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Hawai’i Superferry: Resistance Movement

Katy Rose
Date Published: 
January 01, 2008

The Hawai’i Superferry was developed ostensibly to provide affordable inter-island ferry service for passengers and their cars. In many ways, it appealed to local working people with family and friends scattered across the island chain who are restricted to expensive air travel and prohibitive car rental rates if they want to travel throughout the state. Yet, as the plan was revealed, including the Superferry’s covert ties to military interests, the lack of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and the general shut-out of public input on the issue, opposition to the Superferry quickly built momentum on the small, rural island of Kaua’i. Over the past year and a half, a coalition has been built, sometimes painfully, to oppose the Superferry.

The boat made its inaugural voyage from O’ahu to Kaua’i two days ahead of schedule, in an end-run around a court ruling re-affirming the need for an EIS. The ferry was met at Nawiliwili Harbor on Kaua’i by hundreds of protesters on land and a dozen or more surfers and swimmers blockading the harbor in the water. The blockade forced the boat to reverse out of the harbor where it waited for about two hours until Coast Guard vessels succeeded in herding the surfers out of the path of the enormous boat. On land, protesters quickly moved to blockade the gates to the harbor parking lot, effectively preventing cars and passengers from disembarking and leaving the harbor for hours.

The next day, the ferry returned to Kaua’i, only to confront twice as many protesters on land and in the water. Several protestors were arrested. This blockade forced the ferry to turn around and return to Honolulu without disembarking on Kaua’i. The ferry has not returned since.

While various routes are being pursued through the courts with the support of mainstream environmental groups, the Kaua’i-based grassroots coalition continues to organize and strengthen. As it stands, the Superferry has cancelled all scheduled trips to Kaua’i indefinitely, though it is clear they could return at any time. The state has promised to meet protesters with militaristic enforcement of a new “security zone,” which intends to block off public use of the waters and surrounding land, impose fines and federal sentences on those who engage in civil disobedience, and provide a massive show of force by the Coast Guard, SWAT teams, FBI, and possibly police forces imported from the continental United States with no emotional or familial ties to the protesters. The level of aggression promised by the state indicates that there is more at stake in the Superferry’s success or failure than the provision of civilian travel.

Research by coalition members reveals that the main investors in the Superferry project have military ties, including John Lehman, former Under-Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and an architect of the Project for a New American Century. The ferry was built with the capacity to carry Stryker Brigade vehicles. Early in the development process public statements were made by company officials indicating the company’s intention to provide the military with carrier service. It is possible that the military intends to utilize the ferry to transport the Stryker Brigade quickly to “hot spots” around the Pacific Rim.

Opposition to the Superferry came early from mainstream environmental groups, who raised concerns over danger to humpback whales posed by a high-speed, double-hulled ferry traveling through channels that are critical breeding grounds for the whales. Other environmental concerns included the threat of the spread of invasive species (a perennial worry for small, isolated islands with fragile ecosystems).

Concern about the social and cultural impacts of the Superferry began to emerge as people on Kaua’i considered the increased strain on an infrastructure already reaching the breaking point as a result of unchecked tourist development on the island over the last twenty years. Young people raised on Kaua’i have become alarmed over their diminishing hopes of being able to remain on the island as they become priced out. For many, the threat of the Superferry connects with basic land and sovereignty struggles.

One model for the protests came from the actions of local people on the island of Moloka’i—the most rural and traditionally Hawai’ian of the major islands. Several years ago, when cruise ships announced their plans to dock on Moloka’i, the citizens organized protests at the dock which effectively disabled the cruise ships’ plans. Today, no cruise ships dock on Moloka’i. Particularly since the 1970’s, organizing to protect the islands from the depredations of occupation has been steady, but for the most part, protests are rare in Hawai’i—making the Superferry protests big news.

The State has been upping the ante by issuing statements from a newly-formed “unified command,” which includes Homeland Security forces, FBI, Superferry officials, and even the Department of Human Services (which is now directing Child Protective Services to investigate protesters for child endangerment if they or their children get arrested in the protests). The “unified community” of Kaua’i, on the other hand, is not willing to be intimidated.

White privilege

Hawai’i is under illegal occupation by the United States. The history of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani is still fresh and painful to many of the island chain’s Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawai’ians, who comprise the poorest, most disenfranchised sector of Hawai’ian society.

Over the past century, immigration from Asia and the Pacific, and to a lesser extent Southern Europe, provided labor for sugar and pineapple plantations. The descendents of these laborers now make up the majority of Hawai’i’s population. The common term for this diverse group of people is “local.” In Hawai’i, the term “local” applies to all people of Asian and Pacific Island descent—it implies deep roots in the islands as well as a working-class identification. In Hawai’i today, locals are well-represented in politics and civil service, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of Hawai’i’s wealth is in the hands of people of European descent.

The term haole is generally understood to mean “outsider” and is used to describe white people—in particular those who were not born and raised in Hawai’i. These malihini, or “newcomers,” tend to be greeted with a certain amount of understandable distrust by locals.

One of the challenges in building a coalition to oppose the Superferry is that the environmental groups which tend to attract more privileged and white people remain unattractive to most locals. The attitude and behavior of many white environmentalists tends to be arrogant and oblivious to its missionary-like effect.

Often, when newcomers jump on an anti-development campaign or other “green” issue, local people observe that the activists have contributed to the problem by moving here in the first place. The legitimacy of any social movement in Hawai’i turns on its perception as being either a local thing or a haole thing.

Until very recently, the entire leadership of the Superferry opposition was haole. This had a lot to do with the fact mainstream environmental groups took up the issue early on. However, it was also indicative of their own lack of connection to local community. The potential threat of the Superferry to Hawai’i and Kaua’i in particular began to motivate people independent of these environmental groups.

Central to local culture in Hawai’i is the principle of “aloha.” Aloha means much more than “hello,” “goodbye,” and “love.” It encompasses the whole array of expressions of connection and respect to others. Most people in Hawai’i either grow up with the aloha spirit, or they adapt to it with pleasure upon moving here. However, in a protest setting it is often confusing to newcomers how incorporating aloha into our actions can be effective and not compliant.

Approaching interactions in a pono, or righteous, manner is highly important in Hawai’i. However, there are times when the spirit of steadfastness and resolve can dissipate when worries about disrespect and damaged relationships take hold. In the aftermath of the August protests, many local people felt alienated from the movement by media images of boisterousness, cussing and agitation—a minor part of the protests which was naturally exploited by the news media. The critique was often expressed as “Where was the aloha?” Within the movement, there is an ongoing discussion about the tone we set at protests which goes beyond incorporating traditional nonviolence tactics and into the realm of adapting the best of all of our varied backgrounds into a new kind of “pono effectiveness.”

The horizontal self-organization by youth, people born and raised on Kaua’i, surfers, locals and Kanaka Maoli sovereignty activists has provided critical energy and leadership to the movement. It is clear that regardless of the activity pursued in the courts by environmental groups, the single factor which has prevented the Superferry from sailing to Kaua’i has been the “threat” of civil disobedience. In the immediate aftermath of the protests, this group met to plan strategy, learn Hawai’ian chants to use in culturally-appropriate ways during the struggle, and build mutual support in the face of state repression.

About the Author
(with support from Andrea Noelani Brower and Ray Catania)

Katy Rose is a member of Kaua’i Alliance for Peace and Social Justice, a multi-ethnic, anti-racist group of people involved in anti-imperialism, counter-recruitment and other social and economic justice work on Kaua’i. She moved to Kaua ‘i several years ago when her husband, a carpenter, took a job on the island. She is a former union organizer.