In the climax of the trial of the Native Hawaiians who have occupied the grounds of the former Coco Palms resort in Wailua — especially when Judge Michael Soong gave the group until 6 p.m. Sunday to leave or be removed — many in the gallery did not notice a tall man sitting in the corner of the very back row.
He was Darryl Perry, chief of the Kauai Police Department. Dressed nondescriptly in a subdued Hawaiian shirt and slacks, he’d walked over from his office across the street from the courthouse to listen to closing arguments in the trial, in its seventh day.
Since few in the District Court courtroom expected Judge Soong to rule on the spot, without waiting a few days to craft an opinion to be issued later, it’s at least even money that Perry didn’t know what was coming any more than anyone else did.
The ruling came after closing arguments whose content mirrored the reality that has surrounded this case from the beginning: The owners of the Coco Palms property and the occupiers see, essentially, two universes of reality. Coco Palms and its lawyers see a legally simple trespassing case in which existing case law gave Soong no choice but to evict the occupiers.
The occupiers see it far differently.
To them, the standoff at Coco Palms is the latest offense in 125 years of offenses against what they insist remains the Hawaiian Kingdom. They deny the authority and legitimacy of the court. They accused Soong of committing a felony and being complicit in war crimes, genocide and pillaging so often that it started to sound like a robocall.
They argued they have no obligation to recognize or respect federal or state law. Charles Hepa, one of the two occupier defendants, in his closing argument, called the court “a civilian arm of a military occupation.” He added: “There is no immunity or impunity when it comes to genocide.”
Defendant Noa Mau-Espirito went on a similar tirade in his closing.
“You guys,” he said, referring to the judge and Tyler Greene, one of the would be Coco Palms developers, “will also be held to account for a felony and a war crime.”
The two men, who were representing themselves, had obviously been in way over their heads trying a case based on technicalities of law.
Once Soong had ruled, the defendants asked a few questions about the specifics of his order and said they believe they are occupying land that is also not part of Coco Palms and might relocate and consolidate there. But supporters of the occupiers seemed unanimous in their view that the group will not comply willingly with the court’s order. This may be bravado. It may be theat.
All of this means that Kauai is about to — or may already have — become the epicenter of the decades long struggle of some Native Hawaiians to refuse to recognize the annexation of the islands in 1893 as legal or legitimate and have vowed to resist indefinitely, at almost any cost.
That’s why the presence of Chief Perry in the courtroom is important to note. Sometime in the next few days, he, Mayor Bernard Carvalho and County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask will have to develop one of the most sensitive response plans in any of their professional careers. The challenge is excruciating. They must find a way to uphold a clear, specific and lawful court order while at the same time not inflaming unnecessarily emotions already fraught.
Talking in the hallway after the ruling, Perry was understandably circumspect. He said he would be meeting with his command staff and continuing the careful process of developing a response plan in the event the occupiers force the hands of the authorities. Any police department worth its salt — and this one is — would have already been discussing contingencies. Clearly, KPD has been.
Later in the day Tuesday, Mayor Carvalho added his own carefully crafted statement to the mix: “When this issue came to light, I had encouraged both parties to seek resolution in court, where they could publicly share their documentation and have it thoroughly reviewed. Following Judge Soong’s ruling today, I would again encourage all involved to respect the court’s decision and move forward in a peaceful and respectful manner.”
This may well be a defining moment in the contemporary history of Kauai and the splintered, often ineffectual, movement for Hawaiian sovereignty. Kauai’s governing establishment — and, most likely, a large majority of regular residents — don’t want this controversy to blow up and bring the island to the center of one of the most vexing issues in Hawaiian history.
Yet the conflict over Coco Palms seems impossible to resolve without leaving some party to it bitter and angry. Jan. 28 is just a few days away. We can all hope that our leaders and all of the rest of us can find a way to neutralize this crisis before it spins out of control.
Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.
This story has been edited to remove an error.