On Saturday evening at 6pm, the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Prison, a dozen large photos of Guantanamo detainees lined Waikiki’s busiest street corner. A hooded activist in orange knelt in front of the photos, and leafleters were energetically engaging with passers-by. A big orange banner reading “No Torture” provided a backdrop for other protesters wearing orange and carrying signs demanding that Guantanamo be shut down NOW.We immediately attracted controversy. A good number of people enthusiastically took our leaflets, thanked us, or commented quietly. Some had specific questions. A few said they’d never heard of Guantanamo and more said they thought it was closed. There were a surprising number of ugly remarks like “we should have just shot them,” “you’re all terrorists” or “Keep them there forever”. Toward the end of the evening about a dozen soldiers gathered across the broad avenue shouting “terrorists” and appeared to intend to cross over and confront us. Suddenly they stopped shouting and walked away. Quite a few people, including members of the military, said they supported Guantanamo but wanted to hear why we opposed it. When we got into the facts – the bounties, the torture, the absence of charges – most thanked us and a few even said they were changing their mind.
When we first got to the corner we were aggressively confronted by a young Black man who said: “They’re all terrorists – they should never get out!”. When we got into the facts he threw back: “Why should I care about them?” and walked away. He came back time and again and studied the photos. As we were leaving the source of his anger became real: “Why aren’t you protesting about Blacks in U.S. prisons instead?” When we got into how the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo and the treatment of Black prisoners in the U.S. were related and encouraged him to connect up with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network his attitude toward us turned friendly.
Many Japanese tourists, who usually refuse leaflets, understood that we were protesting Guantanamo took our leaflets or thanked us. While they may not have understood much English, they understood “Guantanamo.” People from the Middle East were especially supportive. A pair of Iraqis from Australia angrily said a new detention center had been opened in Australia – taking their lead from the U.S. A Pakistani woman hugged us enthusiastically and thanked us with tears in her eyes.
Our relatively small group of 18 protesters made a big impact on the Waikiki scene. No one could miss the sea of orange-clad protesters with signs on the crowded sidewalk and many stopped to take photos. We ran out of our 250 leaflets too quickly, but managed to get out our message even without them.