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Police killings and education in occupied Hawai‘i

What Hawai‘i can, and must, learn from the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

Tyler Greenhill

Images of police killings in the United States have, sadly, once again seized the national consciousness. Graphic videos taken of Alton Sterling’s killing on July 5, and just after the moment Philando Castile was fatally shot on July 8, have been posted to the Internet and gone viral; now almost anyone can see what a lynching in the United States looks like in 2016 with just a few key strokes and a mouse click. The sight of a man being wrestled to the ground, pinned and shot, and of the ensuing pool of blood that forms on the sidewalk outside of the Baton Rouge Triple S Food Mart, are absolutely horrifying. The pain, panic and distress, and the harsh ‘baps’ of gunfire, that were captured by Castile’s girlfriend as she watched him die in the seat of their car allow us to hear what police violence sounds like.

For those of us who are more privileged than Sterling and Castile and the thousands of other Black men in America who face the real possibility of being slain by the very police we all pay to keep the peace, these sights and sounds are foreign and lurid. Even so, it’s hard not to feel scared, angry, indignant, and deeply saddened, all at once, when watching these videos. Together, they provide a spectacular array of visual, audial and emotional experiences that are difficult to navigate.

How can we understand the killings of Sterling and Castile so that our viewing of their deaths does more than merely satisfy the grisly gaze of the public? How do we in Hawai‘i make sense of or discuss police violence? And, especially, how do we educate Hawai‘i’s young people about such violence? 

Two essays, “Education after Auschwitz,” written by Theodor Adorno in 1967, and “What Education Might Mean after Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno’s Politics of Education,” first written by Henry Giroux in 2005, offer us some means to make spectacles of death meaningful and productive of positive change. Working from Adorno’s essay, Giroux argues that the mainstream media coverage of Abu Ghraib, especially that of the conservative media, only guarantees that such atrocities will continue, and that—if humanity is to stop committing such horrors—using the photos and videos of torture at Abu Ghraib as tools of critical pedagogy is essential. In short, Giroux says, “education that really matters must address what it means to prevent the conditions in which violence takes root and develops a life of its own” (20). 

This critical investigation must be designed to help us understand how images of incredible violence and inhumanity can be produced by societies that claim to be civil and enlightened. This process requires contextualization, and both Adorno and Giroux expertly place the Holocaust and Abu Ghraib, respectively, within the systems and cultures that produced the atrocities.

Like the terrible images from Aushwitz or Abu Ghraib, videos of police killings must be used as tools of critical pedagogy—contextualized and reflected upon within settings that foster compassion, understanding, non-violence, critical reflection, social interconnectivity and morality.

The purpose of pedagogy and education in the United States today is to manufacture uncritical, obedient consumers, and to replicate the current racial and class order through the maintenance of the dominant neoliberal ideology. An education like this allows, accommodates and enables the kind of hate, greed, selfishness and belief in racial supremacy that lead to murders like Sterling’s and Castile’s.

Rather, education should be a liberating experience: one that generates civic engagement inside and outside of traditionally conceived political arenas and fosters a love for perpetual moral and intellectual growth.

Placing the deaths of Sterling and Castile in the proper historical and cultural context is essential. These killings align with other modern lynchings like those of Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown—just a few popular examples from only the last four years. They are the discernible symptoms of a sickness that has run, historically, throughout American culture: namely, the racist and deadly policing—state-sanctioned or not—of blackness. From slavery, through the Jim Crow era, and into our current era of mass incarceration and police shootings, blackness has been rendered subhuman and unworthy of a place within American society.

Placed in the context of America’s history of legal and cultural exclusion of blackness, which has since become infused with a neoliberal impetus for militarization of our police force, our schools and our public spaces, imbued with hyper-masculinity and hyper-individualism, and capped with a profit-driven prison-industrial complex, the continued lynchings of Black people is a sickeningly predictable outcome. Just as slave plantation owners profited from slavery, there are people in our society today who benefit from modern methods of maintaining the perceived subhuman nature of blackness. From violent policing, corporations and their executives profit, white, male supremacy is reinforced, political careers are made and control is maintained. The killings of Sterling and Castile are, therefore, the necessary actions of a racist and inegalitarian culture designed to keep those on top—historically, the propertied, rich, white, male and, currently, the self-proclaimed color- and gender-blind apex 1 percent—on top. 

And, as distant as Hawai‘i may be from the shores of continental America, this system of violence and the maintenance of a racial, economic and gender-based hierarchy is certainly not foreign to Hawai‘i. In fact, the same system—but with the Kānaka body seamlessly substituted for the Black body—is essential to maintaining U.S. colonial occupation of Hawai‘i and the material, political and economic supremacy of Hawai‘i’s settler ruling class.

All of us in Hawai‘i, Kānaka Maoli and settlers alike, must connect the deaths of Sterling and Castile to Hawai‘i’s own history of police and vigilante violence, racism and incarceration. We must connect their killings to those of Joseph Kahahawai and, more recently, Kollin Elderts. We must recognize the prison-industrial complex’s influence in Hawai‘i, where Native Hawaiians—like Blacks, Hispanics, and indigenous peoples on the mainland—are greatly overrepresented; where for-profit prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America receive millions of state tax dollars to incarcerate Hawai‘i’s prisoners, including more than a thousand on the mainland (exile for Kānaka inmates). Hawai‘i’s governor, David Ige, recently declared his intention to continue on this destructive path of prison privatization, agreeing to the potential expansion of Hawai‘i’s prisons at costs upwards of $2 billion.

When educating Hawai‘i’s youth, and each other, about what we see in the videos taken of Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths, we must not only provide proper context and generate critical reflection, but we must also, collectively, find our own points of intervention from where we can work to end this violent, racist history. We must vote for politicians outside of the political establishment who have the moral courage to make legitimate change.  Prison abolition, not reform, must become an essential topic of public discourse. The neoliberal placing of profit over people, including profit from cultures of violence, must cease. Ideologies and pedagogies that create the stratification of people by race, gender, class and so on must be replaced.  And the settler violation of Hawaiian rights to sovereignty and self-determination must end. 

As educators, parents, students and settlers in Hawai‘i, we must actively and critically educate each other and ourselves toward a future where Black lives and Kānaka Maoli lives matter.