When a State of Emergency is Declared, We Should All be Alarmed

by David Uahikeaikalei‘ohu Maile and Sarah Marie Wiebe

Without a single cloud floating in the Mauna Kea sky, kia‘i (protectors) assembled on the morning of July 17, 2019 at Mauna Kea Access Road to stop construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The resolve to protect Mauna Kea from TMT was as clear as the skies above–no telescope was necessary to see this. In response, the State of Hawaii deployed police, equipped with riot batons, tear gas, guns and a Long Range Acoustic Device, to open the access road for construction crews to ascend to TMT’s build site at the northern plateau. It was the largest police operation in Hawai‘i in recent memory with officers from multiple jurisdictions across the islands. This execution of force coincided with Hawaiʻi Governor David Ige’s Proclamation to declare a State of Emergency and, in doing so, declare those safeguarding the Mauna as a threat to the state. But kia‘i were prepared, stood their ground and continued to defend this sacred mountain. 

Forming in the middle of the access road, the main blockade consisted primarily of kūpuna (elders) who refused to move for TMT or police. That morning, kūpuna instructed hundreds of kia‘i to stand on either side of the road in silence. They would protect kiaʻi from whatever entered the road. After hours of negotiating with police, officers began arresting kūpuna. Grey clouds crept into what was once clear, blue sky. But kūpuna proudly sang mele and chanted oli, with incredible grace, as 38 of them were arrested. Many kiaʻi wept as some over 90-years old and in wheelchairs were slowly being detained. However, their songs and chants became answered. When police presence increased suddenly, wāhine (female) kiaʻi created a human blockade in front of the remaining kūpuna. Hours passed with police seemingly unsure how to proceed. The standoff ended when kiaʻi struck a deal for police to leave the access road, and they did without disbanding the barricade. 

This is not a typical blockade. It is not simply a refusal of the right to pass through. This ensemble of peoples from diverse walks of life is a lively and moving world-making grounded in aloha ‘āina, a reciprocal love for the environments that nourish and feed us. It is an aloha shared between humans and their more-than-human environments, like Mauna Kea and the entire Hawaiian archipelago. 

Countering Governor Ige’s heavy-handed executive decision to declare a State of Emergency, members of the ‘Īlio‘ulaokalani Coalition and kia‘i from the University of Hawaiʻi joined together at the State Capitol in ceremony. At sunrise, those assembled there fiercely chanted and danced hula to oppose the Governor’s Proclamation. Peacefully gathered like kūpuna and kia‘i at Mauna Kea Access Road, Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and those standing in solidarity moved – through tears – to refute the slow violence being enacted at Mauna Kea. This decree, enabled through Ige’s authority under the State of Hawaii’s Constitution, expresses a mandate to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people, ensure the execution of the law, and suppress or prevent lawless violence.” 

Although the State of Emergency declaration was rescinded on July 30, 2019, as political scientists rooted in Hawaiʻi, from our respective vantages, we view the proclamation as an opportunity for reflection about the implications of executive orders for the health of democratic life. This articulation of law presented a double standard and compartmentalized citizens into two categories: those in need of protection and those portrayed as threats to status quo state power. 

When a State of Emergency is declared, citizens have a problem, thus provoking further reflection about who benefits from the administration of justice, order and safety. As critical scholars, we are concerned with how the public is being defined by the state at the expense of some lives over others. These exceptional moments reveal so much about systemic injustices and who has the power to administer justice.

The status quo legal order preserves colonial law, asymmetrically enforced to protect the state at the expense of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) bodies and territories. At issue here, as has been widely documented by political scientists and historians including our mentor and colleague Dr. Noenoe Silva in her pivotal book Aloha Betrayed, the law itself is a colonial creation of empire. Many Kānaka Maoli refused U.S. annexation prior to the formation of the State of Hawaii in 1959. Upholding the law of U.S. empire, the State of Emergency Proclamation reinforces a hierarchy of peoples, which is a settler-colonial mechanism to erase certain forms of state-defined life, both Kānaka Maoli and Mauna Kea.

Nevertheless, the Proclamation expressed anxiety and fear about protests opposing the construction of TMT at Mauna Kea. But this movement is led by guardians, the kiaʻi, who protect a sacred mountain. Their actions demonstrate a form of peaceful, non-violent love and devotion to places of significant cultural importance. The State of Emergency presents a crucial moment to challenge the dominant discourse about how humans relate to the more-than-human world. As many Kanaka Maoli scientists widely refute, the struggles over how to govern the Mauna are not a standoff between culture and science. By unifying to uphold aloha ‘āina as a deep sense of love and connection to the sources of life that nourish us, Kānaka Maoli and allies are not only demanding but enacting radically different futures. These futures call into question and unravel the entanglement of settler-colonialism and capitalist development, whereby the extraction of resources and exploitation of lands comes at the expense of ecologically sustainable alternatives and knowledge systems.

A State of Emergency tells us something about the state of a democracy. It is a barometer on the health of political life. In the U.S. empire and in Canada, State of Emergency declarations reveal how our leaders are failing its citizens. Across Canada, numerous Indigenous communities have had little recourse but to declare a State of Emergency due to latent slow violence and a slow moving yet pervasive environmental crisis. These environmental injustices are widespread and cast light over the dark shadows of ongoing colonial conditions. In 2012, then Chief of Attawapiskat Theresa Spence began a hunger strike to draw attention to insufficient housing. Yet again, 7 years later, she enacted another hunger strike in solidarity with Attawapiskat leadership’s recent State of Emergency declaration due to contaminated water. The events in Hawaiʻi and Canada show how history repeats itself. 

We face a serious moment, an opportunity, to not just reform but transform these relations. This requires going beyond an interrogation of the hierarchical relations of power that unfurl when a State of Emergency is declared to address the underlying environmental injustices that propel the repetition of State of Emergency declarations in Indigenous communities. Decision-makers in executive positions have the power to act in service to those communities most directly affected by these injustices. And these environmental injustices are connected across the globe. Canada is one of several international partners contributing to the TMT and has had a presence on Mauna Kea since the 1970s. Numerous Indigenous leaders, nonprofit organizations, communities, and academics like us continue to call for Canadian divestment. This is imperative in a so-called era of truth and reconciliation.

Like President Donald Trump’s State of Emergency declaration to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, Governor Ige’s State of Emergency declaration did not respond to a natural disaster. This is a political disaster. It is a manufactured one produced not by “protestors” at Mauna Kea but by the liberal state. A State of Emergency exercises executive powers with alarming authority to make exceptional decisions under times of duress that exceed prevailing regulations. As Ige’s 8-page Proclamation explained, this State of Emergency awarded executive authority the ability to sidestep due process and normal democratic channels. It allowed the executive to define what constitutes “the rights of all the public” at the expense of those most directly affected by Mauna Kea, a place of significant cultural, physical, emotional and spiritual importance. It is a piko (site of convergence) and thus core to what it means to exist as Kanaka Maoli today. In issuing this Proclamation, under federal authority, Governor Ige suspended several laws to enforce emergency management. These powers allowed the state to mobilize personnel such as the National Guard to evacuate civilians from the Mauna. These warlike conditions suspend healthy conditions of democratic life and, as such, threaten us all.

Questioning the political power that activates a State of Emergency draws attention to the kaleidoscopic forces that reveal a dangerous and violent status quo. It is a status quo that separates populations among those needing protection and those deemed to threaten it. The time to act is now. Kānaka Maoli and those organizing in solidarity illuminate alternative ways of being in this world, a state of emergence, not emergency. We have an obligation to join this movement and create radically alternative futures that take seriously the health, sustenance and wellbeing of all life.


David Uahikeaikalei‘ohu Maile, PhD – Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, Department of Political Science

Sarah Marie Wiebe, PhD –Assistant Professor, University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, Department of Political Science

The image above is of a kupukupu fern that Sarah Wiebe took at Mauna Kea on July 22nd 2019.

Leave a Reply