In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham Jail “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

If you have not read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” now’s the time.

Many of the words can be applied to what is happening today at Mauna Kea.

The letter itself responded to a public statement calling the demonstrations in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.” We see similar criticisms being lobbed against the kia‘i, or protectors, as many people, some of them even considering themselves friends of Native Hawaiians, cannot understand the stand that is being taken.

Moving Hawaiian Flag atop the Kipuka Pu'u Huluhulu, Native Tree Sanctuary and trail near the Maunakea Access Road.
Thirty Meter Telescope protestors move a Hawaiian flag atop the Kipuka Pu’u Huluhulu Native Tree Sanctuary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There is one passage from King’s letter that is notably apropos to what Hawaii is seeing today.

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”

Hawaiians have been patient. They have been beyond tolerant of their continued disenfranchisement often to the point where it has been maddening.

Hawaiians at various points in their history have been among the most literate populations in the world, healthy, self-governing and sustainable. Hardly any of this remains today. Hawaiians continue to suffer from disproportionately poor health outcomes, poor educational outcomes, have been repeatedly denied self-determination and have been forced to watch as their land has been abused and desecrated.

No more.

A Misreading Of The Protests

I wrote in my June 26 column that the state and university were not ready for what came next. Three weeks later, on July 17, 38 kupuna were arrested on the Mauna Kea Access Road. By that weekend, thousands had gathered at Pu‘uhuluhulu and around the world to join the demonstrations.

State officials remain ill-prepared to respond to the demonstrations and are consistently out-flanked by its evolution because they do not understand what is happening. They refuse to appreciate that this is not about a telescope. This is not about science or technology. It is about justice.

We, as Hawaiians, are not blind to the lamenting of those who feel the course of action is inappropriate. We hear the frustration expressions about how this has been a 10-year process they consider fair and legitimate.

Yet, I would urge those same people to take a moment to consider the ways in which Hawaiians sought resolutions for their critical issues over the last 125 years. Please consider how time and time again, the dire needs of Native Hawaiians have been ignored or disregarded. That can has been kicked down the road too many times. It has landed at Mauna Kea.

In the context of this larger history, this stand by the kia‘i is a necessity.

I understand how it makes many people living in Hawaii today uncomfortable, but I am not bothered by this discomfort. It is this discomfort with the status quo that will force a complacent society to dislodge from its current station.

In this regard, this discomfort is a sign that the nonviolent direct action taking place, including at the University of Hawaii and at community demonstrations, is working.

I return to the far better words of King, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Shackles And Wings

For the first time in a long time, people are truly engaged in trying to understand Native Hawaiians. In order to understand Native Hawaiians, you must confront the history of injustice that has befallen them. Hawaiians today live in symbiosis with this past. They are inseparable from the lingering effects of these historic injustices. We are never afforded the luxury of ignoring it as so many other Hawaii residents do.

This past serves as both shackles and wings for Hawaiians. On one hand we are mired down by inherited oppression. On the other hand, we are uplifted by an extraordinary cultural history.

This challenge before us is one of justice. There is no doubting that this challenge will require soul-searching that many people are not accustomed to. This question of justice is not confined to the issue at hand, rather it stems from the long-view of history. If people focus on only the variables specific to the TMT, they turn a blind eye to the systemic issues that made direct action a necessity in the first place.

Rosa Parks didn’t simply sit at the front of the bus because she wanted the bus system desegregated; she sat there because she wanted society desegregated.

The kia‘i are not occupying the road simply because they want the mauna protected; they are there because they want Hawaii protected.

The response by the state today is not without its own historic precedent. George Wallace was the governor of Alabama as Martin Luther King Jr. sat in that Birmingham jail cell. Wallace, as any  student of U.S. history will remember, used state troops in an effort to keep the University of Alabama segregated.

State law was on his side. He had full legal authority to use law enforcement to uphold the Alabama State Constitution.

First adopted in 1901, the Alabama State Constitution mandated racial segregation in schools. And rather than desegregate schools per the seminal decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which found racial desegregation in public schools unconstitutional, Alabama instead amended its state constitution to eliminate the state’s obligation to provide public education entirely. The segregation provision of the Alabama Constitution still stands today.

Laws are not always a reflection of the better angels of our nature nor are they always a reflection of the higher moral law to which we should hold ourselves.

History today does not remember George Wallace and his stands to protect “segregation forever” fondly.

It is instead the community leader who broke unjust laws for the betterment of all people that we recognize as the hero today. It is the man, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize only one year after being in that Birmingham jail, that we celebrate today.

Opponents of the kia‘i will be quick to say that the protectors are no civil rights leader.

But  remember the disdain and hate with which those same civil rights leaders celebrated in 2015 at Selma by members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation were subjected to 54 years ago. It is not the kia‘i alone who are defining this moment. It is also their opponents, swelling with anger towards the kia‘i, that are coloring in the details of this picture.

Systemic change is hard. If we have learned anything from the great moral uprisings of the past, it is that sometimes extraordinary action is needed in order to be able to provide subjugated groups ordinary decency.

Hawaiians can no longer be placated with the platitudes of sympathetic individuals. No longer is the superficial visit from an elected official or the honorary meeting with political leaders sufficient. The injustice around us all is pervasive. Restoring justice must meet the inertia of injustice with equal and greater force if it is to prevail.

Hawaii has had 125 years to do right by Hawaiians. It’s had 125 years to give us more than a Hawaiian language month or the occasional Year of the Hawaiian. It has had 125 years.

The impacts of the established injustices can be seen everywhere around us. They are in the homeless who continue to suffer all around us. They are in the staggering loss of animals and plants that thrived here for thousands of years. They are in the wealth gap that has grown into an unbridgeable chasm.

Justice feels good to the moral soul. For those who continue to be perplexed by the thousands drawn to the mauna and to this movement, they should accept the reality that this movement quenches a thirst that has long been growing in people. It is a yearning for Hawaii to be a home to righteousness and integrity. For Hawaii to be as special morally as it is culturally.

It is the desire for us to be better. It is the longing for these islands to be just and fair. It is the want for us to be the best version of ourselves.

This is a battle that involves all of us, and it is not a battle we can afford to lose.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.