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Protesters seize U.S., Hawaiian flags at UH–Maui College

The Hawaiian and American flags sit outside the Wong Conference Room on Thursday afternoon. A small group of Native Hawaiian protesters and college students seized the flags Wednesday morning at the University of Hawaii Maui College campus. They sought different poles for each flag, protesting that the American flag flew higher than the Hawaiian flag. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

A group of Native Hawaiian protesters and college students seized the American and Hawaiian flags Wednesday morning at the University of Hawaii Maui College campus.

More than 15 people participated in taking down the flags unannounced on the West Kaahumanu Avenue side of the Hookipa Building near the college’s financial aid office. In a video posted on Facebook, group leaders explained that they took down the flags because the U.S. flag flying above the Hawaiian one represents America’s historical oppression of the islands.

The group brought the flags to Chancellor Lui Hokoana and spoke to him later on campus.

“Our identity has been erased, beaten, battered and thrown to the side,” an unidentified man wrapped in a Hawaiian flag said to the group. “We’re here today to say, ‘No, we’re still here.’ We’re here to communicate to the leadership at MCC that the American flag cannot fly above the Hawaiian flag any longer because of its symbolic oppression of the illegal overthrow” of Hawaii.

“This is one measure we can take that is approved on three other islands, and we take that step today.”

Hokoana emailed students and faculty Wednesday evening about the incident and said security responded appropriately without incident. He said he met with the group in the Wong Conference Room to hear their concerns.

UH President David Lassner and campus chancellors statewide have already agreed to institute a two-flag approach that is used at the State Capitol and other UH campuses, Hokoana said. The group made the same request of Maui — to have both flags flown on separate poles of equal height.

Hokoana said he has been trying to get a second flagpole constructed, but the work has not been completed. In the interim, the college will not use its current flagpole and instead post the two flags on separate 7-foot indoor poles outside the Wong Conference Room.

The college will use this flag standard until the construction of the second flag pole is completed, Hokoana said.

College spokeswoman Kit Zulueta said Thursday that there is a request for funding two new flagpoles in a “very visible” area on the Great Lawn by the Kaahumanu Avenue entrance of the campus. She could not provide a timetable for when the flagpoles would be constructed and said the area around the current flagpole is too small to add another one.

Zulueta said Hokoana is “very supportive” of the change and has discussed it with staff since taking over the college at the end of 2014.

She said the group’s intent may have been to accelerate the process.

“It’s a request our chancellor would have graciously agreed to, so it was just surprising what they did,” Zulueta said. “If the intent was to get the chancellor’s attention, I guess they have succeeded.”

Kaleikoa Kaeo, a Native Hawaiian activist and assistant professor at the college, said UH-MC was the last school in the UH system to still fly the American flag above the Hawaiian flag, but he clarified that it was a “tricky situation” because the school only has one flagpole. Kaeo said he hopes that the transition to equal flag heights brings more awareness to the history of U.S. presence in Hawaii.

“Many people ask what’s going on, and by virtue of them wondering why, hopefully it opens up to more education about the issue,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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