Studying and Struggling for Abolition in Hawai'i
This blog was generously written for Humanities for All after the Hawaiʻi Abolition Collective participated in the fall 2020 Study and Struggle curriculum. We are publishing this piece as part of a series highlighting the work of the Study and Struggle program and have written a long-form profile where you can learn more about the history, goals, and scope of the program. A second blog post is also available, written by an incarcerated study group participant. To contextualize the work and impact of Study and Struggle, we suggest you read the profile first, followed by the blogs.
While prisons and policing have disproportionately terrorized kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) since white settlers illegally occupied and colonized Hawaiʻi, the abolition of such brutal structures isn’t common organizing practice in our islands since experienced folks in organizations have more so dedicated themselves to reforming the criminal legal system. Political homes for strict reforms have existed for decades with their members active in legislative work and raising awareness among individuals sympathetic to the cause of creating less virulent government agencies, but the dismantling of existing systems is our new organizing practice. In fall 2020, some of us organizing as the Hawaiʻi Abolition Collective gathered together through the Study and Struggle program so that we could grow through political and historical education materials. In our view, reforming the racism and injustices of the legal system isn’t a possibility, so we found 25 friends and acquaintances to meet twice a month on Thursdays for the entirety of the eight-week program. And although our 20+ group membership slowly dwindled to 12-15 monthly participants, those of us who persisted developed our abolitionist beliefs and found that the ideas sparked from each Study and Struggle discussion were too bright to bury. Intentions to free our loved ones from cages during COVID, create a penpal program, and address the material needs of our incarcerated community members were some of our primary goals. Finally, in our last December meeting of the curriculum, we established the Hawaiʻi Abolition Collective (HAC) and organized our first direct action in the community.
Over the past almost two years, COVID-19 has drastically altered the landscape and living conditions for so many around the world, and HAC dedicated our beginning steps to holding space for our incarcerated ‘ohana in Hawaiʻi. As of October 8, 2021, approximately 2,913 people in both Hawaiʻi facilities as well as Saguaro Correctional Center (where many are shipped) tested positive for COVID, while nine have passed away from the virus. We held in our hearts abolitionist scholar, educator, and organizer Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s quote “Where life is precious, life is precious” when we organized solidarity and awareness actions around COVID in incarceration facilities.
We held our first candlelight vigil outside of Hawaiʻi’s largest jail—the Oahu Community Correctional Center—on December 23, 2020 to showcase the disparity between those of us outside celebrating the holiday season and our loved ones behind walls struggling to survive during the pandemic. We invited community members to join us as we sang Christmas carols, lit candles, spoke against incarceration for anyone, held moments of silence for the people whose lives were lost inside, and mourned together. We held another vigil at OCCC two weeks later and moved our location to the Public Safety Department to push our attention toward the Director, the Hawaiʻi Paroling Authority, and other government officials with jurisdiction to release folks and stop COVID spread within the cages. In order to boost membership and community involvement in abolition, we organized a ‘pau hana’ (time after work) zoom call, during which people could discuss and ask questions about the prison industrial complex (PIC) and what abolition might look like here in Hawaiʻi. We offered attendees resources for other mutual aid groups, organizations, and non-profits along with proposals to become Puʻuhonua Penpal Program participants.
The Puʻuhonua Penpal Program is one of the most rewarding and thriving features of our HAC birth because it enables us to actively build connections with loved ones inside. Puʻuhonua means “puʻu, a tower, and honua, flat land. A place of refuge for one pursued; a place of safety in time of war; a refuge,” which is what we’re working toward building in our abolitionist organizing. Led by two of our organizers, the penpal program was adopted from national organization Black and Pink’s efforts to bridge the gap between inside and outside folks and establish communication with each other through their own penpal program and distribution of their incarcerated person-written newspaper. Four months out from the creation of our program, we currently have 40 members writing outside and nearly 60 inside. Our letters are vessels to spark friendships, share readings, exchange art, and allow us to connect friends inside with reentry and financial assistance. We even established a weekly radio show where local DJ Irie highlights stories and takes song requests inside. We tune in every Tuesday at 10am HST for the Jailhouse Jam Session on KTUH 90.1 to hear about abolitionist work happening across the U.S. and from our friends at home.
In addition to our penpal work, we’re actively seeking other ways to ground ourselves in our community and assist with political education. One example of this work is the presentation we held with the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu’s ADORE (A Dialogue On Race and Ethnicity) program, where we spoke about abolition with individuals unfamiliar with the topic and with organizing. We’re currently engaging in our second Study and Struggle curriculum with over one dozen new participants who are excited about building toward the safe and thriving independent Kingdom of Hawaiʻi free of cops, cages, and surveillance. We aim to discover more ways to be of use to other organizations and people as we build toward the safe and thriving independent Kingdom of Hawaiʻi free of cops, cages, and surveillance.
The Hawaiʻi Abolition Collective may have existed in alternate groupings down the line, but the Study and Struggle program brought us all together at this moment. Without the weekly readings, meetings, and discussion videos, we wouldn’t be where we are today: young, excited, principled in our theory, and still finding our way.
Noelle Kakimoto is a Native Hawaiian woman who writes about sports and social justice in her blog This Is Noelle. She is the Community Outreach Court Coordinator for Honolulu and she writes about high school football for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii Prep World. She can be found on Twitter and TikTok @nkakimoto.