Daily Podcast #14 Laurel Mei-Singh /// Decolonial and Accompanying Practices in Hawai’i



Laurel Mei-Singh is assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa. She is developing a book on military fences and grassroots struggles for land and livelihood in Wai‘anae, a rural and heavily militarized region of the island of O’ahu in Hawai’i. She is the author of “The Year of the Shark: Recognizing Those Who Reterritorialize Hawai’i,” in The Funambulist 13 Queers, Feminists, and Interiors (September-October 2017)Learn more on her contributor page.


As many of us are confined in many places of the world, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast in partnership with Radio Alhara emitting from Palestine. Our ambition for it is to not add to the saturation of information we are currently experiencing but, rather, to propose a daily extension 15-minute of our political imaginaries.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

While we are recording this podcast in privileged conditions of confinement, we keep in our thoughts the multitude of people around the world who do not share similar conditions or have no choice but to risk being affected by the pandemic because of criminal policies that have to do with neoliberalism, carceralism, or colonialism

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)

Radio Alhara The Funambulist

NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on  راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show. 



So yeah, I wanted to start off by saying these are exceptional times. I’m speaking to from my home in Honolulu. And, you know, I’m in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So far in Hawaii, we have 224 COVID cases. So it isn’t as kind of, you know, widespread as it is in other parts of the world. And this is because we’re protected by an island, right. The ocean is a natural barrier to protect us. But what I’m working with an organization called Hawaii Peace and Justice, and we are very dismayed to see that the military is still planning to the to do their exercises for the Rim of the Pacific. So the abbreviation is RIMPAC. And they’re scheduled from the end of June to early August. And this is the largest military exercise in the world. The US military leads them every other year. And in 2018, military personnel from 25 countries participated. And it brought ships submarines, aircrafts to Hawaii’s lands and waters. There’s widespread live fire training, massive explosions, and destruction.

Two years ago, they engaged in target practice at Pohakuloa, which is at the base of Mauna Kea, which Kia’i protectors have been working to protect for the last several years. So why is the military engaging in these massive war games in the middle of the Pacific? It’s to maintain their geopolitical dominance and control over the region. In recent years, they’ve been really upping their China containment strategy. So we can see in the middle of this global pandemic, which has basically put a stop gap on most activities, right, you know, as individuals, most of us aren’t even really able to leave our homes And, and in the midst of this, the US military is maintaining a business as usual mindset. So, you know there Chinese containment strategy is about promoting the unhindered flow of capitalism tethered to the United States. And what they’re trying to do right now is make sure that this continues, even after the pandemic subsides. And today, there’s been some really alarming news, a Pacific aircraft carrier for the United States, there’s been 100 reported cases on one of their ships. And there’s more than 4000 crew members on this ship.

So you know, this is a huge emergency. And right now, the US is planning to dock this ship in Guam. So, you know, I’m speaking to Hawai’i , one Pacific colony of the United States, and they’re planning to dock this ship with massive infection rates in Guam, another island colony of the United States. And both of us are launching pads for U.S. military endeavors, and you know, in their broader Pacific strategy to have control over the entire region. So I just wanted to note that war has been an incubator of pandemics, right. So the Spanish Influenza during World War I, it was passed on among troops who are in close quarters during the war. So I think if history teaches us anything, is pandemics is a time to demilitarize to de-escalate war activities. This is not business as usual. So to kind of bring us to today’s topic, a true moment of decolonization, I want to just start by noting that colonialism is a form of war.

So today, I’ll be discussing how military occupation, particularly in Hawaii is a structuring force of colonization. And I want to really foreground the efforts for decolonization must include struggles against militarism, and the building of alternatives to that. So I want to discuss how people have put into practice a future that prioritizes human life over warfare, environmental destruction, endless accumulation, and also explore how this sort of abolitionist vision, this abolitionist project is a proposition that requires all of us to participate, right. If we want to draw our strength and our efforts for abolition and decolonization from the earth, from the environment—and, you know, as we can see, our planet is in peril, we’re facing this planetary crises—we also want to address the interconnectedness of all life and all life forces, right. So this includes all people in our relationships with the environment. And then I want to end by discussing accompaniment as an alternative to allyship. So how accompaniment is a way that we can all come together to build a new world, and abolition is integral to these efforts to accompany each other in our collective work for decolonization.

So, I wanted to start off by talking about a place called Mākua. It’s on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. And I want to talk about Mākua to connect localized placemaking and in Hawaii, to expansive sites of resistance, you know, around the world. So a brief history of Mākua is it was a fishing village and a ranching community. until World War II. Martial Law in Hawaii began on December 7 1941, the day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. So during martial law in Hawai’i, it was the longest institutionalization of martial law in US history. And the US military built fences and barbed wire all along the island. People couldn’t go to the ocean. And you know, today we’re under lockdown amid this pandemic. So the governor of Hawaii has been explicit that people can still go to the ocean. However, there’s a lot of policing activity happening at parks and beaches. So you have to literally walk straight through the beach to get into the ocean, but you can’t spend your time on the beach.

So we can see some parallels between World War II martial law and today and what gives me a little bit of relief about the situation in Hawaii right now is that the quarantine or orders are primarily being enforced by the state of Hawaii and the City and County of Honolulu. So we don’t have total military control over the islands the way we did during World War II. So going back to World War II in Mākua, a couple of weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombing, the US military mandated and eviction from Mākua. They told everyone, you know, this is war necessity, you have to leave. And that was the only reason that they evicted the people from Mākua because of the war. And then they use Mākua Valley for joint Army and Navy maneuvers. They bombed the valley from planes. They sent shells from amphibious ocean crafts, they use people’s homes as targets, they destroyed one of the last remaining fish fishing villages on the island of Oahu. So this kind of warfare was not just limited to Hawaii, the US military built barriers across the Pacific Islands everywhere in the ocean, including Guam.

But what we saw in the decades after World War II, despite the destruction that happened in the valley, and then the adjacent beach, is that people still continue to use and have a relationship with Mākua as their home. So in the 1980s, and the 1990s, communities returned to live on the Mākua Beach, and they said, We’re not houseless we’re not homeless, we’re houseless. The beach is our home, the land is our home, we just don’t have houses. So they’re, you know, mostly poor making do with what they had, but what they had was the abundance of the land the ʻĀina, in Hawaiian, which means “that which nourishes and that which feeds.” And they also had each other; they had these interdependent formations, they have their own systems of governance. They had, you know, I when I lived near Mākua in 2013, one of my neighbors, he said that he was the sheriff that the community had appointed, so he helped resolve issues. So this is a true moment of decolonization, even though the military at the time still controlled Mākua Valley, the people who were predominantly Native Hawaiian, were exercising their sovereignty on Mākua beach, practicing, you know, decolonization as a lived experiential collective repatterning of environmental and social relationships.

But what we see, and this is what one of the uncles who lived at Mukua beach in the 1990s, is he talked about how this was really dangerous to the dominant state formations, to capitalist, private property regimes, the military, you know, occupation, and all of these systems that were really working to dominate the land and resources of Hawaii to assert geopolitical control for the United States across the Pacific, to contain China to contain North Korea, right. So the people talked about how, like, particularly Uncle Sparky talked about how people who were living on Mākua beach took away the stick of the government because they were showing, we don’t need you for your services. They weren’t living outside of capitalism and the nation state because they were some of them were receiving aid, some of them had part time or low wage jobs. But they were showing that they could also live apart from it. They’re basically living beside these dominant systems. And they’re remaking their territorial claims.

However, they were seen as criminals by the dominant state formation. So 1983 and 1996 there are some pretty violent evictions where National Guard soldiers from the US military police officers, state conservation officers, they all collectively participated in the eviction and arrest of the people living at Mākua. They brought their bulldozers, they knocked down, you know, the structures that people had built with tarps and pallets. And basically, the way for example, Uncle Sparky, described it was it was shock and awe. It was a tactic of war. So I’m thinking this makes me think of the work of Heidi Stark, who she’s a scholar and she writes about how Indigenous lands are seen as lawless spaces without any legal order. And then the criminalization of Native people is a way of reducing Indigenous political authority and to avert attention from the settler states’ illegality. The settler state is an illegal formation. So to take attention away from that they call the Indigenous people engaged in decolonization as, as illegal criminals.

So the next topic I wanted to move to is to talk about abolition, and abolition as kind of forging a vision for decolonization. So how is this moment at Mākua beach in the 80s and 90s, an abolitionist moment? So abolition is not only about abolishing slavery or prisons. It’s also about world making toward the total transformation of socio-environmental relations. And it’s predicated on dynamic, expansive practices of interdependence. So interdependence between people and the environment and between different people. It’s about transforming the environmental conditions that allow society to cast certain populations as enemies of the state and as disposable. So I’m drawing from the work when I think about abolition, and very much drawing from the thinking of Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

So I want to know, think for a moment about how the, the dwellers of McCool Beach, enacted abolition as a world making capacity, and they drew from the environment as a wealthspring of health and self determination. So they, by doing so they’re opposing the destructive forces of militarism. So this, these abolitionist practices encompass life affirming endeavors that include this formation at Mākua, that built alternatives to military occupation.

So I want to think about abolition in relation to ʻāina. And ʻāina is a Hawaiian word that means life, breath, and sovereignty. And I very much draw from the thinking of political scientist Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, as she writes about how ʻāina is based on the experiences of people on the land of remembering and caring for vahipana story places, and it recognizes this mutual interdependence of all life forms and forces. So the people of Mākua were part of an interconnected web of plants, animals, soil, streams, ocean, sea, sky and heavens and human life. When I talked to the aunties and uncles who lived on Mākua, they talked about there’s there’s the sovereignty that they exercise wasn’t about going to the government making demands from the government, it was about living on the earth and drawing energy from the earth like a battery. That’s what my neighbor, his name was Carly he talked about, that was his experience living at Mākua. And then also people refer to Mākua as puʻuhonua o Mākua, and Puʻuhonua is a refuge or a sanctuary, and particularly a refuge or sanctuary from war. So some of the prison abolition groups that are working in Hawai’i are working on building puʻuhonua as alternatives to prisons, and a lot of scholars have written about how prisons are also a form of war.

ʻĀina and puʻuhonua are both examples of abolition, and these practices of abolition are about building spaces that are drawing from the earth as a source of power, right. The Earth is not something that’s separate from humans we are as humans, we are part of the environment and the environment is part of us. We are animal life, just like the dolphins the plant life, you know, the birds in the sky, we are, you know, one of the many species who are nurtured by the environment. And if we take care of the environment, the environment will take care of us. This is an ethic that’s practiced by many Native Hawaiians and many Indigenous people throughout the world.

So, if we think about these anti-colonial practices, as practices that are also abolitionist, abolition is a way of acknowledging the distinctions that divide us, which are, you know, Native/settler, civilian/soldiers, you know, citizen/non-citizen, but they also yield the distinctions that are dividing us and work across this mal distribution of resources and kind of senseless destruction and work in favor of collective access to our life sources, right. So collective access to land and water, and fresh air and stable places to live. Abolition shifts the focus from, you know, a rote identity politics where just kind of claiming different identities is seen as a path toward decolonization to actually fighting for the material conditions that ensures the collective well being of all forms of life. I would argue that these types of abolitionist efforts set should center colonized people across the world.

So I just want to very briefly talk about how the different aspects of abolition are divestment from this horrible institutions like the military that are just engaging in this senseless destruction, but also developing new formations that draw from the power of the natural world. So I want to conclude by talking a little bit about accompaniment as an alternative to ally politics. So I’m from the city of Honolulu, and I lived on the Waianae Coast, where Mākua is located on the west side of Oahu, from 2013 to 2014, engaging in  research, organizing with the community. And when people started talking a lot about ally politics and being a settler ally, it just didn’t really sit well with me. And people have written a lot about kind of the shortcomings of ally politics. And it’s premised on the assumption that the oppression of certain groups produces a certain set of identity-based experiences. And those who have privileged can never really grasp the subjugation of those who are oppressed. So the privileged need to give up their role as actors in movements and instead become allies following the leadership of the oppressed. What I found is on the ground, things are so much more complicated. There’s never just a fixed identity based group to take guidance from, people have very complex feelings. A lot of people, you know, have had a lot of trauma from the military, but a lot of people, particularly Native Hawaiians, have also served in the military, and have a lot of kind of sense of patriotism toward their, you know, experiences in the services.

So people are actually much more complex than ally politics allow us to see them as and, you know, people are not just these very static subjects, right, and ally politics draws from metaphors of war. So what I found is “accompaniment” provides a really rich alternative that rather than drawing from metaphors of war, it draws from metaphors of traveling on a road, creating music together, engaging in creativity and experimentation and shared company. It makes space for multiple experiences and forms of expertise. It crafts new ways of knowing and being. So I see it as a much more creative, open ended and fluid practice than ally ship.

I see accompaniment as a really exciting way to advance decolonization and abolition, because it enables people to forge relationships across partitions, while also acknowledging that we’re living in these spaces of confinement, right. I mean, right now, a lot of us are confined in our own homes. But also the people in Mākua were confined by the military base across the street. But it, accompaniment opens up these opportunities to practice and craft ecological relationships that both simultaneously recognize and defy the divisions that are shaping our world. And they also enable us to make internationalist connections, right. We’ve been hearing from the left recently about how it’s more urgent than ever to practice and engage in internationalism and our comrades at the Red Nation have really emphasized the importance of internationalism to decolonial and abolitionist struggles. So I really want us to think about accompaniment as a practice of international solidarity.

So for example, when people are visiting Hawai’i, you know, eventually our tourist economy is going to reopen people I want people to recognize that they’re entering an independent nation, right the kingdom of Hawai’i. And, you know, bearing witness to the violences of military occupation. And, and bring that knowledge back to people’s home countries as an act of international solidarity. And I want to make a note that this idea of accompaniment derives from liberation theology.

 Oscar Romero, he was appointed as the Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977. And he talked about accompaniment as the practice of standing beside Indigenous people and rural people, to protect them from the barrel of the gun and an act of solidarity. And this was in the context of this severe repression of left movements that were happening in the late 1970s. And because of this work, he was assassinated in 1980. So he martyred himself to the struggles for decolonization and for the liberation of oppressed people.

So I wanted to just close these thoughts about the, you know, right now we’re in this moment where the military police state is about eliminating and containing anyone who challenges the systems that benefit the ruling class; they’re really, at this particular moment, they’re really digging in their heels to maintain their geopolitical control of these strategic sites across the world. Hawai’i, Guam, you know, other sites of war internationally. So now more than ever, we need to pay attention to these spaces and moments of decolonization and abolition of people building alternatives. And we need to find our comrades across the world who are resisting the shock doctrines that are, you know, taking advantage of crisis to entrench the power of elites, and approach abolition as a collective effort that spans oceans, to work together to build an abundant and decolonized future that nurtures and cultivates life and rather than wages war. So that’s what I wanted to share this evening.