It was only a couple of hours before the massive Honolulu Black Lives Matter rally kicked off that its organizers — all high school students — first met each other face to face.
They gathered a little early on the grounds of Ala Moana Beach Park on June 6, where the march was set to begin around noon. They gave each other social distance “elbows,” then eventually hugs. They talked and made TikTok videos.
And even though the teens had never met in person, it almost felt like reconnecting with old friends, said Desiree Burton, 16, a rising junior at Radford High.
“It felt like we knew each other for so long, like years, we had talked on the phone so much and spent so many hours planning the event,” she said in a phone interview.
The Honolulu protest was, like many other marches around the country, organized by young people. It’s a testament to their passion for social justice, belief in collective voice and support for civic action like voting, though many of them are still not of eligible age, that it came together as dynamically as it did.
The official estimate of the turnout was 10,000, surprising even the teens who organized the rally.
“This came through in one week,” said Kawika Ke Koa Pegram, 18, a recent graduate of Waipahu High.
In the preceding week, the organizers communicated with each other through social media, mainly via an Instagram group chat, as they shared fears and frustrations over the death of George Floyd after a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis, as well as fears for the safety of their friends and family on the mainland.
They watched the protests fan across the U.S. and thought how they could safely organize a similar march in Honolulu to protest racial inequity and violence against Black people.
Led by students from Radford High, the group chat included other students from schools like Moanalua High and Waipahu High. At one point, the chat had 45 participants, until leaders weeded out the inactive ones and started a separate chat with 12 of the most active, passionate contributors.
“Early comments were basically based around, ‘How can we be safe and make a difference, without causing harm to ourselves?'” said Samantha Carleton, 15, a Radford student, who started the chat.
The leaders of the core group came to include Burton, Pegram, Carleton, Aletha Salarda, 17, and Nikkya Taliaferro, 16.
An Instagram account, @hawaiiforblacklives, was set up. Its first post, on May 30, was a simple flyer announcing details of a “Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest” to be held June 6 starting at Ala Moana Beach Park. It garnered nearly 1,300 likes.
In the subsequent days, the group posted further details of the march on Instagram, including the exact walking route and reminders to wear masks, bring signs, carry water and snacks, abide by traffic laws and show love and respect for one another.
“I don’t think we ever realized how big it was going to be,” said Taliaferro, a rising senior at Moanalua High. “We were kind of planning on a thousand. A day or two before, I just had this feeling, we knew there would be thousands of people there.”
Burton knew the event would be large based on the density of the crowds gathering at the start of the march at Ala Moana Beach Park.
“I had to make my way to the front,” to give remarks, she said. “It was a crowd of people I was trying to maneuver through, that’s when it dawned on me.”
In Honolulu that Saturday, thousands wearing masks showed up to march the 1.5-mile route from Ala Moana Beach Park to the Hawaii State Capitol, chanting slogans and hoisting handmade signs to condemn police brutality and anti-Black violence.
No outbursts or violence marred the peaceful march, much to the relief of its organizers.
At the Capitol, a couple of the teens, at least two of whom had never before addressed a huge crowd, passionately condemned the scourge of racism and oppression and also invited up several others who wanted to speak.
“I had a general idea of things I wanted to say. But, of course, speaking in front of a large crowd isn’t something I do very often,” said Taliaferro, with a laugh, during a recent Zoom group interview with her fellow organizers.
“I got up there and don’t even remember what I said. I genuinely don’t remember what I said, I’ve been avoiding all the videos of my speech.”
What she did say drew a hush from the crowd.
“My humanity should not be a protest, my humanity should not be debated,” Taliaferro, a Black teen from a military family who moved to Hawaii a couple years ago from Kentucky, told the gathering. “I should not have to be up here telling people that Black lives matter.”
She recalled what was running through her head the day of the march.
“I was just pumped the entire time. After all this planning, we were super, super excited with the turnout and that everything was going according to plan,” she said.
For Pegram, who has prior experience with community organizing from serving as Hawaii state lead for the Hawaii Youth Climate Strike in September, it was a little different.
“Much to the contrast, I had anxiety and panic,” he said during the Zoom interview. “I was keeping up with safety marshals to make sure there was no instigation, looking at rooftops to make sure no one had guns, at the front (with a megaphone), and making sure HPD wasn’t doing anything untoward.”
Because the march came together so quickly, the group didn’t even have time to secure a permit from city officials. It was through that permit-seeking process Pegram said he developed a hunch about possible record turnout.
“The reason I knew this thing would be big — when we tried to get permits, they all knew all about it. HPD knew about it, everyone knew about it,” he said. No agency tried to stop it from going forward.
Another thing that helped the event run smoothly that day, Pegram emphasized, was assistance from outside entities, established groups like Coronacare Hawaii, members of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement and longtime community and political organizers like Ikaika Hussey, founder of the social enterprise, Hawaii Federated Industries, and a member of Unite Here Local 5.
These individuals helped Hawaii For Black Lives obtain sufficient hand sanitizer, face masks, bottled water and bullhorns. A Native Hawaiian group, Koa Mana, also provided volunteers during the event.
“That was a huge factor in why this event came through with zero injuries, zero arrests, zero shouting matches,” said Pegram.
Hussey, who was assisting as an individual, said the key objective among adult organizers was to support the teens.
“It was the youth who provided the messaging, the core mission for what to do and what to say, and my experience in a lot of climate organizing is when youth try to organize, there are far too many adults who get in the way,” he said in an interview. “I would underline the fact that all social movements emanate from youth, that’s always been the case.”
Burton is a military teen who has lived in Hawaii for three years and previously lived at Yongsan Garrison army base in Seoul, South Korea, where her father was based. She finds the recent killings of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — an emergency room technician who was shot and killed in her home March 13 by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky — “heartbreaking.”
“That’s why we’re here, to use our voice,” she said. “It’s safety for me, being a Black person in America, and knowing that I have a younger brother. That’s how I feel, I’m scared, that’s why I’m working with all these amazing people to make sure there will be a change.”
Al Salarda, who was born in the Philippines and has lived in Hawaii for nine years, said she hopes those who attended the rally realize the sentiment expressed there “isn’t just going to be a one time thing.”
“This will (go) on and will continue until change happens,” she said, adding it’s important “to listen to the Black community about their struggles instead of talking over them.”
These teens believe what may manifest as racism in Hawaii may not always resemble some of the other confrontations taking place on the mainland.
Taliaferro, who grew up in a mostly white area of Kentucky, said the environment surrounding the protest movement on the mainland is definitely different than it is in Hawaii, where there is less concern of police facing protestors in riot gear, for instance.
She said her experience with race in a state that is predominantly Asian isn’t just about her identity as a Black person, but as a member of a military family. The low population of Blacks in Hawaii, she said, automatically signals to people an association with the military.
Pegram echoed that though the attitudes toward Blacks in Hawaii may be different, there is still a lot of prejudice directed against other minorities, Micronesians in particular, he said.
“You walk into any (assistant) public defender’s office and you’ll see more Micronesians than any other race, because this is the group that primarily needs assistance,” he said. “To say Hawaii is free from racial prejudice or it’s extremely limited compared to parts of the U.S. is a lie. It’s just exuded in different forms and felt differently.”
The group wants to keep the momentum going, with urging people to vote a key theme. Core organizers are still in touch with each other, though some are busy with summer school.
The Hawaii For Black Lives Instagram account — which has grown to 5,623 followers as of Sunday — remains active, voicing support for a bill requiring detailed disclosure of police misconduct before the state Legislature, promoting Black Lives Matter gatherings by other area organizations and informing its followers about relevant issues, such as the significance of Juneteenth.
They hope to convert that momentum into policy change moving forward.
“Constituents came from all over the island to come in and work on this and show solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” said Pegram, who heads to American University in Washington, D.C., this fall. “That’s political capital that can be used to create change at the Legislature.”
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