HONOLULU – Comments on social media about a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead by Honolulu police were so hateful that a Catholic priest from the same small Pacific island as the teen’s family is reluctant to repeat them .
“It’s really bad, and I don’t want to say it as a priest,” said Rev. Romple Emwalu, parish vicar in a ward outside Honolulu, who was born in Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia. “But like ‘Micronesians are filth’.”
Some in the Micronesian community say the April 5 shooting of Iremamber Sykap highlights the racism they face in Hawaii, a place they expected to make other islanders more welcome.
Police say Sykap was driving a stolen car while leading officers on a chase through oncoming traffic after a range of crimes including armed robbery and the snatch of wallets.
Sykap’s family is from Chuuk, but he was born in Guam, a U.S. territory, said his mother, Yovita Sykap.
“He’s an American,” she said.
Of Hawaii’s 1.5 million population, 38% are Asians – mostly Japanese and Filipinos – 26% are white, 2% are black, and many people are multi-ethnic, according to the US Census. Native Hawaiians make up about 20% of the population.
There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Micronesians in Hawaii who migrated here in large numbers in the 1990s for economic and educational opportunities, said Josie Howard of We are Oceania, who works for the Micronesian community.
The Compact of Free Association enables citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau to live and work freely in the United States in order to give the U.S. military control of strategic land and water areas in the United States to enable region.
The Federated States of Micronesia are about 4,000 kilometers southwest of Hawaii and consist of 607 islands with about 107,000 inhabitants.
The relationship with the United States seems to mislead the Hawaiian people into believing that Micronesians are a burden on welfare benefits, said Sha Merirei Ongelungel, a Honolulu resident.
Ongelungel, a Palauan born and raised in Oregon, came to Hawaii.
When she got here, a cousin advised her to tell potential employers that she was from Oregon. “If you tell them you’re a Micronesian, you won’t get a job,” she said, her cousin told her.
She wasn’t prepared for racism in Hawaii and left after a year.
Ongelungel said she feels armed to deal with the racism in the US mainland against those who are not white. “I didn’t have any training to fight people who looked like my actual blood relatives,” she said.
She returned to Hawaii almost 15 years later.
What might be difficult for a priest to repeat, Ongelungel does not hesitate to describe: “People who speak of killing cockroaches, demanding a cleansing of the Micronesians, have us – even those of us who are US citizens who were born in the USA USA – demanding that we be deported, that the parents of minors be imprisoned, as you call it “
She said whenever there is a crime on the news involving someone who is a Micronesian, there is a surge in hateful comments, but “they never go away entirely.”
After filming, some local media reported on Sykap’s criminal history as a teenager.
“I want to make people aware of why his past matters when he’s a kid,” said Ongelungel.
The police offered little information about the shooting. The department will not release body camera footage as there were other minors with Sykap in the car.
Just over a week after the shooting, Honolulu police shot and killed a black man who had entered a house he did not own, sat down and took off his shoes, causing a terrified inmate to call 911. Chief Susan Ballard said racing wasn’t a factor in the incident.
In response to protests in other parts of the country that are deciphering the brutality of the police against minorities, the white Ballard has said that this level of racism generally does not exist here.
“The officers are fully trained to respond to individual behavior and actions, not race,” said police spokeswoman Michelle Yu.
Eric Seitz, an attorney not involved in the Sykap case who represents families of other people killed by police, says Honolulu police have similar racial issues as other U.S. cities.
“More and more people are realizing that Hawaii is no different and that, for reasons of public responsibility, it should be mandatory to publish similar information, just as they publish video material for all these other incidents in all these other cities here,” said Seitz.
Nothing in the law prevents the police from covering the faces of the other youths in the car with sykap, he said.
Jacquie Esser, a state assistant defense attorney, said police will often stop Micronesians or call them cockroaches for no reason. “It’s so crazy,” she said.
Esser believes the department released Sykap’s sealed records to the media to demonize him and is now relying on youth confidentiality to prevent the footage from being released.
The department denies this. “Records of juvenile arrests are generally confidential, and the department’s policy prohibits the publication of a suspect’s previous arrest history,” said Yu.
Ann Hansen became friends with Sykap’s family in 2008 and became godmother to him and four of his siblings after they discovered they were each walking 3 miles to St. Andrew’s Cathedral, an episcopal church in downtown Honolulu.
People called him “baby” because he was the youngest of eight, she said. Hansen said she drove him to ukulele class.
There was also a lot of support for the teen who was killed, including a memorial to Sykap on a street corner near where the shooting took place. Some people kept watch around the clock, decorated with bouquets of flowers, balloons, candles and a stuffed bear.
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, The Associated Press