The Water Theft Bill Is Neocolonial Nonsense

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Last Thursday, House Bill 1326, relating to water rights theft, appeared dead. Now, less than 72 hours later, it appears to have gained new life.

This bill is undead. It’s truly a zombie bill, stalking Hawai’i the way the walking dead creep through the ruins of Atlanta.

As we prepare for legislative Judgement Day to arrive this coming Tuesday, it’s worth recognizing why this issue exists in the first place. Alexander and Baldwin’s political press for continued water diversion didn’t merely arise from a 2016 Circuit Court ruling that prohibited the company from using revocable permits to authorize permanent redirection of stream water in East Maui.

On the contrary, it’s about the struggle for two things that have defined the history of the islands for the last 125 years: land and power. It’s the latest skirmish in the colonial conquest of Hawai’i, which reached its pinnacle with the overthrow of the kingdom in 1893 and hasn’t stopped trampling on Hawaiian sovereignty and working people ever since.

Alexander and Baldwin launched its lust for capital as one of the Big Five companies that held oligarchic control of Hawai’i’s economy during the Territorial Era. Its founders, Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin, were the children of medical missionaries who came to the islands in 1831 to “civilize” and Christianize the Hawaiian people.

Shortly after establishing the business that came to be known by the two-letter acronym A&B in 1870, Alexander and Baldwin purchased 561 acres of land on Maui, the site of the company’s first forays into sugarcane cultivation. A&B’s sugar operations produced profits that allowed it to expand into other industries, including pineapple farming, railroad transport, shipping (in 1908, A&B purchased a portion of the Matson Navigation Company), and, following World War II, real estate and land development.

Along with the other notorious Big Five companies, A&B came to control all aspects of Hawai’i’s economic and, in turn, political life, from agriculture to tourism to banking. To maintain their power, the overwhelmingly haole leaders of A&B were ruthless in their pursuit of money. Contracted immigrant laborers were subjected to deplorable conditions and perpetual racial discrimination on Big Five plantations, eventually leading to dozens of strikes and labor stoppages during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century.

While worker solidarity eventually led to the creation of local labor organizations, like the Higher Wage Association, wartime inflation outpaced any wage gains earned by plantation laborers. Companies like A&B marched greedily forward, using their legislative dominance and law enforcement to stymie any attempts by unions to gain footing on King Sugar’s lands, until changes to federal labor law forced them to address workers’ longstanding grievances.

Even a decade after statehood, Alexander & Baldwin’s financial authority was paramount. In 1969, the company purchased all remaining, outstanding shares in Matson, making the shipping company a wholly owned subsidiary of A&B. Even in 2012, when Matson was eventually spun-off as its own publicly-traded company, its board and management were stocked with A&B executives, who remain in key positions to this day.

A&B–perhaps a better designation would be A$B, given their oligarchic history and status as one of Hawai’i’s largest campaign contributors–has always put profit before people, beginning with their post-annexation opportunism. Its shareholders literally benefit from the commercialization of land that is only held in private hands because of their company’s machinations to dispossess Native Hawaiians of their political homeland and, later, deprive plantation workers of basic human rights.

How else do we explain A&B’s corrupt deal with Mahi Pono, which serves as the catalyst for HB 1326? In 2018, A&B sold its Central Maui sugar land to Mahi Pono upon the promise that the company would divert 30 million gallons of water per day until 2026 to those lands or pay $62 million. Yet, those permits expire this year, something both A&B and Mahi Pono knew when the deal was finalized.

They knew they’d have to demand an extension from the State Legislature to keep stealing water from Maui streams. They simply couldn’t fathom that the lawmakers they’d purchased on the campaign market would be unable or unwilling to deliver another blow to the public trust. They made a deal on the faulty premise that the Legislature was completely under their control, as it has always been since the days following the overthrow.

That’s just arrogance. Unmitigated hubris.

And with hubris comes the fall. Hopefully, A&B’s descent will begin on Tuesday, with members of the State Senate rejecting any attempt to resuscitate HB 1326 from its political grave.

Even if the bill passes, though, it has lifted a tide of we, the people, who stand firm against colonial injustice. It is only a matter of time before that tide washes away A&B’s self-serving exploitation and sends stream waters surging in the direction they were meant to flow.

Truth Crushed to Earth Shall Rise Again

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Last year, I was invited to attend the Manoa Forum, a “gown to town” event that brings together academic and community leaders to discuss the prevailing issues of the day. While what happens at the forum is supposed to stay at the forum, I will unashamedly note that during one exercise, in response to a question about groups with which I identify, I extolled my solidarity with anti-racists in the South, especially those fighting against white supremacy in the city of my upbringing: Huntsville, Alabama.

My childhood was pastoral. As a precocious pre-teen, I spent my days playing sports with neighbors on the half-acre lawn my parents owned and scouring the forest behind our house for natural treasures. A macabre old graveyard that skirted the cotton field adjacent to our neighborhood prompted the fabrication of imaginary worlds within our own, as if the headstones and breathable textiles were linguistic bubbles in a narrative multiverse only the local children could translate.

Yet, I also remember the harbingers of hatred I would learn about later in life. Members of the Ku Klux Klan marching through a Native American powwow. Burning crosses. Dilapidated wooden shacks a few miles from my home in which some of my African-American classmates lived. My next-door neighbor discussing his fear that the n*****s moving into the area would denigrate the district.

Years later, those attitudes are still common in Alabama, a state that officially celebrates the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. (and gives Lee top billing). Thus Trump, whose presidency is a symptom of our nation’s inability to responsibly grapple with our problematic racial history. To ask whether or not Trump is racist is to focus on an incessant sneezing jag, when the real problem is the discriminatory coldheartedness congesting the corridors of the country’s socioeconomic institutions.

Shortly after the new year, I was asked to draft a bill to advance civic education in Hawaiʻi for Rep. Amy Perruso. Amy’s and my belief in democratizing public education long precedes her election as a state representative and my appointment as her office manager and policy wonk (see, for example, the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Associationʻs Schools Our Keiki Deserve report), so the bill writing was seamless. As I worked on the measure, I was reminded of the urgency to not just ensure educational equity for all students, but to use our schools as sites for political action, from which new visions of the future may be born.

When the bill was finished, Amy and I had a discussion about the primary purpose of education. Since the enactment of the now defunct No Child Left Behind program, the typical top answer has been “to prepare students for the workforce.” Without question, schools have an obligation to develop the skills essential for participation in the 21st century job market. None of those skills are meaningful, however, if they’re not used to shape a more just and equal society.

The principal purpose of education, and especially public education, I submit, is to equip students to determine and deliver the public good. Mathematics should not simply be a prerequisite for becoming an engineer, but a step toward employing the elements of design to build sustainable homes for all. Learning to code in computer science classes shouldn’t be seen as a move toward a lucrative job at Google, but as a means of acquiring the knowledge necessary to invent software that solves pressing social concerns, the way USC’s HEALER algorithm empowers homeless youth to protect themselves from the spread of HIV.

When speaking to civil rights activists in Alabama who had been beaten, literally, by law enforcement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.” At that time, school desegregation remained a recently enacted Supreme Court mandate. Nearly six decades later, there are places where integration still feels like it is in its infancy, where racism remains the dominant thread in a fraying social fabric.

Maybe if we devote more energy–and funding–to educational initiatives that are unafraid to pose tough questions about our history, then the next generation will be better able to fashion a future in which Trumpian race baiting doesn’t exist. Maybe, in turn, the dignity demanded by MLK, his comrades, and their heirs in places like Huntsville can rise above the white rage that seeks to silence the song of struggle before the chorus fills too many freedom fighters with hope.

New Year’s Resolutions: 2019

Mauna Lani New Year's Eve

Better late than never.

New Year’s resolutions have never been my forté. Every year, I fall into the trap of banality that leads to broken pledges. Working out feverishly turns into a nightly jog. Blogging every week becomes a monthly haiku. Being more financially prudent begets more credit card debt.

Life interrupts my well-intended attempts at self-improvement. Maybe the trick, then, is to out-do the abruptness of life, to mix in a couple of unexpected ultimatums with the cliché commitments and make life say, “WTF? What does that even mean? That’s so extra?”

So, in that vein, I offer three categories of resolutions for 2019. If I can keep one promise from each, then I will consider myself upgraded.

The Mundane

  1. Take a vacation. I’ve been working for three years straight on campaigns, public policy, victim rescue and restoration, and more. I love my work. I love to work. It’s time to take a break (or two or three), however, to resuscitate my work-life balance. San Francisco? Seattle? Seville? Sydney? Someplace far, far away, for sure.
  2. Save more money. Easier said than done, living in the state with then highest cost of living, but that’s all the more reason to be a smarter money manager. I’ve never lived off a strict(ish) budget before. I’m going to try. The future isn’t getting any cheaper, a social revolution notwithstanding. I’m down for that, too, if that’s on anyone’s list.
  3. Work out six days per week. At the end of 2019, I don’t want to feel fabulous. I want to feel abulous.

The Optimistic 

  1. Finish my book. As you may or may not be aware, I’m writing a book. Actually, I’ve written 90 percent of a book. Only the introduction remains unfinished. All good writers compose the first part last. It’s been three years since I began the project. It’s time to end it.
  2. Finish 52 books. Reading them, that is. One per week, at least, beginning with the long list of canonical literature I’ve shamefully missed. Never stop learning about the world around you, so you can build a better one.

  3. Learn a new language. Language acquisition breaks down cultural barriers. Or, rather, 私はハワイに住んでいます、私は自分の言語で私の日本の隣人とコミュニケーションしなければなりません。新しい言語を学ぶことは文化的障壁を打破するでしょう。また、いつか東京と京都を訪問したいと思います。Is that even close to accurate? No? Blame Googs.

The Aspirational 

  1. Swim in every waterfall I encounter. Have to be a little careful about falling rocks, but the Instagram possibilities are endless.
  2. Win a disc golf tournament. That’s right. I play frisbee golf. I’m actually quite badass at frisbee golf. And disc golf is the new sport of kings. Leisurely kings. Kings who stroll through the park on Sunday and give butterfly kisses to all the Doge lookalikes. That kind of king. (If you don’t remember Doge, see here. Doge is a strong supporter of enthusiastic consent. Alternate resolution: be more like Doge on the daily.)
  3. Pass a living wage for Hawaiʻi’s working families. This should be on every local political activist’s wish list for 2019. $10.10 is not enough. One job should be enough. It can be, if we marshal the strength and courage to make it happen.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that 2019 can’t be worse than 2018, even as the federal government remains in shutdown mode. I don’t accept that cynicism. Let’s make 2019 a banner year for love, joy, and hope for those who need it most.