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The Reluctant Troublemaker (Part 3)

This article series is part of a Special
Section on “Volunteerism and Civic Engagement” that is currently running
in the January/February 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor
Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on
how to receive the print issue.

This is
Part 3 of a three part series. To see Parts 1 and 2, click the link in the ‘Related Articles’ box at
the bottom of this page.

Jill Tao

Although always cordial, getting a meeting with the Governor, who held most of the cards, especially the budgetary ones, was apparently not an easy thing to do. We made frequent and regular requests, but were always politely turned away. Throughout our campaign, we had been careful to try and stay away from political posturing. In a Democratically controlled state, the Governor often felt isolated as the standard-bearer for the Republican Party, and our group did not feel that this was a partisan issue, since multiple parties were to blame for the decision. Nonetheless, the Governor may have felt otherwise as the sole representative of her party, and this may have been key to her unwillingness to grant an audience. However, as time wore on, and more agreement was reached with the other decision-makers, including the teachers’ union, we realized that if the Governor held out on her position, there would be nothing that the other parties could do. She was the lynchpin who could release funds (which were available) if she so chose. The legislature had already agreed to emergency appropriations, the union had agreed to the lower budget figures determined by the Board of Education and the DoE–only the governor remained. So we stepped up our game.

The legislature had set a deadline for release of emergency funds that would eliminate most of the remaining furlough days for the school year. It was now April, and we had been fighting the policy since October. We decided we could not wait for the governor to come to us any longer. We would go to her. We would sit in her office, so that she would be able to find us, at her convenience, whenever she wanted to discuss the gap between her calculation of the budget and everyone else’s. And so, a small group of parents, with their children, water bottles and sleeping bags (just in case), showed up at the Governor’s office on the afternoon of April 7, 2010, to wait.

The group was allowed to stay, but was denied access to restrooms after the doors closed at 4:30 pm. Anyone who left the office would be unable to return until doors opened again next morning at 7:30 a.m. These “rules” were stated as staffers were leaving the office for the evening, but no one was asked to vacate, and officers from the Sheriff’s Office were left behind to make sure no one did anything inappropriate after hours. The sit-in was broadcast via iPhones and MacBooks, with parents tweeting updates to those on the outside. The press stayed, too, until it became clear that the Governor had left the building and had no intention of meeting with the parents. This scenario was repeated until the weekend, when the lack of access to bathrooms moved the “sleep-in” to the street in front of the Governor’s mansion directly across from the Capitol. But bright and early on Monday morning, the group was back in the Governor’s office, and people rotated throughout the day.

This was the event that pushed many formerly inactive observers into action. The local papers began running daily polls to see whether public opinion was with the protestors or with the Governor. The Governor went on the offensive, using longstanding relationships with local talk radio hosts to let her supporters malign members of the group in personal attacks. But this seemed to backfire, pushing many who had been watching from the sidelines into the discussion. People that we had met or who had followed us on-line showed up at the Capitol to help replenish the ranks when fatigue set in. The Governor issued new “rules” as the days rolled by, and soon no food, no lights, no electricity were added to the no bathrooms restrictions as threats–members joked that Hawai’i’s Capitol had become Gilligan’s Island.

But things took on a different tone directly following a press conference on Tuesday morning, April 13. The Governor had just presented a new deal that she had brokered with NASA to improve science and technology education in the state. The members of the group who were in the Governor’s outer office were invited into the press conference room. We thought that this was the breakthrough we’d been waiting for. But the Governor had something quite different planned.

Reporters were the only ones allowed to ask questions. Several of the reporters passed paper and pencil to us so that they could ask questions on our behalf. Through them, we asked about the budget deadline. The Governor stated there was no deadline, a comment later refuted by the Chair of the House Finance Committee, Representative Marcus Oshiro. She then stated that anyone with two trespassing citations (which the officers had been dishing out since the second night of the protest) would face arrest if they received another citation. She then left the conference room without taking further questions. So much for dialogue.

Prior to the evening, we put a call out on Facebook to see if people would contribute to a “Free the Protestors” fund–we had set up a PayPal account earlier to help streamline donations that came in from people who wanted to help but who could not physically be at the rallies or the protests. As word got out that people were facing arrest, donations began to pour in to help with bail money. Within a 24-hour period, the account had clocked over $2000 from donors.

That evening, and on the evening that followed, four people were arrested: one parent and three university students. There was much discussion before the arrests among group members as to whether students should be allowed to get themselves arrested–as parents, we felt responsible, but we also had schedules that had prevented many of us from acquiring the two citations, so students Carrie Lau and Mike Doyle were the only ones who had enough citations to risk arrest. On the second night after the announcement, parent Marguerite Higa, and graduate student Teresa Kessinich-Chase were arrested. After that, we had reached the deadline set by the Legislature for releasing funds–the Governor had not budged, and we decided to end the sit-in.

In the aftermath, the Governor did finally sign off on a release of special funds that had been appropriated by the legislature–unlike many states, Hawaii had funds in reserve for budget shortfalls: the Rainy Day fund and the Hurricane Relief Fund, which added to the tension in talks with the various parties. However, she never released the funds. That was one of the first acts of her successor, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who released the funds shortly after taking his oath of office on December 6th.

I am now “known” as both a professor and an activist…the latter is a label I never thought I would wear. Political scientists may not mind such labels, but public administrators are a different breed. We do not seek out the limelight; we work behind the scenes, where we can be effective and discrete. But sometimes, events call for more. I have, as Ms. Hill most eloquently put it, become the person I needed to be.

Jill Tao is an Associate Professor of Public Administration at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She is also a founding member of SaveOurSchools (SOS) Hawaii, a grassroots organization created in October 2009 to oppose and force a repeal of the state’s decision to furlough public school teachers for 34 days. Email: [email protected]

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