Precarious Performances: The Thirty Meter Telescope and Settler State Policing of Kānaka Maoli

by David Uahikeaikaleiʻohu Maile

Settler states criminalize protectors of Indigenous life, land, and water by labeling them ‘threats of violence.’ But, Indigenous protectors are exposing policing to be a precarious performance of settler sovereignty.

“The state reinforces a system that produces criminals out of those it has dispossessed.” –Macarena Gómez-Barris

The State of Hawaiʻi was founded on land stolen from Kānaka ‘Ōiwi. To be clear, it is a U.S. settler state. It formed initially in the wake of the illegal U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. As the Republic of Hawaiʻi, it granted the unlawful annexation of the Hawaiian islands and transferal of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s national lands to the U.S. federal government in 1898. After being the Territory of Hawaiʻi, the U.S. federal government manufactured the “State of Hawai‘i” in 1959 and institutionalized it as the so-called fiftieth state, without consent from Kānaka Maoli. The legal, economic, political, and social processes for settlement of Hawaiʻi are ongoing to this very day. One pivotal way that settlement has continued is through the criminalization of Kānaka ‘Ōiwi. Particularly, the U.S. settler state in Hawai‘i turns Kānaka ‘Ōiwi into criminals to be detained, incarcerated, maimed, removed, murdered, and disappeared. The criminalization of Indigenous people—from Hawai‘i to the Americas, Palestine, and elsewhere—is an eliminatory technique for colonial dispossession. As Kānaka Maoli have been labeled threats of violence to be criminalized for defending our sacred mountain Mauna a Wākea from the Thirty Meter Telescope, water protectors of Mnisose, the Missouri River, have been also as a way to build the Dakota Access Pipeline. Accusations of violence were used to unleash dog attacks, strip search women, bag heads in hoods, rip flesh from bone with water cannons. The assault on Indigenous life, land, and water at Standing Rock clarifies how, as Chickasaw scholar Jodi A. Byrd laments, “in the United States, the Indian is the original enemy combatant.” For legal historian Lisa Ford, the criminalization of Indigenous populations, across Oceania and America, is an original feature of settler sovereignty. She writes, “The exercise of jurisdiction over indigenous crime performs the myth of settler sovereignty over and over.” What Ford refers to as legal myth literary critic Mark Rifkin calls the empty sign of settler sovereignty, which, performed obsessively over and over again, reveals a hollowness in settler state power to be targeted and antagonized.

But how does the state materially reinforce a system that produces criminals out of those it has dispossessed? In this essay, I suggest it is through the management of threats of violence. To support this argument, I explore settler state policing from the vantage of Kanaka Maoli opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a development project for the astronomy industry at our sacred mountain Mauna a Wākea on Hawai‘i island. Analyzing three material objects—an emergency rule, bullet hole, and knee—I track how symbolic threats of violence are manufactured to obscure and exact concrete violences. But, what can an administrative law, image of a hole in a door, and body part of a police officer tell us about threats of violence? Indeed, these legal, visual, and fleshy objects are quite revealing. Interrogating discourses mingling through and amongst them, I argue ‘threats of violence’ is a discursive formation produced by the settler state and dispersed through its institutions of media and police. Weaving together scholarship from Critical Police, Hawaiian, and Indigenous Studies, I demonstrate ‘threats of violence’ maintains a dual function. First, suggesting that Kānaka Maoli who defend Mauna a Wākea from the TMT threaten acts of violence, and are violent threats themselves, rationalizes police intervention by the U.S. settler state. In other words, figurative threats of alleged violence from kia‘i, the guardians and protectors of our mountain, condone material violence against them by police. Second, ‘threats of violence’ defers and tries to erase not only the colonial violence animating the U.S. settler state in Hawai‘i, and its deployment of police and their militarized interventions, but also the diversity of violence that TMT does. In what follows, I mine three material objects, offer two interventions, and conclude with one mo‘olelo—a story that lays bare how settler state policing of Kānaka Maoli is a performance of precarity.

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