It’s been nearly three years since 23-year-old Kānaka Maoli Kollin Elderts was fatally shot by State Department Special Agent Christopher Deedy during the 2011 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings. Jury selection has begun in the murder retrial, which is set to begin as early as this week.
At the same time, more than 20 countries are here for the RIMPAC military exercises, putting billions of military dollars on display in the practice of global domination. As one of the most militarized places on the planet, Oʻahu’s citizens are desensitized to such an overwhelming military presence. That two of the most iconic examples of Hawaiʻi’s place in the vortex created by international economic greed protected by such military force should occur at the same time is only less amazing than the fact that no one here seems to have made that connection.
The Deedy case has its roots in the APEC conference, which gathered Pacific Rim dignitaries together in Waikīkī to forge, behind closed doors, international economic and political agreements, such as the looming and incredibly dangerous Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. Agent Deedy was a part of the United States Diplomatic Security Services (USDSS) sent to Hawaiʻi to protect the Obama Administration’s representatives.
While the prosecution during the initial trial last year tried to paint Deedy as an inexperienced young agent who acted rashly, nothing could be further from the truth. Deedy’s own website proudly extolls his extensive tours in Bagdad, Libya, Iraq and Benghazi, where he was responsible for “escorting U.S. diplomats into high risk areas to ensure their safety and well-being.” Decorated and admired, he was entrusted with critical responsibilities including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own protective detail.
Deedy’s life is a sharp contrast to that of Kollin Elderts. Elderts loved the ocean and played football at Kalāheo High School in Kailua. To his family, he was the laughter at every family gathering. Elderts was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but his parents decided they didn’t want to contain his rascally exuberance, because they liked him that way.
“He made everyone laugh,” said one of Kollin’s brothers, Ikaika. “He was also the kindest person. He would even come over to mow your lawn if you needed it.” I asked Zachary, the oldest, if he thought anyone would like to speak for the family. Zachary responded, quietly, that “Kollin was always the person who would stand up and speak in our family. When he died, it’s like they took our voice.”
Flash back to 2011. On the flight to Hawaiʻi Ben Finkelstein, another USDSS agent, warned Deedy about how “locals” were hostile toward “haoles.” Deedy’s response came from his extensive experience as an agent: he said he planned on carrying a loaded gun. A loaded gun in Hawaiʻi; our home; a place that has some of the strictest gun laws on the books; a land where guns are rare and gun violence even rarer.
On the night of November 4, 2011, while off duty, Agent Deedy sent a text to his friends telling them to prepare for an evening of “craziness.” Despite the fact that Deedy consciously planned on losing control that night, he brought his loaded gun along with him to a night on the town. Early on the morning of November 5, Deedy and his friends found themselves inside a Waikīkī McDonalds.
Enter Michael Perrin and Kollin Elderts. A brief interaction at the register caused Agent Deedy to zero in on Elderts after he overheard the word “haole” used. Although the interaction was clearly over, Deedy decided to approach Elderts anyway, resulting in the fight that ended with Deedy firing two wild shots into the still-crowded restaurant and one into Kollin Elderts’ heart, killing him. What might have been just another Waikīkī scuffle was transformed into tragedy by the presence of Agent Deedy and his gun.
The story echoes that of Trayvon Martin, shot dead by gun-crazy neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Florida. In both cases an unarmed, young man of color is murdered in the name of self-defense. Both cases center on racial profiling that results in irrevocable, tragic consequences. In Trayvon’s case, the lightning rod was a hoodie. In Kollin’s, it was the use of a Hawaiian word that Agent Deedy was all to ready to interpret as a threat. Two small details that have been used—shockingly—as justification to kill another human being.
The use of the word “haole” has been hotly debated in this case. Indeed, it has been part of an ongoing discussion in Hawaiʻi for decades. Early references in our own ‘ōlelo define it simply as “foreigner.” Kamapuaʻa, one of our beloved demigods, was described as a “ka haole nui, maka ‘ōlohilohi,” or “the big foreigner with sparkling eyes.”
Over time, the word has come to mean Caucasian. It is through the history of our people that the word has gone from a simple term to one interlaced with the imprisonment of our Queen, the theft of our nation, and the witnessing of the systematic destruction of our home in the name of military expansionism and economic gain. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the word “haole” has become soured by such deep wounds. Attempts to reduce the word to a mere racial slur have their roots in the deep discomfort many Caucasians feel when addressing these injustices; and in generation after generation of attempts to re-tell history and erase the reality of racial violence that occupation has inflicted upon Kānaka Maoli like Kollin Elderts.
It should not come as a surprise, either, that the USDSS would celebrate a man like Deedy and award him with the Meritorious Honor Award. Their history has been riddled with scandal and corruption. CBS broke a story revealing the level of this corruption after accessing an internal State Department Inspector General’s memo from 2013. The memo revealed widespread allegations that USDSS agents had been implicated in sexual assaults, extensive use of prostitution (to the point where it was referred to as “endemic”) and connections to an underground drug ring.
Aurelia Fedenisn, a former investigator with the State Department’s internal watchdog agency and a USDSS agent for 26 years, was part of the team that investigated these allegations. Fedenisn revealed that not only did high ranking USDSS officials interfere with the investigation, they also made a decision to remove specific, damning evidence from the final report. And now the USDSS is maintaining its tradition of corruption by continuing to retain Deedy as an agent in their employ, essentially calling a drunken, murderous debacle a good kill.
And here is where the heart of the problem lies. The people of Hawaiʻi are constantly surrounded by military weaponry in plain sight, including tanks, helicopters, battle ships and submarines. At other times this weaponry is concealed among us in plain clothes, drunk, in fast food restaurants, guns hidden, aggressively vigilant against we, the hostile natives.
What needs to be done is much more than simply the removal of one man. Deedy is merely a symptom of a much larger disease. This disease has created an environment where those with institutional power feel free to intimidate us with their guns; target us because of a hoodie or because of the use of one word in our own language; and are bolstered by the belief that they can murder one of our children with impunity. Kollin Elderts could have been any one of our sons or brothers. Is that acceptable to the people of Hawaiʻi?