The one-week tour of Rev. Francois Pihaatea, the Secretary-General of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) around the Los Angeles-Long Beach area has finally concluded after navigating 700 miles through LA’s infamous road rage and rush hour traffic. Included in the entourage from Fiji was PCC Treasurer Julie Chang and Ateca Ravuvu, the Director of the Moana Loa Dance Company.
The purpose of PCC’s visit was both exploratory and representative. It was premised on sharing the rethinking initiatives, such as the Wansolwara movement on issues of political self-determination, development and trade, and climate change, and the churches’ renewal processes that is currently being evaluated throughout the Pacific. Additionally, for Moana Nui, we sought to explore how Cross-Oceanic solidarity could provide focus of issues impacting communities in both the U.S. and the Pacific Island Countries and Territories.
The tour began with an introduction of the Free West Papua-USA campaign directed by Jewell Faamalagia, where we discussed some of the challenges in our campaign to raise awareness and the visibility of West Papua liberation here in the United States. Despite years of organizing protests around the Southland, we looked at how focusing on the United Liberation Movement of West Papua (ULMWP) and PCC’s supportive role in building this campaign through some of the active Pacific Island churches could effectively encourage our local youth to take up the struggle of support for a Free West Papua.
Later that evening we went to the Opening Ceremony of the fifth annual Garifuna International Indigenous Film Festival where PCC’s film “RE-BIRTH: The Call of Our Mother to Renewal” was premiering. Also showing were West Papuan political leader Herman Wainggai’s two films, “A Journey to Freedom” and “A Hidden Genocide.”
The Garifuna people are descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people from around the Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize region, and Freda Sideroff, the director of GIIFF, combined international indigenous stories of local struggles against the impacts of militarization and globalization and put them in dialogue with each other.
A symposium that she organized after the West Papua and Wansolwara films gave Reverend Francois the opportunity to also speak to the Chairman (Chief) of the Ute Mountain tribe in Colorado.
Throughout the week, we embarked on a kind of demilitarization tour. The van was filled to capacity with people from Fiji, Solomon Islands, West Papua and Hawaii and the purpose was to construct a narrative of empire and resistance.
Touring a variety of neighborhoods, PCC sought to reconnect with the Pacific communities in Southern California through sharing struggles of self-determination movements in the the Pacific, particularly the movement for West Papua’s political self-determination, Maohi Nui (French Polynesia), Rapa Nui and Kanaky (New Caledonia) and the need for the support of the Pacific people.
The highlights of this tour included:
- El Segundo Beach, where we gave honor to the first peoples of this land and the ocean that connects us. Kumu Hula Mikilani Young provided oli to help guide us and reminded us to hold Mauna a Wakea in our hearts as we embarked on this tour.
- The Los Angeles Air Force missile tracking station where the ICBMs launched from Vandenberg Air Force base north of Santa Barbara are guided into the Marshall Islands. Currently, native Tinian and Pagan islanders are being removed from their islands which the U.S. will be using for military testing and training.
- We ended up taking two freeways to drive one block to transnational military contractor Lockheed-Martin where they are developing and promoting the technology for deep sea-bed mining, a new extractive technology of which they own many of the patents that razes the sulphuric depths of the deep seabed to mine for highly poisonous mineral-rich polymetallic nodules, threatening the biodiversity and breeding grounds of pelagic fish, which include tuna, mackerel, swordfish and sharks. UK Seabed Resources, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin UK, and has received a license and contract to explore a 58,000 sq kilometre area of the Pacific in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.
- We drove through the San Pedro Bay Port Complex otherwise known as the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. It is busiest port in the U.S., and the majority of trade in goods with Asia comes in and out of these ports. Combined, the ports take up about 23 square miles, consisting of about 350 berths and 157 cranes, transporting 270 million metric revenue tons and 17 million containers (TEUs), and employs over 170,000 people. Accounting for about 40% of its market share on the West Coast, the ports contribute towards California being ranked the 8th largest economy in the world.
- Of course all this trade in goods comes with a lot of waste and byproduct, especially from truck tires, and we stopped off at RCO2, an award-winning tire recycling facility owned by Niki Okuk from PNG. Pacific ingenuity repurposes old tires.In a recent interview, Niki not only describes RCO2 as helping to reduce carbon emissions by keeping tires out of the ground, but also as a workplace that seeks to meet the needs of parolees and convicted felons.She says,“I didn’t want them to think that they were being reformed here—it’s the system that we need to reform. When one of our workers doesn’t show up to our morning meetings, one of us will go on the sheriff’s website to see if the cops kidnapped them. Because we know that’s the most likely thing. People don’t show up to work because they’re hung over—people don’t show up to work because they got kidnapped by the prison industrial complex.”
- We visited Samoa-born Johnny Ray Salomon in a transitional home in Central Los Angeles. He had just been released to a Franciscan home after serving 35 years in prison for crimes he committed as part of a gang in Los Angeles. Johnny described himself as someone who had not risen to the meet the challenges of losing his Samoan community when his family uprooted him to the U.S. He spoke about his time in prison not knowing where Pacific Islanders fit in within the system, and presented new challenges that spoke to the purpose of PCC’s visit.
- We stopped off at the Indonesian Consulate to protest Indonesia using West Papua to gain membership into the Melanesian Spearhead Group, and to remind Indonesia that West Papua is Melanesian– not Indonesian.
- Volunteering with the Midnight Mission to feed several hundred homeless on skid row may have been more overwhelming than PCC anticipated. Standing in the lines that seemed never ending provided a good sampling of the people most in need in Los Angeles. This included not only addicts, veterans, convicts, and the mentally ill, but also families and working people as well.In Los Angeles County, an estimated 47,000 people live on the streets or in shelters, according to figures released Wednesday. The latest homeless count represents an 11% increase in the city of L.A.’s homeless population from a year earlier, despite recent efforts to fund multibillion-dollar plans to address the problem.
- The Free Store in Whittier is a project initiated by Jewell Faamaligia and her Catalyst Network. The free store looks like a thrift store, but the community-building nature of the free store leverages access to inventory and volunteers that are untapped by conventional thrift stores.As part of the Rethinking and Renewal process, the Free Store presents a functional model for sharing instead of shopping, renewing community connections while rethinking our relationship with consumption and waste.
- Laura Ava Tesimale connected us with Reverend Misi who invited Reverend Francois to deliver the sermon at the Samoan speaking Peteli Christian Church in Long Beach where he called for bringing the Pacific back home. While he asked the church to take up the issue of West Papua, he also sought to address the stories of the Pacific diaspora living in the US empire back into the fold of the Pacific.
- At Redondo Beach, Theclah and Lucy hosted a mumu with some of the Melanesians currently living in the Southland.
- Loyal Bualuay, representing a Chuukese community in Pasadena met with Reverend Francois. They have already taken up the issue of both West Papua and Rapanui liberation.
- We concluded the tour with a radio taping for KPFK at the Eastside Café. They are committed to the belief that all people and all communities have the right to self governance and self-determination and that we already possess within our own communities all the knowledge and power to make this a reality.The Eastside Café has three main historical roots, the Encuentro Chicano-Zapatista and the Big Frente Zapatista, Union de Comunidades and last but not least in the struggles and people that live in our communities.
As an exploratory initiative to call the Pacific back home, back into the fold of Pacific values and communities, the Pacific Conference of Churches is engaging in an important step for reawakening the self-determination of our liquid continent.
Navigating through Pacific and indigenous communities living within the empire, the purpose of this tour was to highlight some of the benefits and disadvantages of economic development as practiced by international investment regimes.
This moment of global economic insecurity, as new plurilateral investment agreements are competing for Pacific resources and looking to further bind Pacific Island Countries to massive security and economic agreements, it is important for Pacific civil society, faith-based institutions and governing bodies to re-imagine what the Pacific should look like in the 21st century.
Exporting the models of empire into the Pacific should never be an option, but exploring how communities create models of good governance should be.