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On May 1, Hawai’i state officials announced their plan to market the islands to tourists as “the safest place on earth.” While Hawai’i has long been sold as a place to relax, enjoy, and escape the problems of the world, the current global pandemic seems to have provided state officials with a new selling point, one that latches onto worldwide concerns about safety, security, health, and well-being in the face of COVID-19.

This announcement came just one day after the U.S. Navy revealed its plan to proceed with RIMPAC, the international Rim of the Pacific maritime exercises it hosts in Hawai’i every other year. In 2018, the war games brought 25 nations, over 200 aircraft, 46 ships, five submarines, and over 25,000 military personnel to Hawai’i. While noting that the biennial war games will be limited to two weeks of “at-sea-only” events in August, citing growing concerns about the novel coronavirus, the exercises will still include “anti-submarine warfare, maritime intercept operations, and live-fire training events,” and will therefore still bring their destructive force to Hawai’i’s people and natural environments.

While seemingly unrelated, these two announcements are indicative of Hawai’i’s reality, sitting as it does at the nexus between tourism, militarism, and ongoing, violent settler colonialism. In Hawai’i, it is tourism and everything it sells, from the image of paradise to the promise of peace and relaxation, that continues to serve as the mask behind which military occupation and colonization hide—or at least the mask behind which they can attempt to disguise their ongoing destruction and devastation.

If COVID-19 has revealed anything in the last few months, however, it is that colonialism, racism, and militarism cannot hide. They cannot quarantine or isolate in a global pandemic, especially when they have to become essential workers for the state, working overtime to normalize their presence and to further extend their power in a time of crisis and mass uncertainty.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Hawai’i. In the beginning of April, for instance, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell called for construction to commence on a controversial park project in Waimānalo, Oʻahu, assuming that social distancing rules and restrictions would deter people from coming to protect their lands. His decision proved that the state will use everything—even a global pandemic—to push its own agendas at the expense of Indigenous people.

The problem is that Hawai’i—or the constructed version of Hawai’i that has been created to sit somewhere in the Western imagination—is not seen as a place where racism, militarism, and colonialism continue to impact people’s lives. Instead, it’s seen as a place to which people retreat to escape the problems these structures create and maintain.  

In order to frame Hawai’i in this way, the state must erase Indigenous people, or at least push them far enough into the background where they can serve as props, scenery, or service to the tourists’ dreams. Safety, quite simply, is promised to the tourist and to the visitor, while genuine safety and security for Hawai’i’s people is ignored—or at least can be ignored as long as Hawai’i’s people are positioned too far into the backdrop to matter.

The reality is that Indigenous Hawaiians are not safe, not in Hawai’i or in the continental U.S. In the time of COVID-19, for instance, the rate of infection among Indigenous Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders in Hawai’i has been disproportionately high. Outside of the Hawaiian Islands, where numbers are available, the rate has been more than twice the state average in California and more than three times that of white Americans in Oregon. Rates are also high in Alaska, Colorado, Utah, and Washington. Due to major socioeconomic disparities, Indigenous Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have disproportionately high rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes and are less likely to have access to health insurance with an uninsured rate of 18% versus 13% for white Americans. Underpinning these facts are the racist and colonial structures that deny Indigenous Hawaiians, pushing them down and out while simultaneously promising safety as a luxury to those who visit Hawai’i.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that this version of safety comes with bullets and bombs, both of which are used to reinforce the idea of protection even while they destroy and desecrate. What this speaks to is the notion (or the myth) of American innocence, or the idea that any and all wrongs, even atrocious and horrific ones, are forgivable if they are done for the supposed betterment of humankind, despite that “betterment” continually coming at the expense of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. This is what keeps people believing in the principles of equality and justice for all, even while the U.S. as a nation relied upon, and continues to rely upon, the ongoing dispossession and genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement and criminalization of Black Americans, and the marginalization of people of color.

Blowing up lands, polluting waters, and putting people’s lives in danger in Hawai’i and other parts of the Pacific, like Guåhan (Guam) and the Marshall Islands in Micronesia, is acceptable as long as the government can justify that it is of benefit to the larger majority. Indigenous Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders—like marginalized and dispossessed communities in the continental U.S.—are not deemed important enough to be included in that majority, not when the U.S. Navy sees nothing wrong with war games in the middle of a global pandemic.

In the time of COVID-19, there is opportunity to rethink and truly redefine safety and security.

While Hawai’i state officials have enforced strict quarantine rules in light of the pandemic—even being criticized for how those rules have made tourists feel as if they are being imprisoned and how the strict measures and requirements seem to work against the “aloha spirit” the tourism industry sells—their efforts have not been enough and will never be enough so long as tourism, militarism, and colonialism take priority over Hawai’i’s people. When Hawai’i is advertised as a safe place, the question must be raised: Who will it be safe for?

Will it be safe for the Indigenous Hawaiians who still get arrested for protecting their land? Will it be safe for the Indigenous Hawaiian who is still more likely to be targeted, incarcerated, homeless, jobless, stricken with disease, or further dispossessed of land and connection to place? Will it be safe for those who must live with the incessant impacts of the ongoing military occupation of their home? Will it be safe for the people whose lives are viewed as being expendable enough to bring ships, military personnel, live-fire training, and explosives to their shores?

The U.S. Navy’s insistence that RIMPAC continue, and Hawai’i state officials’ support of this decision, answers these questions quite explicitly, despite the tireless efforts of Cancel RIMPAC Coalitions, Indigenous activists, peace and justice advocates, environmentalists, and protectors of Hawai’i’s lands and waters to convince government officials, elected politicians, and representatives from the U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific command that safety cannot be piggybacked onto social, environmental, and cultural endangerment. Safety, in the guise of bombs and bullets flying in the distance of a stretch of white sand and palm trees, continues to be extended to some at the expense of others. However, even while the state continuously destroys and endangers, those marginalized communities not considered human enough for protection will continue to work toward a future that will offer everything—including genuine safety and security—to everyone.

Dr. Emalani Case is a Hawaiian woman, scholar, activist, writer, blogger, and dancer. She is deeply engaged in issues of indigenous rights and representation, dietary colonialism and food sovereignty, art and activism, political independence, and environmental and social justice.

Dr. Emalani Case

Dr. Emalani Case