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Racial tension has played an important role in Hawaii’s history ever since Capt. James Cook first stepped foot on the Sandwich Isles.
From the imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in the 1890s to “Kill Haole Day” and the stagnation of the Akaka bill in Congress, it’s been an underlying part of the daily discourse here.
Now a Honolulu attorney representing U.S. special agent Christopher Deedy, who shot a local man in a Waikiki McDonald’s, wants to make sure these long-simmering feelings won’t keep his client — who is charged with murder — from getting a fair trial.
Deedy, a white male from Virginia, was in Honolulu last November as part of security detail to protect foreign dignitaries who were here for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.
After a night of socializing with friends, Deedy went to a Waikiki McDonald’s where he shot and killed Kollin Elderts, a brown-skinned, multi-ethnic 23-year-old from Kailua.
Immediately after, protesters took to the streets decrying Elderts’ death and blaming APEC.
There was also speculation about the circumstances leading up to the shooting. Was Elderts bullying Deedy and his friends, using racial epithets to rile the visiting federal agent? Or was it Deedy who was the aggressor, asking Elderts if he wanted to get shot and escalating a verbal argument into one that ended in tragedy.
While part of this response was due to the highly charged atmosphere created by APEC, Deedy’s attorney, Brook Hart, argues in court documents that much of it can also be attributed to increased media scrutiny and underlying socioeconomic and cultural issues facing the people of Hawaii.
In a recent phone interview, he also noted that “some pretty strong anti-mainland, anti-haole sentiment” has arisen since the shooting.
“The case involves many aspects and they go well beyond the particular incident in McDonald’s,” Hart said. “We have a strong and vibrant community of local folks who have very negative feelings about actions that the federal government have taken over the years and those might well be translated in animosity toward an agent of the federal government.”
Michael Green, the attorney representing Elderts’ family in a civil suit against Deedy, disagrees with Hart’s assertion, and says race hasn’t become a legitimate factor in the case.
“He’s trying to create any type of an issue that he thinks might help him at trial,” Green said. “He’s doing his job as a lawyer.”
Hart didn’t want to delve into details, saying that he wants to save his comments for the courtroom. He added that he hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to ask for a change of venue. Trial has been set for September.
But in his May 14 court filing that asks for permission to more thoroughly question jurors about their potential bias, Hart describes some of the outside influences on the case and how those were latched onto by groups, such as Moana Nui, (De)Occupy Honolulu and the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
“This case became a symbol of the federal government wrongfully exercising jurisdiction over the Hawaiian Kingdom; it became a sign of the 1% oppressing the 99%; it became an example of a mainland ‘haole’ allegedly expressing malice and prejudice towards a local Hawaiian,” Hart said in his motion.
“It further sparked discussions on handguns and concealed carry, as well as on the roles that alcohol, drugs, and ‘clubbing’ play in our society. Through in-depth media coverage, Special Agent Deedy’s case raised deep-seated social, psychological, and philosophical issues, especially those particular to Hawaii, such as oppression, sovereignty, and racism.”
The large media contingent in Honolulu for APEC exacerbated the details of the shooting, Hart said. It also allowed people upset over APEC and Elderts’ killing to take to online message boards and comment sections to further decry the shooting of a “native son” by a federal agent from the mainland.
As evidence of this Hart submitted more than 600 pages of articles from local, regional and national news organizations as well as information from blog posts and YouTube.
It should also be noted that the same day Hart filed his motion to for more extensive juror questioning, he submitted another motion to have the case dismissed, saying Deedy was was immune from prosecution because he was acting in self-defense and in his official capacity as a law enforcement officer. Both motions have yet to be heard by a judge.
Hart’s head-on discussion about race, ethnicity and locals-versus-haoles appears to be uncommon.
Some have made comparisons between the upcoming Deedy trial and the 1930s Massie case, which Hart describes as “infamous.” To many, the Massie case highlights the history of tense race relations on Hawaii.
Thalia Massie, the young wife of a Navy officer, reported she was abducted and raped by five non-whites after she left a Honolulu party. The five men, whose ethnicities ranged from native Hawaiian to Japanese to Chinese-Hawaiian, were put on trial and later released.
Massie’s husband, Thomas, then conspired with his mother-in-law to kidnap and kill one of the five suspects, Joseph Kahahawai. Thomas Massie, his mother-in-law and two accomplices were tried and convicted of manslaughter, although their sentences were quickly commuted.
The fallout made national headlines, bringing the word “honor killing” into homes across the country. It even incited calls for justice against an island believed to be overrun with savages.
The Deedy case has in no way reached such a fervor, but even mentioning Massie underscores that racial tension is still just below the surface in Hawaii.
University of Hawaii ethnic studies professor Jonathan Okamura specializes in race and ethnicity in Hawaii. He’s also spoken with his students specifically about the Deedy case and the racial encounters they’ve had.
Okamura says the “anti-haole” question is valid because the sentiment is there. He does consider some of Hart’s claims about the symbolism of the case to be hyperbole.
“It’s not a secret to local people who live here,” Okamura said. “It’s a secret that the Hawaii tourist bureaus want to downplay, especially when this (type of) incident takes place in Waikiki.”
He said there’s historical and continual “blame-pinning against haoles” that comes from the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and the perception that the current political and economic structure is dominated by whites.
This is despite the fact that there are other ethnic groups that hold enough power and influence to also be oppressive here, he said. Hawaii is, after all, a melting pot with many varied cultures and ethnicities.
Waikiki is a place where many conflicts can arise between people of differing ethnicities, Okamura said.
It’s “an interracial contact zone” where tourists interact with locals, whether on the beach and sidewalks or in the shops and restaurants. He said tense racial undercurrents can also be strengthened by alcohol and result in an eruption of violence.
“In Hawaii, for the most part, face-to-face relations can be very positive,” Okamura said. “That doesn’t mean every interaction is positive, but it does result in obscuring the ways that we don’t get along.”
To many outsiders, these underlying tensions are concealed by Aloha, a friendly hello and goodbye that can hold deeper meanings of compassion and love.
But similar to the multiple interpretations of Aloha, events here can take on larger more complex meanings due to the historical context in which Hawaii became a U.S. territory.
“The issue of Hawaii history, I think that’s kind of a lingering cloud over the present,” said Kyle Kajihiro, of Hawaii Peace & Justice, a nonprofit group dedicated to demilitarization and social equality. “The fact that Hawaii was an independent nation and that it was overthrown by the unlawful military intentions of the U.S., that has never been resolved. There’s never been rectification for that.”
Kajihiro was involved in some of the protests during APEC, including the one that was put together after Elderts’ death. At that time, he said, the shooting symbolized the ramifications of APEC’s policies around the world.
Now, nearly eight months after the killing in Waikiki, Kajihiro says he still understands why Elderts’ death can represent more than just a tragedy. This resonates more when considering Deedy was an armed federal agent who was here as part of a larger, more visible police presence.
And while he admits there’s a significant amount of cultural and ethnic friction in Hawaii, he believes it can be acknowledged and set aside when putting a man on trial, even if he’s a haole from from the mainland.
“I think there can be a fair trial, and I think it’s offensive to assume that people are unable to be fair just because we have to consider all these historical and cultural factors,” Kajihiro said. “If you tried to purge all of that history and the context from this case and say you can only look at it on these terms and you have a jury that’s clueless about the situation, I don’t think that’s fair. That all colors and creates a more real complex picture of what happened and why.”
Okamura, on the other hand, was a little more blunt with his assessment of the case. He said Deedy’s attorney is “racializing” it, and perhaps even setting up his defense strategy. He also wouldn’t be surprised if Hart gets criticized as a result.
As to whether race was actually involved in the violence between Deedy and Elderts, Okamura said we’ll have to wait and see.
“We don’t know if there was any reference to race in that conflict,” he said. “It could just be two young males that got into an argument that escalated into a killing.”