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When Esme Yokooji saw the alert Saturday that a missile was heading to Hawaii — complete with huge capital letters saying “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” — she put her dog inside the house, locked the doors and grabbed her 9-year-old sister.
Yokooji, 19, held her little sister in a bathtub in their Kailua home and tried to be strong. For a few excruciating minutes, she thought they were going to die. It wasn’t until her mother came home that they realized it was a false alarm.
The mistake caused widespread panic, rocked Hawaii’s tourism industry and raised questions about Gov. David Ige’s leadership and re-election chances. But for some like Yokooji, it was a call to action.
After her fear faded, she grew angry “that Hawaii was even a target to begin with, that we were put in that situation when we are an innocent group of people.”
Saturday’s missile scare occurred four days before the 125th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. More than 1,000 people are expected to march Wednesday from Mauna Ala to Iolani Palace, where American businessmen and U.S. Marines forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate the throne.
Kaukaohu Wahilani, one of the event organizers, said the day will be filled with speeches and demonstrations. Even though the event is focused on commemorating the overthrow, he said the military’s presence in Hawaii is inextricably linked to colonialism.
“Since January 17, 1893, the presence of the U.S. military has never left the shores of Hawaii Nei,” he said. ‘It was only through the might of the American military that the overthrow was successful.”
Noelani Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua, a professor at the University of Hawaii, is among the many people planning to attend the march who believe the Hawaiian Islands are illegally occupied by the United States. She said the missile scare underscores why it’s important to spread awareness of the islands’ history.
“In many ways what happened today reinforces for many of us why it’s so important to keep educating others about the truth of our history, the truth of Hawaii’s history and not only to think about why Hawaiian sovereignty is important because of the historical wrongs that were committed but because of the ongoing present conditions of occupation that make us a target of missiles,” she said.
Dr. Kalama Niheu is a physician and Native Hawaiian who lives in east Honolulu. She’s been speaking, writing and organizing on issues related to Hawaiian independence and a nuclear-free Pacific for years.
She said given how expensive it is to live in Hawaii and how much people struggle to afford basic necessities, it’s hard for people to think about bigger issues like imperialism.
“On Saturday that changed for a lot of people,” Niheu said. “A lot of people are realizing that there’s a very real possibility of some type of nuclear aggression.”
“We are seeing this rising tide of folks who up to this point have not been involved in social movements and justice work who are now jumping and realizing that they … have to take this on in whatever way that they can.”
Some have already taken action. Will Caron, an activist and writer, said that as soon as he found out the missile threat was a false alarm Saturday morning he jumped on a Facebook message thread.
“Someone said, ‘Should we protest?’ Everyone was kind of like, ‘Hell yeah we should,'” he said. He quickly created a Facebook event, “No Nukes, No Excuse.” Within hours, dozens of people were holding signs along Ala Moana Boulevard.
While Caron is an experienced organizer, Yokooji isn’t. Still, the day after the missile scare, she emailed her professor, Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua, about organizing a sit-in to protest the military’s presence in Hawaii and show solidarity with Hawaiians.
“I just felt really motivated to reach out and see if something can be done,” she said. “We are the next generation. We are going to inherit this problem.”
Yokooji is one of Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua’s students. The professor said another student who is from Guam expressed similar feelings last year when North Korea threatened to bomb that island.
“She was similarly just feeling so helpless and angry and what can we do but try to educate and keep telling our story,” Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua said. “You feel angry about it, you feel helpless about it, but most of all you feel motivated to try to change the conditions that we’re living under.”
Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua hopes that there will be more conversations about the military in Hawaii, which is a major economic driver but also a source of environmental harm.
“We don’t want to be a target anymore,” she said. “Hawaii was a neutral country that was recognized by nations throughout the world that had treaties of peace and friendship and commerce with other nations throughout the world. Being a target is frightening.”
Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua said she would never consider leaving Hawaii despite her concerns.
“My children were born here, the placenta, their piko, are all buried here, our ancestors’ bones are here, this place is our mother, it’s our ancestor. The fate of Hawaii is our fate so we’re not leaving,” she said.
The way that Saturday’s missile scare is motivating new activists and strengthening the resolve of others is significant, said Niheu.
“For those of us who feel like we’re shouting in the wind, we definitely have a lot of people now who want to participate, who want to hear it, who want to figure out something that they want to do in a very unsafe and unpredictable time,” she said.