When Stephan Bell, four other men and their field supervisor reported for work at Blue Knight Services, the security guard firm they work for in Lihue, on Thursday, they were instructed to go to the site of the former Coco Palms Resort and work to remove squatters.
None of these guards, Bell said, had followed the legal dispute over the occupation of Coco Palms by protesters, which has been in progress for more than a year. So, they dutifully drove up to Wailua.
When they arrived, Bell said, they confronted a situation they had never imagined. It mirrors the types of conflict many involved in the Coco Palms controversy have experienced. They stepped into the middle of a raid by dozens of police officers to evict the Coco Palms occupiers.
What they had been injected into, Bell said, was a controversy in which “we realized we didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history.”
He said that, as an African-American, he was personally sensitive to the depictions of oppression presented by the Coco Palms occupiers. It hit him very directly and very personally, he said.
Bell said the guards’ assignment was to secure the property after police removed the demonstrators and prepare for Coco Palms Hui, the owner of the property, to, essentially bulldoze the tents and other facilities the occupiers had used for the previous months.
What he and his co-workers saw, Bell said, brought to mind the same conflict many of the law enforcement officers on the scene apparently perceived. Repeatedly, Noa Mau-Espirito, one of the two men a court found to be on the property illegally along with a few dozen other occupiers, tried to engage the deputy sheriffs assigned to clear the property, as well as the private guards, and persuade them that the eviction order was in error.
The police and the guards quickly concluded that they were powerless to resolve that dispute. But, Bell and one deputy sheriff said, they realized there were cultural issues in play beyond the mere existence of a court order and instructions from supervisors to clear the occupiers and remove their property from the grounds.
Three sheriff’s deputies — all, they said, assigned to Kauai, but present as part of a force reinforced by personnel flown in from Oahu — remained calm, restrained and polite. No voices were raised and no physical force was used. The deputies refused to identify themselves by name, citing strict orders they said had been issued.
Mau-Espirito, for his part, encouraged occupiers not to hold the police and security guards responsible for the situation. “Remember,” he told his followers repeatedly, “these people are family. Don’t get in their face.”
Bell said that, not only was he unaware of the Coco Palms occupation, but, he said, “thousands of people who drive by” on Kuhio Highway nearby and tourists on Kuamoo Road — the gateway to Wailua State Park — are, and have been, oblivious to the controversy, too.
Even Thursday morning, Bell noted, cars full of tourists continued driving by, probably completely unaware of the drama playing out in front of them. For a while, the Kauai Police Department blocked all access to Kuamoo Road, making the state park beyond reach of the tourist throngs that usually visit.
KPD drove its large, truck-mounted mobile command post to a temporary “incident command center” up the Kuamoo Road and, for a couple of hours, presided over a literally occupied area. By mid-morning, however, the command post was removed, the road was reopened and hundreds of carloads of the curious started driving past the gate emblazoned with colorful Hawaiian independence banners.
Quickly after they arrived, Bell said, he and his colleagues — the others young men whose appearance suggested Hawaiian ancestry — concluded they had been asked to do something they could not, in good conscience, do. So, he said, they called their supervisor in Lihue and told him they could not continue the assignment.
To his surprise, Bell said the supervisor told the guards to “follow your conscience.” That meant, Bell said, that the five guards and the field supervisor officially ended their assignment. But they didn’t leave.
Instead, they approached Mau-Espirito and Hepa and described their dilemma. Police would not permit any of the occupiers on the Coco Palms property. So Bell and is colleagues asked the occupiers to describe any items of personal property present in the campsite that they wanted back. And the guards offered to try to find the items and bring them to their owners.
The sheriff’s deputies appeared to be fully aware of this arrangement and did nothing to interfere.
Bell said he didn’t even know who Blue Knight’s client was initially. Told it was Coco Palms Hui, he said he had not encountered anyone from the company. Neither Chad Waters nor Tyler Greene, the owners of Coco Palms Hui, appeared to be present. But from what Bell described, the owners apparently expected the guards to maintain a perimeter after the police left.
Since the guards had decided among themselves — with the blessing of their employer — to withdraw, it remained unclear Thursday afternoon whether Coco Palms had any alternative arrangements to keep the occupation from simply resuming. The protesters made no immediate move to do so, but their tents and other belongings remained, for the moment undisturbed.