While resurgent authoritarianism has been getting tacit approval from the Trump administration, here in the Democratic stronghold of Hawaii, it’s been getting a pass, too.

At least when it comes to Hawaiian affairs.

One of the most recent offenses to democratic principals came in the form of a free speech crackdown on public testimony by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ new chair, Colette Machado. 

But it’s not just OHA that has been marking Hawaiian affairs with a taint of less-than-democratic practices.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs office. 6 sept 2016
OHA has been cracking down on free speech at trustee meetings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

There have been multiple recent cases of creeping authoritarian tendencies with other Hawaiian affairs groups as well, including the Hawaiian Affairs Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, and, most egregiously, the 2016 Native Hawaiian Constitutional Convention.

A common thread running through all of these groups is found in their service to the federal recognition agenda; the same agenda political insiders within the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission have been pushing on Hawaiians for more than a decade at a cost of more than $33 million.

Authoritarianism is defined as a repressive force whose tactics include coercion, force, manipulation, exclusion and humiliation designed to amass and maintain power and domination.

OHA’s crackdown on free speech, a list of rules threatening limits on the content of beneficiary concerns and other restrictions, were pronounced by Machado, just one month after she was voted in as chair, at the beginning of the April 6 meeting of the OHA Board of Trustees.

The public testimony rules at OHA include restricting beneficiaries from questioning board members and reading prepared testimony, and requiring that they fill out a form before providing testimony.

OHA typically streams video of its meetings and then posts the video online. However, OHA’s video of the April 6 meeting is conspicuously incomplete. Missing all of Machado’s announcement, it includes only the final minutes of the 90-minute meeting.

When beneficiaries turned out to protest the crackdown at OHA’s very next trustees meeting April 27, with signs reading “Don’t Silence the Lāhui” they were met with notably toned-down printed copies of the rules.

The new version eliminated the more offensive First Amendment infringement Machado pronounced April 6 that, “Community concerns not related to agenda items is allowable, but subject to the chair’s discretion.” Despite this pronouncement, the chair has no such discretion.

According to the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court Ruling in Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators Ass’n, restrictions on speech at public meetings must be “content neutral.” In other words, barring a compelling state interest, you can’t place a prior restraint on what someone wants to say in a public meeting.

Cherry-Picking Quotes

In explanation of the crackdown, Machado said she was taking action in response to a beneficiary concern raised at the previous month’s board meeting, calling for removal of Trustee Peter Apo; whose January sexual misconduct lawsuit settlement cost OHA (and its beneficiaries) $50,000.

Since the settlement, the case had led to two further lawsuits demanding Apo resign from his seat on the board and repay the $50,000.

Attempting to justify the new rules, Machado cherry-picked quotes from Office of Information Practices opinion letters, while neglecting to cite another OIP formal opinion letter, 02-02, which says “oral testimony must be allowed even if a person wishing to testify did not sign up.”

When presented with testimony at the April 27 meeting objecting to the infringement of free speech, Machado dug her heels in.

Unapologetic and unchastened by quotes from the Supreme Court ruling on censoring the content of public testimony, she issued a veiled threat to remove “beneficiary concerns” from the agenda, asking whether the comments were made in favor or against keeping beneficiary concerns on the agenda, or removing them.

It’s not like this is the first time Machado’s leadership style has been found repressive.

On May 5, Hawaii’s First Circuit Court upheld a November 2014 Office of Information Practices opinion letter which determined the OHA trustees, under Machado’s last stint as chair, violated Hawaii’s Sunshine Law when she failed to allow public testimony on an agenda item scheduled for executive session.

While the specifics of that case had to do with OHA’s rescission of the May 2014 letter sent by OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamanaʻopono Crabbe to then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the underlying OHA interest, once again, was squelching dissent on federal recognition.

If, as the “Kerry Letter” sought to confirm, the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists under international law, why would Hawaiians accept a less-than status as a U.S. tribe under federal recognition?

‘No One Speaks For The ‘Aha’

Attempts to repress opposition to federal recognition have been at play in other Hawaiian affairs arenas as well.

Reminiscent of bygone Soviet Union, and more recent Russian, crackdowns on free speech, authoritarian controls were commonplace at the February 2016 Native Hawaiian Convention.

Both media and independent observers were banned during the entire month-long gathering, known as “The ʻAha,” which took place behind the locked gates of an exclusive golf club in Kailua.

For example, a policy laid out by the pro-federal recognition ʻAha Communications Committee, insisted that “no bad news”  would be permitted in press releases issued from the convention. As a participant in the ʻaha, and member of the ʻAha Communications Committee, I spoke against this censorship, but was quickly overruled.

In likewise authoritarian style, all participants in the ʻaha were warned against speaking about the ʻaha to the media with the oft-repeated mantra, “No one but the ʻaha, speaks for the ʻaha.”

This particular stricture came to a head in the second week of the ʻaha when a petition opposing a land-grabbing bill in the Legislature was circulated and signed by the majority of participants. Before it could be submitted, the petition was co-opted by a member of the leadership team, who took it upon himself to alter the text of the petition, without the approval of those who had signed it, all for fear that it violated the “No one speaks for the ʻaha” rule.

Democratic Party Joins In

Similar controls on free speech were imposed at a 2016 meeting of the Hawaiian Affairs Caucus of the Hawaii Democratic Party, where the meeting agenda featured a presentation on the ʻaha-created, federal recognition-ready, “Constitution of the Native Hawaiian Nation.”

Apparently alerted by the presence of members of the pro-independence Protest Naʻi Aupuni group, the caucus chair, a longtime federal recognition advocate, sternly forbid audio recording of the meeting, regardless of the fact that Hawaii is a “one-party consent” state wherein anyone, who is party to a conversation, may record it.

The Democratic Party platform’s section on Native Hawaiians, submitted by the Hawaiian Affairs Caucus, contains the pro-federal recognition statement: “We support Native Hawaiian self-determination, consistent with federal policy for native self-determination extended to other indigenous peoples of the United States.”

The platform statement is an absolute contravention of the nearly universal opposition to federal recognition that Hawaiians personally expressed in their oral testimony at U.S. Department of Interior Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making meetings held throughout Hawaii in 2014.

Authoritarian tactics were displayed even more recently, in the aftermath of the Oahu Democratic Party of Hawaii Convention on April 22 at Aloha Stadium where a flier — objecting to the Hawaiian Affairs Caucus’ pro-federal recognition contribution to the Democratic Party platform — was denounced as “garbage” in a mass email to Hawaiian homesteaders.

Calling the authors of the flier the “Anti-Everything Cult,” the email twisted the intention of the flier from opposing federal recognition to opposing homesteaders’ rights:

“They have nothing to offer, nor should any homesteader in their right mind follow these people into a black hole of nothingness. They are professional whiners — let’s call it like it is, and homesteaders aren’t whiners.”

The underlying message of all of this repressive behavior on the part of those diehards for federal recognition is a simple one. Be quiet and do as you’re told.

It’s not a healthy foundation for a Hawaiian nation built on democratic principles, but an excellent start for an authoritarian regime.

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