LIHUI, Kauai — Ten to 15 years ago, Kauai’s civic leaders decided to create a lush “Aloha: Welcome to Kauai” landscaped intersection right in front of Lihue Airport to make sure tourists feel embraced and honored as soon as they drive out in their rental cars.
Bulldozers, landscapers and stone masons went to work constructing it at the intersection of Ahukini Street and Kapule Highway — both main thoroughfares across which hundreds of vehicles pass every day.
But perhaps five years ago, it apparently occurred to community activists that the intersection, which offers wide, safe, grassy areas for demonstrators to stand, wave signs and engage in verbal dialogue with passing drivers could be an island-wide designated political free speech zone.
Gradually, it morphed into what it has become today: Kauai’s version of the famed Hyde Park in London, a locale that exists to host political speech of every conceivable variety.
And so it was on Thursday when national organizers called a series of protests across the country over President Donald Trump’s decision to force the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and install a loyalist with questionable prior business ties in the office of the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Rallies were called for 5 p.m. in as many cities as possible across the country. At about 4:45, the first of 50 to 100 demonstrators started to take to the lawn at Ahukini and Kapule. They carried signs reading “Protect Mueller” (meaning Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating many aspects of Trump’s campaign and conduct in office.) Other signs urged “nobody is above the law,” “enough” and “stop truth decay.”
In typical island fashion, the demonstrators took turns indulging a small black dog’s passion for tummy rubs as the animal lay on the grass in the middle of the crowd.
Lee Skultety, who splits her time between Oahu and Kauai, said the airport entrance protest location is very valuable to political speech on Kauai because “this is such a huge hub for everyone. If you’re coming into town, there is a good chance you will pass by the airport and you will see whatever forms of political speech are on display here.”
Tuesday’s anti-Trump demonstration — called late and held under threatening skies — set no attendance record.
But in the past, the airport intersection protest site has logged some remarkable statistics. In the Hawaii March for Science, in April 2017, for example, nearly 500 protesters participated, which worked out to a greater participation rate per thousand people in the population than the biggest cities hosting other demonstrations, including Chicago and New York.
The Women’s March the day after Trump was sworn in last year attracted more than 500,000 in Washington and an estimated more than 500 on Kauai. Dozens of other, smaller demonstrations and election campaign sign wavings have been held on the grassy plot so far in 2018.
Whether this makes the Airport intersection a true island substitute for Hyde Park in London is something that can probably be argued vigorously. But Felicia Cowden, the veteran community activist and recently elected member of the County Council, pointed out that the airport location has high visibility for carrying messages to VIPs who fly into Lihue “and are forced to face resistance as they leave the airport.”
“Blatantly proclaiming a social or environmental injustice at the airport forces and shames the policy makers to not ignore the frustrated populace as that would be bad for Kauai’s branding,” Cowden continued.
The gateway area now used as a free speech zone used to be just fields overrun with weeds, until the late Mayor Brian Baptiste put forth the plan to landscape and beautify the area and make it a place for welcoming messages. It’s not known if Baptiste thought through the potential for the area to become a locus for political speech and protest.
KKCR radio personality Jonathan Jay wasn’t buying it. “The intersection by the airport as our very own island bastion of free speech?” he asked incredulously. “That’s a big stretch, and by ‘stretch’ I mean comically flaccid comparison.”
Jay’s notion is that his radio station is Kauai’s Hyde Park.
But Kauai resident Inette Miller found more merit in the argument that the airport intersection is a free speech zone. The argument, she said as she waved at cars pumping an anti-Jeff Sessions sign in the air, “holds water and even if it isn’t our free speech zone, it should be.”
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