The State of Aloha
When I was young, my father often reminded us about our family history. He talked about our great-grandfather, who fled violent, anti-Semitic mobs that punctuated the Jewish experience in czarist Russia and immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. He spoke of his aunt, who married a Hungarian refugee in the 1950s who managed to survive the Nazi occupation and Soviet invasion. He talked about cousins with numbers tattooed on their arms — an involuntary and permanent brand etched into their skin by fascists when they were children.
He told us that a country governed by rule of law requires vigilance and dedication to ensure that it is followed and observed. Commitment to the rule of law — that foundational principle that all persons, corporations and even the government itself are accountable to an equally enforced law — protects all of us, especially minorities, from mob rule.
As a boy these stories of faraway pogroms and decades-old migrations out of central and eastern Europe were just that: stories. The idea of a massive breakdown in the rule of law or the fascist threat in the United States seemed far-fetched.
But memories of his solemn warning from my childhood came flooding back to me when I watched images of frenzied men and women climbing over the balcony in the U.S. House chamber, demanding that the election results be halted from the U.S. Senate chamber, and the Confederate flag — the symbol of white supremacy and rebellion — proudly waving in the white marble floors of our nation’s Capitol.
While many of us are still processing what exactly happened on Jan. 6, historians are quick to point out that it’s nothing new.
Wilmington, N.C., once had a vibrant integrated local government. After the Civil War, black men could not only vote, but they also participated in government. By the end of the 19th century, Wilmington had a black mayor and several aldermen serving in the local legislative branch.
In 1898, white opposition campaigned against them under the banner of white supremacy. They rallied a base and menaced the black community. After a tense election and suppression of much of the black vote, the white supremacists won. But there was a problem. The mayor and some of the board of aldermen were not on the ballot and still held office. This simply would not do.
Two days after the election, white supremacists demanded that blacks voters be disenfranchised and black officeholders be immediately removed from office. Heavily armed white men destroyed the large portions of the town, burning newspaper offices and murdering people of color. The incident changed Wilmington. After black officials were violently removed from their government in a town where the majority were black, the era of legally sanctioned apartheid we call Jim Crow reigned supreme.
The violence in Wilmington is not an isolated incident. White militia across the United States terrorized black people who tried to exercise their civil rights.
Our islands also have dealt with white insurrection. Last weekend marked 128 years since Queen Liliuokalani, a lawfully elected indigenous monarch who sought constitutional reforms, was dethroned by angry white men who refused to adhere to the rule of law.
On the morning of Jan. 17, 1893, a white militia group known as the Honolulu Rifles helped secure the government building for another group of white men that called themselves the Committee of Public Safety. When a police officer tried to stop the militia group at the corner of King and Fort Street, they opened fire and shot him.
That afternoon, Henry Cooper, a Boston-educated lawyer who had been living in Hawaii for less than three years, stood on the back steps of Ali’iolani Hale, the home of the Hawaii Supreme Court, and read to no one in particular a declaration announcing the end of the lawful Hawaiian government. The coup d’etat was complete.
Though less violent than Wilmington and less formal than the overthrow, the storming of the Capitol was another frightening example of intolerance to accept constitutional norms and the democratic process. And even though the mob failed to stop Congress from executing its constitutional duty of counting the votes, some members of Congress seemed to side with the rioters.
My family history and our national history confirm that dysfunction and injustice will only result from doing nothing. The refusal to act against the white supremacist killing spree in Wilmington ushered in the era of Jim Crow. The failure to stop the insurrectionists in Hawaii eventually gave way to decades of white supremacy and territorial rule.
The rule of law is fragile everywhere — even in the United States. The question is not what happened to the U.S. Capitol this month, but what we as a nation are going to do about it.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”