Occupy History: Occupying (De)Occupy Honolulu, the Overthrow, and the illegal occupation of Hawaiʻi

Doug Matsuoka

It struck me as a no brainer when the suggestion came up that Occupy Honolulu should support Sovereign Sunday events commemorating the overthrow of Hawaiʻi and the beginning of the illegal military occupation of Hawaiʻi by the US. The Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) community has gathered at Iolani Palace on the Sunday nearest the January 17 anniversary for years, and it’s right down the street from the Thomas Square encampment of Occupy Honolulu.

That the greed of the financial elite knows no bounds when it comes to the exploitation of people and places is a theme that has been emblazoned across the globe by the Occupy Movement. And it was as true here in Hawaiʻi a century ago as it is on Wall Street today.

But then, not everyone is familiar with that day in 1893, when a group of rich, foreign “businessmen” with the help of a contingent of U.S. Marines began the illegal military occupation of Hawaiʻi. I don’t know if they teach it in school nowdays but they certainly didn’t when I was going to school so many years ago. When I try relating it to friends from the continent (I’m not calling it the “mainland”), the story is so bizarre they think it’s a weird science fiction fantasy or some kind of chemically induced delusion.

I also suspect many people here in Hawaiʻi may not be familiar with the history of the Occupy Wall Street movement or understand what the deal is with the “Occupy”-word, especially since the term has such a bad connotation here in Hawaiʻi.

So I decided to jot a brief history of both here. I don’t expect this to be the definitive or final word on the subjects so please chime in with corrections and additions. And questions too.

From Wall Street to Ward Ave

Aside from hurling the nation’s economy off a cliff and kicking a lot of people in the ass, the Crash of 2008 exposed some pretty disgusting things about the government. Like who owned it. The Wall Street investment banks that had made so much loot during the bubble were bailed out with tax payer money to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Those involved in enriching themselves at the expense of others were never prosecuted, even after the election of Barack Obama who promised transparency and accountability. To put it mildly, this pissed a lot of people off.

Photo from Occupy Wall Streetʻs “2011, Year in Revolt”

Occupy Wall Street began on September 17, 2011, with the occupation of Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park). I first heard about it in various tweets and mentions in the internet info-stream. I remember wishing them luck but since I didn’t see or hear anything about it in “The News” I thought it must have been over. Not at all. The really weird thing was while the group was encamped and engaged in rallies and marches in the middle of the financial district in the financial capitol of America, the mainstream media had seen fit to ignore it. But news started spreading even without mainstream media coverage.

In the words of the Occupy Wall Street website, “The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to fight back against the richest 1% of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”

The references to Egypt and Tunisia are to a couple of the major players in what is now called the “Arab Spring,” the series of mass demonstrations, protests, and encampments that erupted in the Middle East in early 2011 that resulted in sweeping changes in government and the surprising ouster of seemingly well established despots. Those actions were an inspiration to many around the world.

So what is Occupy Wall Street protesting? As the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” puts it,

“We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”

They follow with a long list of specifics and urge others to join in creating encampments and making these facts well known. They point out that the top 1% wealthiest people possess 40% - 50% of the wealth and control government and completely corrupt the democratic process.

From the October 15, 2011, march through Waikiki in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street

On October 15, demonstrators staged rallies in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street in 900 cities around the world including Honolulu, where a large group marched through Waikiki on a beautiful and sunny day from Magic Island Park to Kapiolani Park where all gathered round the Ghandi statue. By that date, many cities had their own encampments, usually using the word “Occupy” followed by the name of the city. I followed the #Occupy hashtags on Twitter and was amazed and encouraged by the widespread support of the movement. The Occupy movement started doing some pretty mind boggling things. Occupy Oakland called for a general strike and thousands of people came together to close down the Port of Oakland on November 3. A national action on December 12 was even more widespread.

It was only a matter of time before a Honolulu branch formed. After a variety of protest actions, the Honolulu encampment began on November 5, 2011, at the historic Thomas Square near downtown Honolulu. After the park “closing time” of 10 pm, Honolulu Police confronted Occupy Honolulu but the protesters invoked the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and the Kānāwai Māmalahoe, the Law of the Splintered Paddle (which is incorporated into the Hawaiʻi Constitution), and held their ground. Eight protesters were arrested that night and an encampment continued on the wide sidewalk area the police identified as being outside the boundaries of the park.

Early on, even before the group began an actual encampment, the use of the word “Occupy” came up. In solidarity with Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) groups who maintain that Hawaiʻi is subject to a continuing illegal occupation by the US military, the group changed its name to “DeOccupy Honolulu” which would be indicated in writing (as in their website address, DeOccupyHonolulu.org) or with “Occupy” crossed out. The website declares Occupy Honolulu to be, “From the occupied ʻāina of Hawai’i in solidarity with the people of occupied lands worldwide, with Occupy Wall St. and the international Occupy movement.” The representational conventions are inconsistently applied, and the encampment and movement both continue to be referred to as “Occupy Honolulu.”

No aloha for APEC, from Occupy Honolulu

Beginning November 7, 2011, Occupy Honolulu participated in the week of protests surrounding the international meeting of APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), that international group of One-Percenters that gathers every year to make plans on how to best exploit the region’s people and resources.

Laulani Tealeʻs Puʻuhonua (place of refuge) protesting the treatment of the houseless and indigenous people during the APEC invasion of Honolulu. Shown here at 5am after members from the Moana Nui conference and Occupy Honolulu helped carry the structure on a 5 hour circumnavigation of Kapiolani Park. (Click here for a Flickr set narrative of the Kānāwai Māmalahoe protest encampment.)

When Laulani Teale’s small Kānāwai Māmalahoe protest encampment in Waikiki came under constant Police threat, Occupy Honolulu lent support every night at the “park closing time.” On the last night of the encampment, Honolulu Police arbitrarily decided that the entire area including the sidewalk and roads all the way to the ocean was within the “park.” Threatened with arrest, the encampment with the help of Occupy Honolulu and members of the Moana Nui conference picked up the Puuhonua and walked it around Kapiolani Park for five hours. When the “park” reopened at 5am, the structure was returned to its original location.

The Honolulu Police Department’s magical ability to change park boundaries at their convenience has served them well in the quest to harass people using parks and sidewalks as public forums. On December 29, Honolulu Police put blots of paint on the sidewalk indicating what they claimed was the new boundary of Thomas Square. These blots of paint encompassed the sidewalk area making the Occupy Honolulu encampment fall within the newly defined park area.

At “park closing time” of 10 pm, Honolulu Police arrived threatening to arrest any person and seize any property remaining within the park after closing time. The encampment featured very well organized sheltered meeting areas and an informational kiosk so immediate disassembly and removal of the larger structures was impossible. Since most of the constituents of the encampment are not homeless and were in fact at home during the raid, much property could not be removed and was seized by the authorities after they had been cut into pieces small enough to fit on the wrecking crews’ trucks.

The encampment itself had been a model of communal living, with protocols for the protection and well-being of the participants. The police found no drugs, no weapons, no illegal materials of any kind, and certainly no filth or feces or that kind of thing. There was a quiet generator that had been providing power for computers and lighting, and bookshelves stocked with donated volumes that had the beginnings of a great library.

The actual tents for those remaining were moved to the sidewalk area directly by the roadside under the protection of the Kānāwai Māmalahoe, the Law of the Splintered Paddle, and remain there to the time of this writing.

(De)Occupy Honolulu maintains a public forum in the area where the encampment once stood. The tables, chairs, and bookshelves are moved out of the area at the 10 pm park closing time, and brought back into the area in the morning.

The Illegal Occupation of Hawaiʻi

I’m hoping that since people are more familiar with the illegal occupation of Hawaiʻi I can be more brief in my summary here. This wasn’t taught in school when I went so many years ago, and I assume that it is now part of the curriculum. I present a short narrative for the benefit of the unfamiliar.

Some people react to the story of the Overthrow as though it were some utterly fantastic tale. It seems to them so wildly improbable that any nation or group of people could be so blatant in their thievery and so brutal. But as recent events and the Occupy Movement point out, there is no limit to the greed and voracity of the financial elites who would stop at nothing to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

1776 & Captain Cook

I mention Captain Cook because I find it ironic that his Third Voyage to the South Seas began on July 12, 1776, only a few days after certain North American colonies declared their independence from England. By the time of the declaration, they had already been at war for some time, and were a treasonous bunch of criminals under the laws of their own country.

Captain James Cook may not have been the first western navigator to land in Hawaiʻi, but he definitely was the first to put it accurately on a map. He had on board an exorbitantly expensive piece of technology: the Kendall 1, the very first reliable marine chronometer. This allowed longitude to be determined with accuracy for the first time in history, and that allowed the islands in the Pacific to be placed on a map with great accuracy. It was an important achievement for a maritime empire that already had colonies on the in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

1820 Now let us pray

Once Hawaiʻi was on a map, it wasn’t long before Christian missionaries made the journey. I don’t want to sound anti-Christian but the pattern here was the same as many other places where holy men act as advance shock troops to disarm the indigenous population. The first missionaries arrived in 1820. Foreigner’s voracity for all things Hawaiian, especially the land, spawned the Great Mahele of 1847, where Kamehameha III divided the land in Hawaiʻi among the chiefs. (The private form of land tenure and conveyance isn’t a part of traditional Hawaiʻian culture. It’s actually not a part of most cultures.) But these separately owned parcels meant that land could also be “conveyed” to others.

1847 The Mahele

In 1850, the Kuleana Act allowed commoners to apply for ownership of lands that they had traditionally worked. There was a catch: The applicants had to read the notice in the local English language newspaper and then had to have the funds to pay for surveys, registration, and various paper work. Not surprisingly, those who had worked the land for generations soon found themselves evicted by new owners.

One of the most profitable uses of the land by the foreigners was to grow sugar cane, which started displacing food crops. The foreigners could sell their sugar at a profit at the same time forcing more of the population out of the subsistence economy into the commodity economy which they controlled. Control the land, control the economy, control the people.

1887 The Bayonet Constitution

The Bayonet Constitution of 1887, so called because it was signed by King David Kalakaua under threat of violence by an armed militia of haole businessmen, stripped the right to vote from most Hawaiʻians and Asians, while giving it to haole businessmen. Read this from Article 59 of that constitution describing who can vote and tell me if I’m engaging in hyperbole:

First: That he shall have resided in the country not less than three years, and in the district in which he offers to vote, not less than three months immediately preceding the election at which he offers to vote;

Second: That he shall own and be possessed, in his own right, of taxable property in this country of the value of not less than three thousand dollars over and above all encumbrances, or shall have actually received an income of not less than six hundred dollars during the year next preceding his registration for such election;

Third: That he shall be able to read and comprehend an ordinary newspaper printed in either the Hawaiʻian, English or some European language:

Fourth: That he shall have taken an oath to support the Constitution and laws, such oath to be administered by any person authorized to administer oaths, or by an Inspector of Elections;

The Overthrow of January 17, 1893

Still with me? The author of the Bayonet Constitution and chief perpetrator of these crimes against Humanity, Lorrin A. Thurston (grandson of two of the first Christian missionaries), decided to take things even further. Since Hawaiʻi was an independent and sovereign nation, the sugar grown here was subject to a tariff by its primary customer, the US. If Hawaiʻi were annexed, that tariff would be dropped and the sugar planters would stand to make shit-loads more money. That was reason enough for Thurston and his associates to stage an armed assault on the Queen’s palace. With the safety of American residents here as a pretext, Thurston enlisted the help of an American gunboat (the USS Boston) and a contingent of Marines to surround Iolani Palace and take Queen Liliʻuokalani prisoner.

In a formal document, Queen Liliʻuokalani wrote that she yielded to the superior force of the United States of America under protest and until such time as the US, “upon facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiʻian Islands.” In the meantime, Thurston installed Sanford Dole as the governor of the “provisional government.”

This utterly criminal act of armed theft by “businessmen” was indeed too much for President Cleveland to stomach. President Cleveland directed Congress to set about restoring the sovereignty of Hawaiʻi. But that government is controlled by Big Money was as true then as it is now. Giving back Hawaiʻi wasn’t in the interest of the Annexationists. When McKinley replaced Cleveland on the throne—I mean as president—annexation efforts continued.

To make a long story much shorter than it should be, from this point know that a few years later Hawaiʻi was annexed over massive protest and opposition. And, in 1959, Hawaiʻi was declared the 50th American State.  This extremely abbreviated history takes the straightest line through history from Captain Cook to the Overthrow and skips over all sorts of things in the process—empires in collision (England, America, Spain, Japan)—etc. Maybe someone can point us to a good full-featured history or histories? The point here is to highlight the significance of that day, January 17, 1893, as the tragic culmination of greed and perfidy.

So this is what Iʻm thinking

Ironically, across the street from Occupy Honolulu’s encampment stands the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The building itself was once the lavish mansion of Anna Rice Cooke, wife of Charles Montague Cooke of Castle & Cooke, one of the early “Big Five” foreign land owners that profited so much from the aforementioned criminal acts. Charles Montague Cooke was also the president of C. Brewer, yet another of the Big Five.

To me, it is completely consistent for Occupy Honolulu to join with Hawaiian Sovereignty groups in protesting the Overthrow of Hawaiʻi and its continuing illegal occupation. Same enemy, same deal. Since Occupy Honolulu’s constituents are predominantly non-Kanaka Maoli, traditional adversarial relationships would have to be bridged. This can be part of an ongoing process uniting the 99% of us who come from diverse races and places to make a better world for all of us.