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Hawaii Police Practices

[dc]“F[/dc]erguson” first entered the country’s lexicon on race relations in 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Louisiana Judge John Howard Ferguson’s ruling that his state had the right to seat Homer Plessy in a separate car of a railroad train. In the same year, Caucasians who had overthrown the Kingdom of Hawaiʽi petitioned Congress to annex the Hawaiian Islands despite the opinion of President Grover Cleveland that the overthrow violated international law and insufficient votes in the Senate to do so.

In the intervening years from 1896 to 2014, Hawaiʽi diverged sharply in race relations from Louisiana and the rest of the continental United States despite being annexed in 1898.

Efforts to keep African Americans “in their place” continued, and sugar plantation owners tried to keep Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese “in their place” up to 1954, when the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v Ferguson. In 1952, Japanese residents were finally allowed citizenship by the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, and in 1954 Japanese American voters turned out in droves to defeat the White racists of the Republican Party. That victory was complete in 1959, when Hawaiʽi became a state and began to undo the racism of the past because now the voters could elect their own governor.

Yet writers on race relations in the continental United States seem uninterested in learning how institutional racism was dismantled in Hawaiʽi. Even those opposed to racism seem to prefer fighting the battle in old-fashioned ways rather than finding out how the people of the Islands have achieved unparalleled racial harmony.

Perhaps the best window into the divergence is to analyze why what happened in Ferguson could never have happened in Honolulu. Last year, a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed an unarmed Black citizen but was exonerated by a grand jury consisting of mostly Whites. Reports are that many Blacks were afraid to testify for fear of police retribution. And the mayor and prosecutor, both White, were elected with low voter turnout in a town mostly Black in population, with a very small percentage of Black police officers. During the election a few days before the shooting, the prosecutor indicated that he did not seek Black voters, who were felt intimidated from voting. Police, many of whom live outside Ferguson, stood guard to protect the White shopping mall but not the Black shopping mall on the evening when the grand jury decision was announced, exonerating the White police officer.

Why would such an incident never have occurred in Honolulu?

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  • No police in Honolulu would ever be so disrespectful as to say “fuck” to someone.
  • No police in Honolulu would characterize someone as a “maniac,” especially from a distance of half a football field.
  • Police in Honolulu generally assume lawbreakers are unaware of the law and need to be slowly reminded and talked into giving themselves up; in other words, police do not act hastily.
  • The police force, mostly Native Hawaiian, is roughly representative of the prison population.
  • Members of the police force live in the residentially integrated communities where they work.
  • If a situation has the potential to be racially charged, such as yet another land dispute involving less affluent Native Hawaiians, persons in authority and protesters visibly making public statements on the matter would consist of multiracial groups, not just one person reading something that would be unpleasant news to the other side.
  • Police would not hassle demonstrators but instead talk to the most prominent persons, designate where a protest would be OK, and stand by to help protesters keep the protest from disrupting public order, especially traffic.
  • Voters are never hassled.
  • Strict rules govern when the police in Honolulu may use firearms.

Despite economic inequality in the Islands, as everywhere, several studies have failed to find any racism in the criminal justice system in Hawaiʽi.

Moreover, despite economic inequality in the Islands, as everywhere, several studies have failed to find any racism in the criminal justice system in Hawaiʽi. Not at the level of arrests, prosecution, jury selection or decision making, or by judges. None.

Hawaiʽi operates quite remarkably in matters of criminal justice. For example, there are successful programs to reduce recidivism that have been copied in several states. During the recent housing crisis, no foreclosure could take place in the Aloha State until a mediation session involving both sides, with a mediator supplied by the courts.

Yet the most profound explanation for racial harmony in Hawaiʽi is something called the Aloha Spirit, which greeted the first foreigners who visited the Islands several centuries ago. Native Hawaiians cling to their culture, which has rules of etiquette so decent (the custom of smiling at everyone on the street, for example) that others have been quickly integrated into the fabric of the society. In 1986, observance of those principles were made a matter of law, such that government officials are accountable for their violation, both administratively and in the courts.

But even more telling is the fact that a multiethnic legislature passed the law, including a plurality of Japanese. Buddhist ethics have in fact been ingrained into the culture of the Islands because most schoolteachers after statehood have been either Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Caucasians moving to Hawaiʽi, as I did from 1964-1959, soon discover the joy of operating on the basis of a multicultural ethos.

If police forces throughout the country were to call upon the Honolulu Police Department for technical assistance, the situation in Ferguson might never have happened. Had Ferguson done so, the healing process might have begun before Baltimore, Cleveland, Staten Island, and many other calamities.

michael haas

Ignoring the lessons of Hawaiʽi means endlessly repeating the tragedy of Fergusons.

Michael Haas