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False Alarm: why we should be rethinking someone’s “mistake”

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A screenshot of the emergency alert issued on the morning of January 13th, and 38 minutes later, the news that it was a false alarm.

If you were in Hawaiʻi on January 13th, 2018, you most likely have a story about the nuclear missile alert. If asked, you could probably recount exactly where you were, who you were with, and what you felt or thought (if you indeed felt or thought anything other than numbing dread or disbelief). Since that day, I’ve read and heard many stories, and in a way, I’ve come to realize that we are the stories we’ve lived and told. As First Nations writer Thomas King (2003) once wrote, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (p. 2). They reveal, in other words, our inner truths and beliefs, what we think about the lives we’ve lived (or haven’t), and perhaps even where we think we fit in the world.

Facing the possibility of your own death is one thing, but facing the possibility of mass death—with the potential to destroy everyone and everything you know and love in an instant—is another. And what you do in those moments reveals something about who you are. Some panicked, ran, sought cover in bathtubs, behind shelves, or under tables, and prayed. Others got in their cars, driving somewhere—anywhere—in an effort to “get away” perhaps forgetting that you can only drive so far on an island before moving in a circle. I read stories of mothers holding their children wishing they could have had longer lives, cursing the unfair and unjust world we live in. Then I heard of others who sat calmly and alone, smoking their last cigarettes or drinking what could have been their very last cups of coffee. When I received the alarm, I was at home at my parents’ house on the Big Island and I remember being thankful for having traveled away from Oʻahu that weekend: thankful that I would not have had to die alone. (If that reaction does not reveal some of my innermost insecurities and fears, I’m not sure what will. I am that story.)

When news of a false alarm finally reached our phones and televisions, I sat with my nine-year-old nephew who could not comprehend what had happened. In a span of 38 minutes, he had gone from thinking we could all die, to then wondering what a “false alarm” meant. “So, is it going to hit someone else?” he asked innocently, worried that the missile was aimed at another place, where others would feel the same panic and fear that he had. I held his face in my hands, and looked into his eyes full of fright, and tried to explain what had happened. I tried to comfort and calm him knowing that nothing could erase what he had experienced: the very real fear of death.

In the hours and days that followed, I tried to make sense of that morning. And while I am still processing and unpacking the emotions, I know this:

What happened was an act of violence, an act of violence that has been conveniently overshadowed by another story: the story of a man who made a terrible mistake and the failure of anyone to do anything about it for a long 38 minutes.

In the aftermath of the false alarm, more attention has been paid to “the employee who pushed the wrong button” and to the time it took to respond to his error than to the larger context that made (and still makes) this entire situation possible. It may have been a false alarm—and yes, we may have been called a “Tragic Comedy” by North Korea and may have been laughed at, mocked, and ridiculed for our apparent incompetency as a “state”—but all of that simply distracts from the fact that this is our reality!!

“Hawaiʻi is one of the most densely militarized regions under U.S. control, with military controlling 205,925 acres, or roughly 5% of the land. On Oʻahu, the most densely populated island, the military controls 85,718 acres out of 382,148, or 22% of all the land” (Kajihiro, 2000). And I cite all of this cognizant of the fact that the U.S. military controls an even larger percentage of land on Guam and that our Pacific brothers and sisters have had their fair share of threats, alarms, and moments of dread and panic, suffering pains we haven’t experienced. All of this, however, is to say that the overwhelming focus on the “mistake,” and even Trump’s assertion that it was simply a “state thing,” vindicates the United State’s government and the central role it plays in not only creating the conditions of possibility for such a missile threat to be made, but for sustaining and celebrating those conditions as well.

There is a sort of mindlessness that gets perpetuated when we are strategically told, and made to focus on, one particular story. Yes, someone made a mistake: a huge, tragic, horrifying mistake. However, if we do not pause to reflect on the larger structures of power within which that mistake was made then we have accepted the “norm,” or what Hawaiian activist and scholar Haunani-Kay Trask (2004) calls “the natural, everyday presence of the ‘way things are,’” which is deeply tied to maintaining “the strength and resilience of racism” (p. 10). In short, if we keep talking about one individual’s mistake, and if that’s the story we spend all our time thinking about, then we’re missing the point!

So, although I’m still trying to understand it all myself, here’s at least part of that “point”:

The heartbreaking missile alarm made the dangers of militarism in Hawaiʻi real for everyone here, not just those who’ve been calling for demilitarization for decades; not just those who carry signs and write letters of concern and protest to army stations who desecrate land; and not just those who’ve been branded as “anti-American.”

No. This touched everyone.

Regardless of color, age, gender, orientation, religion, or place of origin, if you were here, you felt the impact of that morning, and maybe (even if in the smallest way) you got a real taste of the harsh, bitter truth: here in Hawaiʻi we are a potential target for a reason, a reason that goes far beyond our strategic location in the Pacific, a reason that is tightly bound to racist and colonial notions and attitudes towards indigenous peoples, our lands, and our futures. As the late Teresia Teaiwa (2017) articulates, “Historically, black and native or indigenous bodies have not been treated with much dignity under colonial and imperialist regimes” (p. 3). And in the category of “bodies,” I include the biggest, most wonderfully important body: our brown mother earth beneath us. It is the lack of dignity with which we have been treated, in other words, which makes the mere possibility of the missile threat somehow acceptable. When your lands, your bodies, and your lives have been seen as “less than” or even disposable for generations, then you become conditioned to such treatment. And this makes perpetual acts of violence possible.

Our islands—like those in Micronesia and elsewhere—have experienced the pain and violence of militarism because of our proximity. And when I say this, I am referring to so much more than our geographical location. As Māori scholar, Alice Te Punga Somerville (2017) explains, “in some militarized terms, Pacific proximity to Asia is advantageous; in others, such as weapons testing and tourism, [and, if I may add, nuclear targeting] the value of the Pacific lies in its distance from ‘reality’” (p. 329). In other words, our islands are close enough to “enemy” countries to serve as a strategic military outpost for the United States. At the same time, we are far enough away from the “mainland” that we can be harmed without directly impacting those on the continent: we can not only take the hit but we can also keep that hit somewhat contained, on an island, far away, in the “middle of the sea,” (as we are often characterized). We matter, in other words, but only so much as we can be used to protect and maintain the colonial power.

In the hours after those brutal 38 minutes, I found myself not only sad, but also incredibly angry. I listened to people place blame on the man who pushed the button, as if this “mistake” could be placed on one individual alone. Even my nieces and nephews were quick to direct their anger towards that one person. While his devastaing slip-up is unforgivable, the story of his “epic fail” conveniently distracts attention from the United State’s government. One of my nephews even made comments about North Korea: “Why are they so mean? Why do they want to kill us?” he asked. What he doesn’t yet know is that the same country that claims to “save” him from dangers, or worse, that claims military presence and destruction is for his own good, is the same country that knowingly and purposely used our Pacific neighbors as targets for nuclear testing, leaving generations to suffer the effects of radiation; the same country that bombed our own islands; and the same country that still bombs sacred and significant portions of land not 45 minutes from his home.

What worries me, therefore, is that U.S. military presence in Hawaiʻi has become so normalized for them, and for so many of us, that anger quickly turned to one individual, or to another place and people, rather than to the country we are currently being occupied by and to the so-called “leader” who took far too long to respond to the threat and then responded with little to no emotion at all when he finally did. (As an aside, if his lack of empathy and his refusal to take any responsibility for the situation does not serve as a glaring confirmation of the way Hawaiʻi has been seen, used, and abused, then I don’t know what will.)

Normalization, however, does not begin and end in this story. A few months ago, my nine-year-old nephew came home with a bag of “goodies” from school. He was given a lanyard, a pencil, and other little knickknacks all printed with the words: “Follow the 3Rs of Explosives Safety. Recognize. Retreat. Report.” The fact that we have to send our children to schools where they are informed and warned about the dangers of unexploded ordnance, not only in their hometown but also in their learning environment, is a tragedy. But, he (like so many others, and like I did at his age) did not question his bag of “goodies.” There was no sense of alarm. Instead, there was, and is, only a quick acceptance of the “way things are”: the sight of tanks driving through town; the sound of explosives in the distance; the shaking houses and trembling hearts at night; and the strong recruitment strategies that begin in elementary school when military personnel come to school campuses, bringing their equipment and vehicles, glorifying war.

This—all of this—is an act of violence, an act of violence against a place and a people deemed just important enough for military strategy and location but not important enough for genuine care. As Brandy Nālani McDougall (2014) presents in her moving poem, “The Second Gift,” violence is so much more than the physical force we often equate it with:

Violence is more than lodging
bullets into our brown or black
bodies, but also burning
sacred valleys, stabbing tunnels
into mountains, damming streams,
dumping poisons into oceans,
overdeveloping ʻāina, bombing
and buying islands…

Violence is what we’re use to…

Violence is believing
you are in the United States
driving on a highway
built over the sacred,
carrying artillery to scorch
the sacred so more sacred lands
can become the United States
through violence. (pp. 251-252)

Borrowing from post-colonial scholar Frantz Fanon, Haunani-Kay Trask (2004) characterizes this as a sort of “peaceful violence” or a kind of oppression that is either hidden from view or is so hypervisible that it is almost invisible (pp. 9-10). Militarism is everywhere and it is precisely its ubiquity that makes it so powerful. When it seeps into everything we know and do, it becomes so commonplace, so much the “norm,” that we stop questioning it. And that is how power is maintained, and perhaps worse, how violence becomes “peaceful” in that it is either no longer truly seen or is forgiven upon impact.

The false nuclear missile alert is a perfect example of this. We may not see it as a violent act because we’ve accepted certain stories: stories of “mistakes,” peppered with the rhetoric of nationalism—served on the side of military discounts, radio “on-this-day-in-military-history” shout-outs, and daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance—that support the militarization of our lands and homes, or at least work to maintain it. This is an act of violence, one that kills our faith in ourselves and in the belief that we deserve basic human rights like safety. We’ve been displaced, disposed, and disenfranchised, and perhaps worse, we’ve been made to believe that our marginalized position is critical for the sake of the “nation” (someone else’s nation at that). Thus, we’ve become numb to the violence, holding our pains and hiding our bruises while convincing ourselves that it’s “not that big of a deal.”

I worry when I think about how quickly some have moved on from the missile alarm. It’s been just over a week and already the dominant stories I hear include statements like: “It was just a mistake” or “The ‘state’ is taking measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” There’s so much focus on technicalities. But I can’t move on that quickly. A part of me is stubborn and resistant because I believe that if we brush this off as being that simple—the result of one person’s mistake on one tragic day—then we will allow ourselves, time and time again, to be the subjects of violence.

So, instead, I’d rather shift the focus and ask:
What about us?
What about our land?
Our people?
Our future?
What about our stories?

The events of January 13th, 2018 have the potential to change the way we view our islands and ourselves. They can be an opportunity to stand up and speak out against the forces that threaten our physical, spiritual, cultural, and emotional existence every single day. They can inspire in us a time of reflection and a time to reacquaint ourselves with what it truly means to be an indigenous warrior, not part of a regime designed to kill en masse but part of a collective dedicated to protecting the earth and the future.

If you’ve already forgotten the nuclear missile alarm, or if you’ve moved on, rethink it. Revisit it and tell your story. Be your story. Be your critical story of resistance and speak your truths. Only then will we begin to fight against the real threat, which is not a false alarm or even some unfortunate “state” employee who made a tragic mistake, but the entire structure of power that made January 13th even possible.

 

References:

King, T. (2003). The truth about stories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kajihiro, K. (2000). Nation under the gun: militarism and resistance in Hawaiʻi. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, https://www.culturalsurvival.org /publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/nation-under-gun-militarism-and-resistance-hawaii

McDougall, B. (2014). The second gift. In A. Yamashiro & N. Goodyear-Kaʻōpua (Eds.), The value of Hawaiʻi 2: Ancestral roots, oceanic visions (pp. 250-253). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Somerville, A. (2017) The great Pacific garbage patch as metaphor: the (American) Pacific you can’t see. In B. Russell Roberts & M. Stephens (Eds.), Archipelagic American Studies. (pp. 320-338). Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Teaiwa, T. (2017). The articulated limb: theorizing indigenous Pacific participation in the military industrial complex. Pacific Dynamics: Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 1(1), 1-20.

Trask, H.-K. (2004). The color of violence. Social Justice, 31(4), 8-16.

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Chanting with Waves

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Pololū, Kohala, Hawaiʻi

For PASI 301

I once met a man who chanted with waves.

Words s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, vowels e-l-o-o-n-g-a-t-e-d, chanted s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y.

He was not in control of the timing, nor of time itself. The waves were. Thus, his breaths mimicked the rhythm of the ocean, which on that day, were smooth, slow, and steady.

He had not always been this way, of course. In fact, history had stripped his tongue of the taste of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the language his ancestors spoke, making the chant feel foreign in his mouth. He struggled with the words, rolled them around, chewing on them, all the while frustrated at what should have been his since birth, but wasn’t.

When I spoke to him years later, he recalled being led to the shoreline. His teacher pointed to a stone. “Here,” he was told, “stand here.” Nervously, he did as his teacher instructed, steadying his bare feet on the hard, black surface beneath him, eyes fixed on the ocean.

He would rather have eaten stones. But here, he was made to swallow the sea.

Now chant.

Each line had to follow a wave, a single wave, as it moved toward the shore. He was told that he could not complete a line until the water hit the sand. Thus, the once small and simple chant was drawn out, slowed down, made to match the tempo of the waves, the tune of the sea, the flow of his Pacific. There was no rushing the process for there could be no rushing when it came to remembering who and what he was.

It was hard at first, as hard as the stubborn stone he stood upon. But slowly, s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y, memorization and recitation gave way to internalization, to feeling the chant, to knowing it, and tapping into an ancestral rhythm that was always there, yes, there, just beneath the surface.

He had learned to chant with the ocean.

His story always comes back to me, much like the incessant waves that beat upon the shore and return, time and time again, no matter how many times they are sent away. It washes over me. Unlike him, however, I grew up chanting the chants of my ancestors, grew up dancing their dances too. I never knew the discomfort he felt, never experienced how the ancestral could feel foreign in the mouth and in the body.

And yet, he had seemed to capture something I’ve been trying my entire life to grasp: the ocean.

As one of my intellectual ancestors, Epeli Hauʻofa, once said, the ocean is “the inescapable fact of our lives” (p. 405). She is always there, always present, always impacting: hitting us when we need to be hit, soothing us when we need to be soothed, and rocking us gently when we need both compassion and reality.

And while many of us “lack the conscious awareness” of the ocean, she never turns away from us or hides away, irritated at our ignorance (p. 405). Rather, she waits because “The potentials [of the sea] are enormous, exciting—as they have always been” (p. 405).

When he said he chanted with waves, that’s when I learned, truly learned, what Epeli had been saying all along: The ocean is in us. Our words, our chants, and our actions are not meant to merely mimic the waves or to follow the sea. They are meant to remind us of the ocean that exists within, of our own fluidity, or as my intellectual hero, Teresia Teaiwa, once said, of the salt water we cry and sweat. Yes, the ocean is in us. Thus, to tap into that fluid and always expanding nature within is to chant, dance, write, stomp, rage, cry, and sing with the waves, never against them (never against ourselves).

Yesterday his story returned to me once again as I said goodbye to a group of students who I have shared the last twelve weeks with. I will not say that I “taught” them. Rather, I will honor the fact that we taught each other, and that we learned and grew together. As we moved around the classroom, listening to each student share their personal reflections, stories, and highlights from the term, I felt like that man, standing on the shoreline, chanting with the waves.

You see these students had become my waves, my ocean.

Over the past 3 months, I’ve watched them rise like the tide to fill spaces that had once been left empty in their own lives, and then to tread in their wholeness, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes passionately. I watched them emerge—struggling at times, as we all do—but emerge nonetheless. Yesterday, they spoke of voice, of passion, of confidence, of pride, of responsibility, of ancestral wisdom, of dreams, of hope, of love. “Love,” one of them said, “is a political act!”

What more could I have asked for?

They had embraced love as a social force, a force for change. They had hopes for freedom, not just politically, and not just for themselves. They knew that if they stared too intently at the stones they stood upon as individuals that they would miss the pull, the draw, and the tune of the ocean. So, they embraced it. They embraced it as part of themselves.

It was liberating.

For it was not just the Pacific that had been liberated, but it was the ocean within them that had been freed. 

Freed to flow.

And it did flow: smoothly, s-l-o-w-l-y, steadily. They created waves and they became waves, beating against my heart, soothing and rocking my soul. They made me want to move and chant with them. They shared their dreams and hopes for our Pacific, and in time, I settled into their rhythm, and their dreams and hopes became my own, for them, for all of us.

As I left the classroom, I carried hope, like the man who chanted with waves, an internal, beautiful, and radical hope for the future. And although I cannot see or predict that future, I know we will create it together: me, my waves, and our Oceania.

References:

Hauʻofa, E. (1998). The ocean in us. The Contemporary Pacific, 10(2), 391-410.


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For West Papua: A March with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benny Wenda

The following piece was written to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (being celebrated in America today) and to raise awareness for West Papua. It was also written as a reflection on the work organized and performed by Oceania Interrupted, a collective of Māori and Pacific women raising awareness for issues affecting our Pacific region. Benny Wenda is an independence leader for West Papua, currently living in exile in the United Kingdom. This creative piece is an imagined dialogue between Martin Luther King, Benny Wenda, and myself.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

“Who will be the voice?” Benny asks. “Who will be the voice?”

I hear Martin’s words, singing: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

This matters. West Papua matters!

So, I take one step forward, my hands bound, my mouth covered in their flag, my body adorned in nothing but a black lavalava. My skin, mourning. But I find the breeze, kiss the rain, and bathe in spots of sun. 

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements. Our pace is that of sacrifice, of suffering, of struggle. It is slow. But it moves forward, one step at a time.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once told us that “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

Every step forward is another step towards justice.

Benny’s eyes water for his people: “Our people cry the last fifty years” but “Because we are ‘primitive’, nobody listens.”

I want to cry. I want to cry for them. But I will not dress the flag that binds my mouth in tears. I will only wear it with strength. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

I stand in a line of women, Oceanic women, interrupted. Interrupting spaces, thoughts, actions. Giving space for West Papua: space to learn, space to see, space to feel.

I can feel the woman ahead of me, the one behind, our breaths in synch. Marching.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted

Martin once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

We stand for West Papua!

Fifteen years. Fifteen years is the amount of time a person in West Papua can be imprisoned for raising their flag. We wear it voluntarily.

At home, I can raise my Hawaiian flag everyday; I can wear it on my chest. I can speak of sovereignty, speak of indigenous rights. I am privileged.

So, I take another step forward. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. 

Every step forward, no matter how small, is another step towards justice.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny’s hope is like the wind pushing at my back: “I promise, one day West Papua Free! One day I will invite you to meet my tribe, when West Papua is free!”

I think of what his eyes have witnessed: the killings, the rapes, the torture, the imprisonment of his people and I am amazed at his resilience.

He limps forward, his leg injured in the bombing of his village. Every step, painful. Every step, suffering. Every step a sacrifice.

Martin’s words remind us in windy whispers, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Every step forward, even if crawling, is another step towards justice.

Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements.

Benny asks again, “Who will be the voice?”

I will. We will.

We cannot be silent. Silence and absence can be mistaken as consent. I do not consent to what is happening in West Papua. Therefore, I will not be silent. I will not be absent.

I will march. We will march, giving voice to those who cannot speak, to those who cannot fight.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

Benny reminds us that we are not separate: “On the outside, we seem a different colour, but inside of your blood, what colour is that? It’s red.”

Therefore, to fight for our Pacific family is to fight for ourselves.

We all bleed red.

“Who will be the voice?” he asks again, then answers his own question, saying, “You are the voice of the tribal peoples around the world.”

Yes we are, Benny. Yes, we are. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.

Every step, no matter how small, no matter how difficult, no matter how scary, is another step towards justice.

Walk with me.

https://www.facebook.com/OceaniaInterrupted

Photo by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted.

All photos are by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted and were originally posted here. The photos come from a series of acts performed in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. The first was at the Indonesian Embassy and the second was at the Positively Pasifika Festival held at Waitangi Park. The performances, using visual and performative art, were aimed at raising awareness for West Papua. They were entitled “Capital Interruption: Free West Papua.”

For more information on Oceania Interrupted, visit their page here.

All quotes by Benny Wenda are from here.

For more information on Benny Wenda, read his biography here.

For inspirational quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr., you can find them here.

And finally, for more information on West Papua, go to the Free West Papua Campaign page here.