The State of Aloha

Perhaps there is no death more terrible, more ignominious, than having the life stomped out of you by frenzied holiday shoppers at the entrance to Wal-Mart at 5 in the morning. It may sound crazy, but that is exactly what happened to Jdimytai Damour on the day after Thanksgiving in Long Island.

In 2008, a crowd had started gathering outside the retail store the night before at around 9. It was a cold November night in New York, so by the time the doors were ready to open early the next morning, the crowd had swelled to around 2,000 and become unruly. When the doors started to open, shoppers started pushing their way in. The doors buckled and broke. Glass shattered and a stampede into the mega-store began.

Damour was thrown to the ground and trampled by the stampede. Pleas to stay calm and give the employees room to care for him went unheeded. Attempts to revive him failed and he died one hour later at a nearby hospital.

And that was how Black Friday began in 2008.

Don’t think the madness over material goods was limited to Nassau County. Later that same day in Southern California, two people were shot in a gunfight that erupted inside a toy store. Since that year, stories of violence arising out of holiday deals have flooded in from all over the country. Shots are fired in Florida over a parking space. A woman unleashes pepper spray upon a line of her fellow shoppers waiting to see the latest Xbox because she did not appreciate all the pushing and shoving. Shoppers in the Midwest were discovered carrying knives, more pepper spray and handguns.

The big spending day has been escalating for most of the 20th century. The Macy’s Day Parade is as essential to Thanksgiving as turkey and that green bean casserole with crispy onions on top. New floats are introduced every year, but since the 1920s the finale never changes: Santa Claus. He’s there to mark the official start of the holiday season. And what better way to get on with the holidays than with a big post-Thanksgiving sale?

The shopping has now become what one of my friends has deemed “the cataclysmic mall event.” Almost half of the states have declared the Friday after the holiday a day off for government workers (Hawaii is not one of them.). The post-Thanksgiving automobile and foot traffic around the shopping and commercial areas of Philadelphia got so bad that by the early 1960s, the police started calling that day black Friday. The term stuck and retailers have given up trying to shake it.

Nowadays, they use the day to advertise big sales and keep their doors open from the early-morning hours to late in the evening. Queen Ka’ahumanu Center announced earlier this month that it’s going to be open as early as 6 a.m. today. It’s not closing till 9.

Why do stores one-up each other on the deals and hours year after year? Because it works. Retailers snare huge profits on Black Friday. The National Retail Federation – a retail trade association – conducted a nationwide survey of shoppers in 2012 and reported that 247 million people went shopping over Thanksgiving weekend last year. The average shopper spent $423 per person; 89 million ventured out on Black Friday itself.

Stores want the weekend to last even longer and have started crossing over into Thanksgiving night. This year, Wal-Mart announced that the deals will start as early as 6 on Thanksgiving night. Shoppers can digest their meal as they push carts down aisles, I guess. The day after Thanksgiving is swallowing up Thanksgiving itself.

Nobody seems to mind all that much. People like the deals and revel in the madness. The parking lots around the malls here are surely going to be jampacked. The stores will be full of shoppers and the food courts will be buzzing. The shopping is now part of the holiday tradition itself.

It’s a bit disturbing. I can’t help but go back to Long Island and think of Damour. He was a 34-year-old immigrant from Haiti. He lived in Queens. His friends called him Jimbo. He wasn’t even a Wal-Mart employee. He got the job through a labor agency that sent workers out to retail stores to help handle the holiday bulge. That was how he ended up on the front line of Black Friday before he died.

None of the violence streaming across national news feeds has ever come out of Hawaii. Let’s be thankful for that.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Televised coverage of government bodies is far from riveting programming. But last week Friday, the business of the state Capitol made for some pretty good TV. The House was debating the same-sex marriage bill.

I found the show to be a real eye-opener. I certainly don’t pay much attention to our representatives at work. I certainly had never heard most of them speak before. Listening to speeches in support of or in opposition to the proposed bill was the most intriguing thing about the live coverage that night.

I like a good argument. On full display for everyone to see was the entire panoply of legislative justifications to do something or, in the case for some on the floor that night, to not do something.

There was Jo Jordan – an openly gay representative from Waianae – who emotionally stood by her decision to vote against gay marriage. Her reasons were kind of strange.

And then there was Maui’s own Mele Carroll. Her position was a real head-scratcher. Her 20-minute oration in opposition to the now instantly historic piece of legislation meandered from criticism of the long lines of testifiers to quoting testimony from Native Hawaiians who believe that gay marriage is another form of cultural imperialism. In the end, I was left with no real clear explanation for her opposition. I just knew that she wasn’t going to vote for it.

But perhaps the most eyebrow-raising opponent of the bill who spoke on the House floor was a woman named Sharon Har. Ms. Har’s voice boomed into the microphone. She was enraged by the language in the committee report. She harangued the majority and waved her papers around saying that the legislative record was rife with inaccuracies.

The supporters were treating the affair as a foregone conclusion. And rightfully so. They knew they had the votes. House Majority Leader Scott Saiki reminded one of my friends of the guy at a wedding who has to give the obligatory mahalos for the slide show, the food and the wonderful centerpieces.

Presiding over this mix of personalities was the speaker, Joe Souki. The speaker was almost serene at times. And finally when everyone had his or her say – both for and against – there was the call for recess. Recess? What a cliffhanger! About 20 minutes later it was all over. The same-sex marriage bill passed, and it was now left for the Senate to approve it Tuesday.

The Senate did not want to reopen this debate and the bill passed in the form the House approved. On Wednesday, it was no surprise that the governor signed it into law and Hawaii joined the other 14 states that recognize marriage between members of the same sex.

The legislation is part of a much bigger story. Hawaii will always be linked with the same-sex marriage debate. It started here 23 years ago. In 1990, three same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses with the state Department of Health. The department unsurprisingly turned them down after the state attorney general issued an opinion stating that the constitutional right to marry was limited to members of the opposite sex.

The couples brought a lawsuit in Honolulu, but the trial court dismissed it outright before it went to trial. The couples took their case up to the Hawaii Supreme Court, and in 1993 the court held that a statute limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex was inherently unconstitutional.

The high court noted that this was a form of discrimination that did not comport with the equal protection clause in the state constitution. It sent the case back down to the trial court to determine if the government could justify this kind of discrimination. It couldn’t, and for almost two years homosexual couples were free to marry in the state of Hawaii.

It sparked a nationwide debate. The backlash came in 1998 when the Hawaii Constitution was amended to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples. The constitution now had a dubious provision that allowed the Legislature “the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.”

After decades, the debate has come back to the islands. Proponents of same-sex marriage asked whether this power could be exercised to simply allow same-sex marriage. In a strange twist, the attorney general’s office issued an opinion stating that it could.

That led to the legislation we’ve been reading about today. Opponents have already questioned whether this week-old legislation is even constitutional in light of the 1998 amendment. Rep. Bob McDermott has brought a lawsuit that challenges the Legislature’s ability to even pass this law. That may mean this debate is not over, and his lawsuit may end up in the place where it all started decades ago: our Supreme Court.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Everyone has a ghost story in Hawaii. It doesn’t matter how educated, how prominent, experienced or logical you are. Everyone knows about some kind of reportedly haunted spot on the island. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ve still heard about a weird account from a friend of a friend or your hippie auntie or even your crazy uncle.

Every couple of years, a new development becomes the epicenter for rumor, conjecture and wild speculation. I remember when it was the Nature Center in Iao Valley and later The Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua. Now we’ve got Safeway.

When the developers of Maui Lani started clearing the kiawe, scrub brush and sand dunes just below the old Sand Hills subdivision and right across the street from Baldwin High School to make way for a new commercial development, it came across an unexpected find. The workers found old human remains and disturbed graves. A controversy began.

The developers had to appear before the burial council – an agency under the Department of Land and Natural Resources – to address how they would handle the disrupted graves.

Native Hawaiian groups described the need to be culturally sensitive and respectful to the remains found there. Some residents have even threatened legal action for the treatment of the graves. Last June, a group called Hui Pono Ike Kanawai held a 12-hour candlelight vigil for the iwi, or bones, that have resurfaced. The group noted the historical significance of the site.

The new Safeway may have been built over an old battleground. In the late 18th century, a few years before Capt. James Cook landed at Waimea, the islands were controlled by strong chiefs who forged alliances among the islands. The high chief who ruled Maui Nui, which included Lanai and Molokai, successfully repelled an invasion from a Big Island chief. The battle took place among the sand dunes of Wailuku. The invaders were outnumbered and destroyed. Many died in the dunes, and their bodies were piled in heaps.

The battle was very important. The casualties were so great and the Maui warriors were so dominant that it kept the invasion in check for nearly 30 years – before Kamehameha invaded. His battle in the West Maui Mountains took place in nearby Waikapu. This time, the Maui troops retreated through the sand dunes into Iao Valley, where they were ultimately defeated.

The builders stated publicly that they have respectfully relocated the remains as per a plan before the burial council. They also had the grounds of the Safeway and its parking lot blessed for good measure.

You can see the developer’s efforts for yourself. In the parking lot between the store and the old Sand Hills subdivision, you can see two stately, low-lying platforms assembled from smooth stones. Ti leaves surround the platforms, and all around it is a black iron fence.

But some say the spirits of the dead are restless. Folks say the new Safeway is haunted. By now, most people have heard something about the new place.

The dead are a part of life here. Safeway’s allegedly supernatural status is a classic kind of local lore. It combines pre-contact history, archaeological remains, land-use laws, and good old-fashioned ghost stories. In a lot of ways, it’s the way our community responds to change.

The development has disturbed old graves, and that spells trouble for many people who identify with their ancestors buried in the sand hills. Many feel that it’s a sign of disrespect. Whether the stories are true or not is irrelevant. The rumors and ghost stories are a sign of dissatisfaction in the community. The more land we clear, the more stories about haunted places will surely arise.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”