

Kekane understands the distinction and supports the Occupy movement, but he takes it further. “You’re talking about occupying the management of your assets … But in Hawaii, if you’re going to de-occupy, you’re not just talking about assets, you’re talking about nationality and allegiance.”

“The issue here is how to get control over our own destiny,” said Lonnie. “We have literally a billion-dollar financial, tourism and real estate industry. Taxes are inefficiently collected and used and they could easily support world-class schools, elder care and first-world wages.”

Both are talking about a more just society and democratic control. The question is under what form. Many occupiers are calling for redressing economic injustices within the existing political order. For native Hawaiians like Kekane, who says Hawaiian “hotel revenues, business revenues and tourist revenues belong to the Hawaiian government not the US,” the political form takes priority over the economic.

As another rain shower cleared and we concluded our interview, Kekane pored over his documents and I was struck by deja vu: After visiting 30 occupations, it seemed to me that he was just “playing” government the way that occupiers are “playing” society on street corners across the country. What hope do encampments, with their kitchens, libraries, child care centers, medical tents and radical participatory democracy, have of becoming the larger society in which we all actually live? What hope does the reinstated Hawaiian government with its officers, citizens and legal forms have against the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth? But any social change comes from a vision and practice, of a more perfect world, no matter how impossible it may seem. Any social change comes from daring to reach out for paradise.

Arun Gupta contributed to this report.

Michelle Fawcett Ph.D., is adjunct professor in the Media, Culture and Communications Department at New York University. She is currently traveling across the US covering the Occupy movement.

Photo: Kauai, the “Garden Island.” (Photo: yark64)