The Power of Protest

On a recent beautiful September weekend, I traveled to Hawaii Island (also known as the Big Island) to support the protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. On one side of this issue, science institutions and the state government are moving to start construction on a giant, highly advanced telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, a stunning 13,800-foot-tall volcano. On the other side, Native Hawaiians and their allies have blockaded the only access road to the summit of Mauna Kea to prevent construction of the facility on a site that many hold as a most sacred place.

Arriving at the site of the demonstration, I saw dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Hawaiian flags and heard the rhythmic sound of drumming and chanting in the Hawaiian language. The Mauna Kea protectors built a whole village at this remote highway intersection on a windswept volcanic plain. It included a medical tent, a commissary, gathering places for elders, children, men, and women, and even a school offering classes on topics like “The Decolonization of Pearl Harbor”—all completely free and self-organized. In the middle of the road to Mauna Kea sat the kupuna (Hawaiian elders) in what was the obvious place of honor—symbolically and literally blocking the road needed for the construction of the telescope. In front of them, a gathering space with a sound system hosted chanting, hula, talks, reminders of protocol, and other cultural offerings. What started as a protest had clearly evolved into a powerful expression of Native Hawaiian culture. But I never would have experienced that if I hadn’t come to participate in it.

What is happening at Mauna Kea recalls other important movements that ultimately led to positive changes in law, political power, and even investing. Indeed, the modern-day emergence of socially responsible investing began in the 1980s with the movement to divest from companies doing business in South Africa during the apartheid era. The goal of that movement was to draw the world’s attention to, and withdraw support from, a racist colonial government that had designed and brutally enforced a system of laws to oppress the majority of its people. The financial tactic worked: The global campaign to pressure companies to leave South Africa led to the ruin of South Africa’s currency and economy. This, coupled with resistance from within South Africa, became too much for the apartheid regime to bear, and it repealed its discriminatory laws, opening the way for a transition to democracy.

Over the years, socially responsible investing has become more commercialized and accessible. Today, it is relatively easy to buy funds that avoid harmful investments and push companies to improve their behavior through shareholder advocacy. If I didn’t believe that this approach made a world of difference, I wouldn’t be doing what I do.

However, I also recognize that investing, as well as giving money to crucial causes, is not enough. Whenever possible, we must show up in person and stand with those who are vulnerable and oppressed. Apartheid only crumbled when financial pressure combined with resistance on the ground. In September, a global climate strike by millions of people around the world dramatically spotlighted the inadequacy of government action on climate change. Yet one of the most visible catalysts for that strike was a single person: Greta Thunberg, protesting by herself in front of the Swedish Parliament, just over a year ago. What a perfect example of the power of millions of people working together, and at the same time, the power of one person.

Showing up in person gives us the opportunity to demonstrate to the world our passion and our deeply held values. Among the most powerful statements that we can make is not to stand up for our own rights, but for those of others—the disenfranchised and ignored. As investors—people with privilege and resources—we have the opportunity to bring both our money and our whole selves to bear against the challenges that face our world. Will we take advantage of this moment in history when so much hangs in the balance? Will we do what we can?

As of this writing, it’s unknown if the protectors of Mauna Kea will succeed in blocking the construction of the telescope. But by coming together to collectively express what matters most to them—their sacred grounds, their elders and ancestors, their Native Hawaiian culture—they have already ignited a renaissance for their people and their place. One that will undoubtedly make a world of difference in the times to come. And the reason I know that is because I was there, singing with them.

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”—Howard Zinn

Photo: Kekuhi Kanahele performing a hula during noon protocol. Kekuhi’s mother, the esteemed kumu hula Pua Kanahele, was one of over thirty elders arrested for blockading the access road on July 17, 2019.

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James Frazier

James Frazier

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