Koa Kaelepulu is a 39-year-old anarchist punk who has been a fixture of the Seattle activist community for the last decade. He was born in Kailua, Hawaii in 1967 and grew up as an only child between Hawaii and Oakland with a single mom in poverty.
Known to many as Bruce Whitmore, Koa is one-quarter Hawaiian, one-quarter Maori, and half Sicilian. With a shaved head and some pretty wicked tattoos, he may defy a lot of preconceptions about what it means to be an indigenous person, but one generality is true: he is one among a community of Native Pacific Islanders who, for one socio-economic reason or another, fled their homes to live on the mainland. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1995.
I met Koa over a year ago when I was volunteering with Seattle's chapter of the activist food project, Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs is a loose organization that exists independently in cities all over the world, endeavoring to rescue perishable food items from disposal and to make them available in the form of meals to the hungry; Koa had been a cook for FNB in New Orleans and Atlanta when, in 1998, he moved to Seattle.
Koa has told me a lot about his surreal and Odyssean life as a self-educated, train-hopping punk rocker. He's told me about many of the other activists he's known: about their lives and, in some cases, their deaths. Listening to his booming and dramatic voice, I've often wished I had a tape recorder at my side. Sitting in Koa's basement-level Section 8 apartment in Belltown with a recorder (and later at a Starbucks on Mercer Island, and again over the phone), I had my chance. Here he is: a titan who leaves on all who meet him a deep and lasting impression, a father to the activist network that surrounds Food Not Bombs, and an incurably human and soft-hearted friend.
When did you first become involved in activism? I got started in activism probably in 1985, when I was 17. I started reading the works of revolutionary thinkers like Bakunin, Malatesta and Nester Makhno. Just seeing all the poverty on the Hawaiian homestead land was what influenced me and inspired me to become an anarchist; seeing the lack of resources on the land for the native Hawaiian people. I met Mililani K. Trask through a woman named Marimatsu Matsuoka, who was like my godmother at the time. She was a passionate communist but was involved with Hawaiian sovereignty, and believed strongly in rights for native Hawaiians. I was also influenced by my uncle, who was involved in the sovereignty movement.
How were you specifically involved in it? At the time I was in my mid-twenties. There were some things going on in Hawaii with land use. The state of Hawaii had blocked off a lot of areas that were sacred Hawaiian land, and Native Hawaiians would go fishing on it, and they'd get arrested, and they'd go to jail. And so there became this big squatting movement in Hawaii.
I was going to meetings and participating in small Hawaiian Homestead reconciliation projects, which involved trying to take back stolen lands by squatting on them in protest. Mostly the squats weren't that successful because the police would show up and arrest everybody. I was also involved in this health care project that failed, but it was going to be a drop-in center for native Hawaiians in Nanakuli. A lot of the work that we tried to do has failed. But I was also going back and forth a lot, hopping trains and traveling.
How did it change things for you when you began to identify yourself as a Native person? It gave me a lot of self-respect and dignity to become aware of where I come from and where my parents come from. We all grew up in the white way. Public schools up until '93 or '94 wouldn't allow you to speak native Hawaiian.
Was there any defining moment for you in your awakening as a punk, as an activist? Well, I've had a lot. In 1987, there was a 300-pound sea turtle that washed up onto the beach on Kaneohe Bay. It had track marks all across its shell from an amphibious assault unit -- these military tanks used by the army base to move across the reef. Seeing that was one of the defining moments for me.
Describe Food Not Bombs -- what does it do, what is its agenda? First of all, food is a right, not a privilege. What we do is we get a lot of proceeds -- produce, excuse me; we don't have any proceeds -- from places like Madison Market that donate their perishable goods to us. And we turn around and we cook it up and we serve it to people in Occidental Park. Back when I first moved here, Food Not Bombs was alive and thriving. There were a lot of people involved. We had a long battle with the Seattle Police Department over serving, and who had a right to have a presence in Occidental Park. SPD was being called in on us every Sunday, and there was a lot of police harassment and a lot of park exclusion tickets being issued. It got pretty hairball for a while. FNB is pretty much dead now, and it needs to be rejuvenated.
What's wrong with the activist community in Seattle? I think it's important that white activists know that there's people of color in this city who aren't being heard, and who are getting drowned out by the white activists. I've had a lot of issues with the activist community, and with the way I was treated specifically -- because I am not college educated. Because I never went to college, therefore I don't know anything. There are a lot of grassroots homegrown activists who are involved in movements all over the world who never went to college, and it doesn't make them ignorant; it doesn't make them stupid. So that's one thing that white activists in America -- and in this city -- need to be more conscious of.
Tell me how you feel about anarchism. I think a lot of practical anarchism that involves mutual aid can go a long way in modern day society. I believe that industrial "anarcho-syndicalism "can work. Practical anarchism means simple forms of anarchism that are not too structured: a way of putting the principles of anarchism into practice. Anarcho-syndicalism is where the workers take control of the factories and they eliminate the middle man, which is the boss, and they make products to sell or trade their own labor.
What would you like to see change in Seattle, and what have you seen happen? Activism has pretty much fallen by the wayside in Seattle. There's really not a whole lot that's been going on. I would really like to see small projects start up... that would be really cool. I'd like to see someone open a drop-in center for women in downtown Seattle, so there is an option other than the Downtown Emergency Service Center. I think DESC is nothing but a warehouse for the street people and the poor. The old space that DESC used to have was deplorable. Yet, there need to be a lot more DESCs. There need to be a lot more shelters. People also need to attack the welfare system. There's this attitude that everybody on welfare is homeless and has five kids and is a single mom. That is just BS. Being on welfare is like a full-time job, and so is being on SSI [Supplemental Security Income] for that matter.
I'm on SSI now, and it's not fun. It's not fun at all. If it wasn't for that there'd be nothing. But sometimes it is nothing.
Can you talk about what it's like to be on SSI and have cancer? Being on SSI is like floating on a bunch of thin cotton balls. It's also demoralizing and humiliating. People patronize you. They don't listen to you. They treat you like you're nothing. I get so disrespected, so dismissed. When I walk in [to the welfare office] I feel like I'm subhuman. There is no sympathy, no understanding.
How long have you been on it? I've been on SSI for 13 months. It took me four years while I was on welfare to get on it. I had to get a lawyer and I had to sue. They deny everybody coverage two or three times before they finally grant it to you. Everybody has to sue for coverage two or three times, unless you're blind or missing a limb. When I was waiting to get into court, I met a guy who had full-blown AIDS and he had been denied SSI two or three times.
Now that you have it, how much money do you get? On ordinary welfare I got $339 a month. That was for my rent, food, everything. Now that I'm on SSI I get $623 a month. I'm working part time and I'm worried that when I report my income it's going to affect the money that I get. If I don't report my income, I won't get other medical benefits. Hillary Clinton wants to create free health care for everybody. That's never going to happen because the insurance companies are never going to give in. There would need to be a complete overhaul of the system for something like that to happen. It's just not part of the agenda.
Do you think your illness has anything to do with the environmental factors of where you were growing up, with being Hawaiian? You know, I've thought about that and I really don't know. Cancer is high among Native Hawaiians. My uncle worked on an Air Force base in Hawaii and he got cancer as well. But I think one reason that Native people have higher rates of cancer and other illnesses is that they don't have as much access to preventative health care.
What could the state of Hawaii do to help more of the Natives? They could start by packing up and getting off our land.
Yeah, but assuming they're not going anywhere, what else could they do? They could allocate more funds to health care and housing. We don't have a lot of the same appropriated funds that other Native Americans on the mainland are getting, we don't have the same programs, and that's one of the reasons it's so difficult for Native Hawaiians to stay on the islands.