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Tanya Smith-Johnson was scrolling through Instagram last week when she paused on a video of a Minneapolis police officer killing a black man.
The Pearl Harbor resident and black mother of six read the caption and her heart dropped. She clicked to play the video with sound.
“I just saw the police officer looking directly at the camera kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, hands in his pockets,” she says.
The officer, Derek Chauvin, was ignoring pleas from bystanders to stop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, and Floyd’s own cry that he couldn’t breathe. “I couldn’t watch it long enough to hear him plead for his mother.”
Smith-Johnson knew the video ended with Floyd’s limp body carried into an ambulance, yet another black man killed by a police officer in America. She put down her phone, filled with sadness and rage.
Since then, Floyd’s death has sparked unrest in more than 140 U.S. cities, with peaceful protests as well as looting, arson and more police violence. On Monday, officers tear gassed peaceful protesters so that President Donald Trump could take a photo near a church.
Honolulu is nearly 4,000 miles away from Minneapolis and only about 3.8% of Hawaii’s population is part African American or black, compared to 12.7% nationally.
But many here are still grieving the killing of Floyd and the systemic racial injustice embedded in the country’s criminal justice system. A Washington Post analysis of police shootings found black Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white Americans.
Floyd’s death came about two months after Louisville police shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, and not long after a video surfaced of white residents in Georgia shooting and killing 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.
Protests in Hawaii have so far been peaceful and relatively small compared with other cities. Over the weekend, more than a hundred people showed up at protests at the Hawaii State Capitol and marched from Waikiki to Ala Moana Beach Park.
Many participated in a vigil Sunday evening at Magic Island organized by the Popolo Project, a Hawaii nonprofit dedicated to sharing stories about the black community and creating spaces for conversation.
On Maui, residents paddled out on surf boards to honor Floyd. More Hawaii protests and gatherings are planned for Wednesday and Saturday and the local NAACP is organizing a virtual town hall Saturday.
Akiemi Glenn, who leads the Popolo Project, says Floyd’s death occurred just as the black community in Hawaii was dealing with online racism sparked by a photo of a group of people partying on Memorial Day despite COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
“This last week has been a little bit of a tipping point, especially locally,” Glenn says, adding that many members of the black community in Hawaii feel misunderstood.
“There’s a whole community of us who live here and are part of Hawaii and part of the local people.”
Even though the black community in Hawaii is relatively small, they make up a disproportionate number of race-related complaints at the state Civil Rights Commission.
The Star-Advertiser reported in 2018 that although the black community made up about 3% of Hawaii’s population, they composed nearly 30% of race-related employment discrimination complaints in the past decade.
Glenn from the Popolo Project says after the picture of the Memorial Day party was posted online last week, “It became a conversation of, this is black people’s culture, they destroy things, they’re criminals.”
Social media posts also compared violent protests on the continent with peaceful Native Hawaiian protests in Hawaii against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
“There’s a lot of online discourse right now around Kanaka (Native Hawaiians) trying to police the way black folks are grieving and protesting and I think it’s so unacceptable,” says Shayna Lonoaea-Alexander, a community organizer in Honolulu whose mixed ancestry includes both black and Native Hawaiian.
Lonoaea-Alexander says the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting against the same powers that support building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
“We asked the world to stand with us (on Mauna Kea) and I think that the world really responded but when black folks are asking it’s a different story,” she says. “I’m tired of people who look like my dad or my brother or my sister being killed.”
To help the black community process what’s happening, Glenn organized a Zoom call on Saturday night with about 80 participants. Several on the call shared they had been threatened during the week, Glenn said.
Some of her group’s members were hesitant to attend a public gathering, she said, noting that several have experienced people calling the police when they gather at Hawaii parks or beaches.
Such racism in Hawaii isn’t surprising to Lonoaea-Alexander. Growing up in Waipahu, she saw how her brothers were picked on and bullied at school for being black.
“A lot of folks believe that because Hawaii is a melting pot that anti-blackness doesn’t exist here,” she said.
“Anti-blackness and racism exists in Hawaii and it’s unacceptable and it’s on all of us to fight for Hawaii, to fight for a country where being black isn’t a death sentence.”
Kenneth Lawson is no stranger to police misconduct. The University of Hawaii law school instructor used to be a defense attorney in the Midwest representing family members of people killed by police. He’s an outspoken critic of police corruption in Hawaii and has marched against racial injustice since he was in high school.
Still, when he watched the video of the killing of George Floyd, Lawson wept.
“It’s traumatic,” Lawson says. He has spent the past week teaching about police violence on Facebook and plans to attend protests this week. “For us, justice doesn’t happen and that’s why you see the uprising.”
For Elisabeth Steele Hutchison, the intense pain of Floyd’s death has been coupled with an unexpected outpouring of support from people she’s known throughout her life. But daily life, already upended by the coronavirus pandemic and a new work-from-home routine, has gotten harder.
“There are some moments when you feel like you’ve got it all under control, and other moments when you realize you’ve been staring at the same words on the screen and your mind kind of goes back to the horror of all of this,” Hutchison says.
Sometimes she gets lost in a work task or her 3-year-old daughter asks her to play and she temporarily forgets.
“You just have to stuff all those feelings back in and just try to find joy because ultimately, what else can we do?” she says.
Smith-Johnson from Pearl Harbor says she hopes that this moment can lead to real change.
“We have all these videos now where people are seeing in real time what’s happening and people are starting to believe what’s happening,” she said. “I hope from now on, people can believe us.”
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