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An Interview with Youth-Led Group Hawai‘i for Black Lives

An Interview with Youth-Led Group Hawai‘i for Black Lives

On Saturday, June 6, 2020, like many other places across the globe, Honolulu, Hawai‘i had a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, amongst countless others. But what made this protest unique was that it was hosted by Hawai‘i for Black Lives (HFBL), a group of twelve high school youth coordinators all under the age of 18. The group organized the event through social media, posting the official poster to Instagram on May 30. On June 6, they wrote on Instagram again, “Wow. Today’s protest was phenomenal. We don’t even know how many showed up yet–somewhere between 10k and 20k… This generation will be the generation of change.”

However, it was hard work to achieve such a feat. On top of the logical worries that rippled through the community related to COVID-19, law enforcement, and possible violence, the group encountered viral rumours that aimed to disrupt and sabotage the protest. Despite this, HFBL was able to push through; in large part due to the help that they received from local Hawaiian activists who have been protesting on Mauna Kea against the Thirty Meter Telescope, with respect to sacred land.

The 2.5 mile march, which started at Ala Moana Park and ended at the Hawai‘i State Capitol, hosted speakers from the Black community and the Native Hawaiian community alike, with the Native speakers calling for Hawai‘i to unequivocally stand with Black Lives Matter (BLM). People read poetry and danced hula at the Capitol, and along the march route, the community and businesses supported the protestors by handing out water, snacks, and even boba popsicles.

I had the opportunity of speaking with Nikkya Taliaferro, Samantha Carleton, and Al Salarda of HFBL over Zoom. The three relayed that when they announced the protest on social media–only a week before the march–they were immediately met with community support.

“A lot of people were reaching out to us like, ‘Hey, I can bring water,’ [or] ‘Hey, I know people who have done advocacy work and I can connect you with them,’ so that was great,” Nikkya said. She went on to say that HFBL did not receive much support from the State Government or law enforcement, adding, “They [The Government] protected our right to free speech. They weren’t violent to peaceful protestors… But I guess that’s about it. I wouldn’t say they played any role in our advocacy work. Support came from the community.”

However, safety concerns and rumours began to swirl throughout the community.

“We did have a period where we received backlash, but that was because a lot of people had safety concerns,” Nikkya said.

A viral post circulated on Friday, June 5, a day before the march. The post was supposedly from a nurse at Queen’s Medical Center (QMC) who claimed that the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) had contacted the hospitals because a group had arrived from the mainland to disrupt the protests. The post reads, “These are not nice protestors. We may see a riot which can result in mass traumas, casualties, and structural damage. Be prepared for a Code Triage (disaster plan)… PLEASE, PLEASE stay home and tell your family to stay home this weekend. We don’t know how bad it will get and how this will impact our COVID numbers.”

Thousands of people saw this fake post, many believing it to be true. However, Clare Conners, the Hawai‘i Attorney General, and the HPD stated that those rumors were false and that they had not informed anyone at QMC to prepare for thousands of injured citizens. There weren’t any violent mainlanders coming to destroy the island after all.

“We encourage readers and viewers to be discerning, to rely only on official sources of information and to avoid getting caught up in the dissemination of rumors and/or gossip online,” Connors said in her statement, debunking the rumours prior to the protest.

Al explained, “We had some adult organizers help us, so we consulted with them because people were sending us a lot of posts and we were very concerned… The adult organizers thought that it was just rumours and that it was just people trying to discourage the protests from happening.”

“People wanted to know who was setting the protest up,” Nikkya said. “Especially in the beginning, we weren’t super comfortable being like, ‘This is my Instagram, this is me!’ because we are so young. So I think there were some concerns if this protest was Black-led, who was leading it, who was accountable… And we were organizing something that the media has said is violent. There was a lot of concern, and we [understood] that, but we wanted to protect our identities, too.”

However, among the understandable concerns and troubling rumors, a couple conspiracies were downright ridiculous to the young activists.

“The biggest rumour was that we were like, 30. That we were secretly adults who came from the mainland to try and loot. That came up because I corresponded [through] DMs and I guess my texts are too formal,” Nikkya laughed. “They said that we were secretly 30 because teenagers don’t talk like that.”

She continued, “We had also posted a post that relayed common safety [tips] for [a protest], on the mainland, and people were asking, ‘Well, why are you posting this? You must be planning to loot!’ There were a lot of those random, unproven rumours… But we are willing to tell people who we are now. And after we posted pictures of us at the march, the people who were posting rumours were the same people who congratulated us!”

As the organizers, they also had some safety concerns. Not so much for the HPD, because as Nikkya put it, “The HPD has problems, there are definitely things that need to be improved, but I don’t think a lot of us were super worried about violence. It was less of a concern than for people on the mainland.”

Regardless, they still prepared for the possibility of violence. They had legal observers who documented and monitored interactions between officers and protestors, as well as marshals stationed in between the police and the protestors to mitigate the encounters and make sure there weren’t any escalations. HFBL took mature and thoughtful steps to ensure that there wouldn’t be any looting or violence.

“There was some tension because when we first arrived, there were a bunch of armed police officers and a bunch of unarmed protestors unsure about what to do. But there wasn’t a moment when youth had to step in because they [the marshals] made it clear that it was not our job or responsibility,” Nikkya said. HFBL sent an initial email to inform the HPD about the protest, but the marshals handled it from there.

And luckily, there wasn’t any violence at the protest. However, the group relayed that there were a few times that the police approached protestors who were holding more aggressive signs (like “ACAB” or “Fuck 12”) and the marshals had to step in. Otherwise, everything was peaceful.

“I think we were concerned, but not in the same way, and that’s a privilege that we have here [Hawai‘i]. We don’t have to worry about the police coming in riot gear and spraying tear gas at our protestors. But we do still need to be careful,” Nikkya said.

HFBL was more concerned about the threat of COVID-19. To their relief, Coronacare Hawai‘i reached out to them and attended the protest. Coronacare donated masks, set up hand sanitizer at every water station, and screened protestors for symptoms like coughing or sneezing.

“We love Coronacare, they did so much for us,” HFBL added.

Nevertheless, Governor David Ige released a statement urging protestors to voluntarily self-isolate for a few days after the march. Now, a few weeks after the protest, COVID-19 cases have spiked, going from around 2 new cases a day to 27 on Friday, June 19, the largest single-day caseload since April. However, the spike in COVID-19 cases has been attributed to the reopenings of restaurants, shops, movie theatres, and other indoor spaces, in addition to religious gatherings in Waipahu. Despite what Lieutenant Governor Josh Green has claimed, new cases have not yet been traced back to the protests.

There were, however, thousands who joined the protest. HFBL’s polls estimated that around 500 people would be attending, so they prepared for 1,000 just in case. But even that number was exceeded.

“Someone mentioned that they thought 10,000 people would come, so we were making jokes that Barack Obama would be there, we were joking because we didn’t think that that many people would come out. So it was totally unexpected,” Nikkya said.

The passion of the protestors and the community surpassed their expectations as well. “The speakers were so powerful. Especially a lot of the locals, they were really supportive, saying that, ‘their movement is our movement.’ As Hawaiians, they want to stand and ensure that [Black] people are safe because they [Hawaiians] have gone through it too, saying, ‘Their oppressors are our oppressors,’” Samantha said. “There were a lot of youth advocating for change to correct police violence too.”

The march ended at the Capitol, where people honored BLM with speeches and performances. Nikkya and Samantha spoke, Samantha relaying a message from another youth leader, DeMarcus, who was unable to attend the protest. Four or five other speakers were planned as well. And to an outsider, the protest may have looked like it was adhering to a well-planned program, but in fact, many of the speakers and performances–including the hula and the poetry readings–were spontaneous. Members of the community asked HFBL if they could say a few words or perform.

“Most of the time we were like, ‘Yeah!’ and we’d give them the mic,” Nikkya said. They were willing to go with the flow if they trusted the speaker with the platform.

But now that the protest is over, the group has differing opinions when it comes to long-term solutions for Hawai‘i.

“Personally, I support defunding the police here [In Hawai‘i] as well, I think that a lot of the money we use on our police force now can be allocated to our education system and everything else that desperately needs funding… So there are a lot of solutions that we have all been talking about, we all have different ideas,” Nikkya said.

They discussed how Hawai‘i, regardless of how the media portrays it, is not exempt from prejudices and racism.

Nikkya explained,“Just because the media says that Hawai‘i is a non-racist paradise does not always mean that it is. In some ways, when it comes to minorities in Hawai‘i, I think that because we [Black people] are such a small population, a lot of issues here affect a lot of Micronesian people, for example… So I think that we can address the same problems in the same exact way that they are doing on the mainland, just with a different demographic.”

Going forward, HFBL said that they will continue to host protests and amplify other movements, like the Justice For Breonna Taylor march, which took place on Sunday, June 14 and was organized by Ashley Dee.

But Nikkya also stressed that, “Voting, donating, and signing petitions is just as important as doing something physical. Local elections and bills are just as important as federal elections. So we want to continue to host and promote marches while also taking action and focusing on the legal side of things.”

Samantha added, “A lot of people in our group aren’t able to attend protests, and I know that a lot of other people are unable, so we want to add the resources for ways people can protest from home.”

They would like to set up another protest soon, but right now, they are pushing for the new House Bill 285 (which would require police departments to release information of officers who were suspended or fired due to misconduct) and are urging people to contact their legislators.

Nikkya relented, “Of course, we are still learning, we are all still new to this, so, I don’t know if I can give a good description about what’s exactly next for us and our page. But there’s gonna be something there!”

HFBL also worked with The Pōpolo Project on a Juneteenth celebration, which took place July 19 at Mākālei Park at sunset, where people were encouraged to wear white and bring flowers while, “Celebrating our ancestors, Black liberation, and resilience.”

“Since Junetheenth is a celebration of unity for the Black community, we don’t want to overreach… so we want to work with other organizations on that one. We want to help others,” Nikkya shared prior to Juneteenth.

When asked why they believe Hawai‘i should stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Samantha explained, “In Honolulu, there is a big military population, so you have a lot of people coming from the Continental U.S. and being a military child myself, I had friends in Alabama who were bullied for having darker skin or for having braids in their hair. It’s important that their voices are heard.”

“Even if it’s not as big of an issue here in Hawai‘i, it’s still important… I think that the quote that everyone has been saying, ‘All lives don’t matter until Black lives do,’ is perfect,” Nikkya proclaimed firmly. “Just because it’s not something that directly affects you doesn’t mean it’s not something worth fighting for.”