The State of Aloha

Where’s the best place to ignore the biggest, most anticipated and most watched sporting event on the planet? The United States. It’s obvious that the most popular game in the world is not popular here.

Soccer has managed to circle the globe and become the preferred and popular sport in nearly every country on every continent, except our own. For years, soccer has struggled in the United States. And right now we’re in the middle of the biggest event the sport has to offer.

The World Cup is a soccer tournament held every four years. The top national teams compete to determine the best soccer team on the Earth. Every four years – just like the Olympics – a different country hosts the tourney. This time the host country is also one of the most fanatical soccer cultures around: Brazil.

Soccer as we know it became popular in England and Scotland in the 19th century. From there, it took over the world. Wherever the English and Scottish went (and they went just about everywhere back then), soccer followed. In most places, it stuck and soccer cultures developed. For example, Brazilian and Argentinian futbol blossomed when Scottish and English engineers, schoolteachers, merchants and rail workers went to build the railways of South America in the 1860s and ’70s.

It didn’t catch on in the United States. Folks played it early on, but it never took off like the way football, basketball and baseball became part of our sports culture.

But that still doesn’t explain Hawaii. The Hawaiian Kingdom had many English and Scottish expats and visitors. Surely they brought with them their love of the game. And yet, there’s no real evidence that soccer came with them.

The rest of the Pacific doesn’t have much of a soccer culture either. The Oceania Football Confederation that includes national teams from Tahiti, New Zealand and Vanuatu is by far one of the weakest in the world. No countries from this conference made it to the World Cup.

Then again, perhaps soccer was introduced early on by the English and Scots in Hawaii. Perhaps they did play it. Maybe Honolulu was the spot where the first soccer game in Hawaii was played.

No one knows for sure. The earliest evidence of organized teams dates back to the early

20th century, but by then there were established teams with uniforms, organization and a league. The Honolulu Advertiser ran a story in 1905 about a fierce competition between “Kams and the YWCA.” Apparently, Kams won 12 to 9 – a shocking number of goals by any standard.

Photographs dating back to 1906 show a team of young women and men at Oahu College posing in uniforms. (Oahu College eventually became Punahou School.) But this wasn’t just a game for private-school kids. In 2013, a historian out of Hilo discovered another fascinating photograph from the same time period. It’s a postcard depicting a soccer team dressed in all white with small collared jerseys, shorts and heavy boots of the early 20th century. Apparently, they were the team representing the Olaa Sugar Co.

Olaa is gone now but in its heyday was a plantation town in Puna on the Big Island near what is now called Volcano. It was the classic sugar plantation town. Strangely, no one in the photograph looked Asian. They were all Portuguese, Spanish or haole.

The game got more popular over time. By 1910, there were established teams on the Big Island and Maui. By the 1920s, teams from different sugar mills and from schools like Punahou and Kamehameha Schools competed regularly.

It’s been here ever since. Folks gather to play on fields nearly every day of the week all over the island. The folks who play here come from all over the world. Out here in the middle of the Pacific you can find a single game with players from just about every continent.

Maui, after all, is a great place to play soccer. The weather is ideal year-round and our public parks have something that many other countries can’t offer the public. My Brazilian friend once told me how lucky we are to live (and play the game) on Maui. Any patch of grass in Brazil, he said, automatically is destroyed by kids playing soccer.

The only place where you can actually see the game being played on grass is on television or in a stadium. Grass fields are just not available for most of the public. In the images coming from Brazil, you can see street kids playing in dirt lots or in the sand on the beach.

It really puts it in perspective. Perhaps it’s best to keep soccer a secret after all.

* 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

Imagine having to report to a person in an office every week. If you are late or forget, you could go to jail. Imagine having to keep a job or go to school full time. If not, you could go to jail or, at the very least, explain to a judge why you shouldn’t go to jail. If you want to visit the Mainland or even Oahu, you have to check in and get permission from an officer of the court. If not, you could be considered an absconder and may be arrested.

In some cases, you could get a curfew. If you’re out after dark, you could get arrested. Perhaps you have to pay for an assessment to see if you are a drug addict or an alcoholic. On top of that, you may have to pay court fees and fines on a monthly rate for four years or until it’s all paid up.

These are the most basic conditions of probation.

This newspaper duly reports on the fates of criminal defendants. These pages feature colorful quotations from judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and sometimes the defendants themselves that sensationalize the event of a sentencing hearing. Details about the offense are described. Sometimes it seems innocuous. Other times it could be horrifying.

But no matter what the offense is, the end is always the same: The judge issues his or her sentence. Sometimes it’s prison. A defendant is carted away by the sheriffs.

And then there’s probation. I’m always struck by the letters of outrage to the sentencing judges who order a person to be put on probation instead of in prison. One thing the newspaper never really discusses is probation. What exactly is it? Is it hard? Why is it such a common disposition in a criminal case – even when there are crimes of violence?

Here are the basics. Probation is an alternative to prison. Instead of going off to places like Halawa prison on Oahu or private facilities in Arizona, the probationer stays right here and out of custody. Rather than being under surveillance and guarded 24 hours a day with the state footing the bill for housing, meals and medical services, the burden shifts to the probationer to find a clean and decent place to live, get a job and become a productive member of the community.

The only real catch is that the court orders a list of conditions by which the defendant is required to abide. The most common condition is checking in with a probation officer. These officers work for the Judiciary and keep track of the probationer’s progress. If the court orders complete sobriety and drug testing, it’s the probation officer’s job to do that. Probationers are required to keep a job or go to school full time. Most importantly, they are not allowed to pick up another conviction.

If probationers violate the terms, their probationary status could be revoked and the judge would sentence them all over again. In some cases, they could again get probation and the actual sentence could be even longer than a prison sentence.

So why do people get so upset when a person is sentenced to probation? Why is there such a vehement demand for prison? Prison is very hard on the defendant. Prison rips a person out of the community and family life. The prisoner is left in isolation where he or she acquires no skills, formal education or training. It doesn’t encourage anyone to do anything but wait for the term to end.

It’s costly for the community too, but stats are hard to come by. Each state pays a different bill to house prisoners. Alabama, for example, spends something like $17,285 a year for a single inmate. New York City, on the other hand, spends a whopping $168,000. Hawaii is in the middle. The state attorney general’s office reported that in 2009, it cost $118 a day for a single inmate, which comes to about $43,000 a year.

Probation – without guards, meals, shelter and medical services – is certainly cheaper. On top of that, probationers are required to be productive. They have to keep jobs, and probation officers almost always require pay stubs as proof of employment. They have to pay off fines and any restitution.

Seems like a win-win situation for society and the probationer. And yet, we still demand prison for folks who are being sentenced. Granted, punishment is always a factor to consider at sentencing, but it’s not the only one. It should never be the main reason to sentence somebody.

There will always be those who wish to indulge in the need to severely punish offenders. But prison isn’t a solution for most folks. We just can’t afford it.

* 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

A young man is recruited by a labor agency to head east. Convinced that working on farms in Hawaii would make him more money, he signs a three-year contract with the agency, takes out a loan to pay for the travel expenses and leaves his country.

He ends up on Oahu with workers from his own country. He lives in substandard housing infested with rats and insects. He is told by his supervisors that if he doesn’t follow the rules, he’ll be deported. His wages are too low to pay off his loan. Desperate and scared, he runs off the farm and becomes homeless in Honolulu.

This is not campaign literature for a local politician talking about his or her ancestors. Samphong Medera was recruited from Thailand in 2003 and is one of many Thai workers accusing local farms of dehumanizing abuse and degrading conditions.

They say that after arriving in Hawaii their passports were confiscated and they had to sleep on the floor with other workers. Twenty-six people shared a single bathroom. A field supervisor (known around here as the luna) used a gun and a baseball bat to enforce a curfew on workers. One laborer claims he was hit with a stick in order to make him work faster.

The stories from the Thais are a horrible throwback to the early days of industrial agriculture in Hawaii. They managed to get the attention of the federal government but surprisingly almost no one else.

In 2010, the Department of Justice started investigating some of the farms in Hawaii and their labor recruiters. At first, the feds tried to prosecute the companies and business leaders with criminal charges. They indicted two brothers who run a local farm on Oahu.

Workers came to the Sou brothers’ Aloun Farms in Kapolei after taking a loan to get there, and the plan was to pay it off through wages. But once there, they said, they were underpaid, released in just five months, and were forced to live in a storage container near the jobsite. Mick and Alec Sou vehemently denied these claims.

The brothers were looking at decades in prison if found guilty. It looked like a showdown in federal court, but the Sous decided to take a plea deal and pleaded to the offenses of visa fraud and forced labor. As the Sous geared up for sentencing, an outpouring of support came from prominent members in the community. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano wrote a letter in their support. Community leaders pointed out that the Sous themselves were immigrants (they come from Laos) and that Alec Sou was an advocate for helping the homeless.

But the sentencing never happened. Federal prosecutors dropped all charges and the judge allowed the Sous to withdraw their pleas. Why the about-face? The feds said that they made a mistake when advising the grand jury about the law. The federal prosecutors – who flew in from Washington – moved to dismiss the charges (even though the Sous pleaded guilty) and then left the islands.

But the feds were not done yet.

Mordechai Orian runs Global Horizons, an L.A.-based labor recruiting business. Global Horizons sent hundreds of workers from Thailand, Micronesia and the Philippines to agricultural companies all across the state – including Aloun Farms – over the past decade. Again, as with the Sou prosecution, workers accused the company and its client farms of abusive supervisors, deceptive labor contracts and bad working conditions.

Instead of seeking criminal charges, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Global Horizons and six farms in Hawaii. This time a federal judge found them liable for discrimination and responsible for bad working conditions.

This week it was announced that more farms settled. Mac Farms, Kalena Farms, Captain Cook Coffee Co. and Kauai Coffee Co. have all agreed to pay amounts ranging from $100,000 to $1.6 million.

There’s only one farm that hasn’t, and trial is scheduled in November – our own Maui Pineapple Co., the same company that has links to the original Maui Land & Pineapple Co.

Our local culture owes a great deal to the mass migration of agricultural laborers. Politicians love to invoke the image of Japanese, Korean or Filipino workers who arrived to the islands to toil in sugar and pineapple fields. Their descendants moved on to become prominent members of the middle and professional classes.

To think that appalling working conditions on farms in Hawaii are still happening is deeply troubling. Then again, the farmers and the labor recruiters deny these claims. Who’s right? Maybe a trial will illuminate some of these things.

What is certain, however, is that despite these stories and despite the vehement denials, the plight of the Thai workers has failed to capture the imagination or interest of most folks in Hawaii. Given our islands’ labor history, the local apathy is just as troubling as the stories themselves.

* 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.”