The State of Aloha

Forty-six years ago, on May 11, 1971, 32 people were arrested on Oahu for trespassing. These were no ordinary trespassers.

They were sitting on the roof of an empty home while bulldozers nearby waited to destroy the house they were occupying. None of them owned the land. Some were tenants. Others were farmers, and many were protesters and activists.

The house was the last structure standing in the way for the Bishop Estate in Kalama Valley — the most eastern valley on the southern shore of Oahu. For many of the working-class tenants in the valley, this was the last place they could call home.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Kalama Valley had a scattering of pig farmers and ramshackle homes full of kids, dogs and junk cars. It was considered part of rural Oahu, and its land use classification was agriculture. But for these residents, trouble loomed on the horizon.

East Oahu had become one of the first spots after statehood to see a boom in real estate development. You can thank Henry J. Kaiser, the wealthy industrialist who had built an empire during World War II, for that.

Kaiser was deemed the “Western Colossus.” He established his industrial empire in shipping, steel, manufacturing and even health care in California during the first half of the 20th century. By the time he reached the ripe age of 72, he took a vacation in Hawaii. He fell in love with the place as many do and decided that he was going to move here. Kaiser wasn’t just any elderly guy who moved to Honolulu. He got into land development.

Kaiser took the largely unpopulated marshlands east of Honolulu and developed a mid-20th century-style suburb resembling affluent, middle-class and predominantly white suburbs on the Mainland. The place is named after him: Hawaii Kai.

The landowner on the eastern end of Oahu was ironically the Bishop Estate — that same landowner with a mission to help the Native Hawaiian people. The Bishop Estate had partnered with developers like Kaiser to do away with farms and agricultural lands to build homes, resorts, golf courses and commercial property.

In the late ’60s, it had become clear that Kalama Valley would be the next suburb. Despite objections before various state agencies, the plans to develop continued with little fanfare. But soon the opposition to the project picked up serious steam. For some reason, the resistance in Kalama Valley hit a nerve.

The farmers and the tenants soon found allies with activists from the University of Hawaii and sympathy from local folks all over the state. It also sparked the start for several Native Hawaiians that would later blossom in the 1970s and ’80s into a full-fledged movement.

Kalama Valley tenants became left-wing celebrities. They spoke at rallies, held news conferences and met with elected officials. In the end, however, the ones arrested for sitting on the roof of the last house in the valley were tried and found guilty. The house was destroyed, and American-style subdivisions took its place.

But the resistance at Kalama Valley set the tone for the rest of the century and into this one. More protests followed. It was easy to take protesting for granted growing up. In the 1980s and ’90s, there also was a movement against some new development. The bumper stickers back then chronicle the long struggle against insensitive and destructive development. Stop the extension of the airport runway, save Sandy Beach, keep the country country and end the bombing on Kahoolawe were just a few of the causes folks displayed on their bumpers and on the side of the highway.

Protest, defiance and resistance continue. Who can forget the lawsuits on Maui and the human chain in Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai used to stop the infamous Superferry? What about the photogenic stand against construction atop Haleakala and Mauna Kea?

And you can expect it to continue. The cost of living and development have not eased up. Maui is one of the least affordable places to live in the United States. Next week, the county will be evicting the impromptu homeless encampment that has grown between Baldwin Beach and Paia town. Sure, they’re not pig farmers, but the eviction is reminiscent of what happened decades ago. As one activist put it back in 1970:

“Kalama Valley is a symptom of all Hawaii. More and more, Hawaii is being developed for a particular economic class, oftentimes excluding the people who reside here. The people in Kalama Valley know the valley is not being developed for them financially and culturally.

. . . To put people who love the land into low-income concrete jungles is not solving anything. It’s a sick society whenever the Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian and other races who reside in Hawaii become temporary residents with no place to call their own.”

The words still ring true.

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