If you are in the downtown area of Denver around the Colorado Convention Center and the hotels where other events are taking place, then you can safely assume that everyone around you wearing some sort of political paraphernalia is attending the Democratic National Convention. While waiting at a crosswalk, a young man next to me noticed one of my pins and said to me “Guam, alright!”
I wasn’t too surprised by this. Guam had made a small splash the night before at amongst assembled delegates, because the entire delegation sported bright red Hawaiian shirts. Because of this they were favorites for approaching and having your photo taken with. I smiled at him, a bit uncomfortably, hoping quietly that he would not ask me where my red Hawaiian shirt was.
Instead (and interestingly enough without introducing himself or asking my name) he started talking about how he had been waiting to go to Guam, and how other staffers had said it was great and people there treat you great. I assumed that this point that he was attached to some Congressman who had either been on a delegation to Guam or would be going on one in the future. In my head this meant that he worked for someone from the Armed Services Committee or on the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs.
I smiled again, this time sincerely, since I was hoping to interview some people on that committee to answer some questions about how they were insuring that the local economy would benefit from the military buildup, how they would make sure that the military did follow its environmental standards, how they were planning on helping the Government of Guam pay for the damage the buildup would cause, and lastly how would they ensure that Guam’s right to decolonization would be protected. A long list of things, and after my first day at the convention and not being able to connect to the right politicians or get them to answer any questions I was beginning to despair and felt that I wasn’t going to get any sort of answers on Guam from this convention.
Before I could continue he made a remark which completely set me off. Knowing everything I do know about how Washington D.C. perceives Guam and all the work that the Chamber of Commerce and certain politicians do in creating that perception, it should not have surprised me at all. Guam is after all “the tip of the spear.” Military commanders use this metaphor to speak casually about Guam and its future and reduce it to a weapon in their war games or a piece of property onto which you move a fighter wing here, a Marine battalion there. And locally the Chamber of Commerce style of representing Guam accepts this objectification and offers up Guam as an “American” community which loves to be used by the military and even celebrates it!
He said something to the effect that in the next few years all you guys’ dreams are gonna come true because of the Marines and the military buildup.
The smile of course, disappeared immediately from my face. The only thing that I could reply, was “Is that what you guys’ think?” It was strange to me that someone could speak of the military buildup so callously, and in such a way that the potential negative impacts to the island, its economy, its infrastructure, its environment and its population simply didn’t exist, and all that was left was some magic Marine dust which would make all the islands’ dreams come true.
I had written earlier on this blog, that I would take a more quiet and deliberate approach to interviewing at the Convention, but I have to admit I wasn’t much of either in this exchange. My next statements all dealt with my disgust at how little he knew about Guam, and my revulsion that they were deciding the fate of the island with so little knowledge. I didn’t use the words “disgust” or “revulsion” but I think my tone communicated it.
I finished by unknowingly paraphrasing an old Joe Ada speech, saying that Guam is not Idaho, Guam is not Kansas. Guam is not a state with Senators and Congressmen, where in all your plans for building up the military presence, is the protections for a people without representation or political power, and where is the safeguarding of the island’s right to decolonization? Where are your plans should the island reject this buildup or seek independence?
I think the crosswalk lights had been white for a while. Because he immediately darted off, in a different direction than which we had both been initially facing. In the last look that I got of his face, I saw a mixture of fear and confusion, as if the foundation for his identity in that moment had just completely collapsed and fallen away, leaving him to dangle without any certainty. I imagine that so many people who come to Guam serving in the military, or even tourists who visit Hawai’i get that look after they realize that a place that they imagined as theirs, whether it be a paradise or just another military base, in reality belongs to someone else, and has natives who claim it.
As he walked away I thought about yelling at him or following him, but after realizing that he was reacting to me as if I was a restless native, I thought that this might antagonism him further.
I’m hoping that I see that staffer/aide again. Not to entice him or freak him out more, but more so to talk to him and try to give him the side of Guam that he knows nothing about, and seemed to be very happy to not even consider. But, if this is the way in which people in Washington D.C. react to these sorts of questions and issues, which are the ones I came to Denver to ask and get feedback on, then I think I have a lot more rough exchanges like this ahead. Tomorrow, there are a number of sessions focusing on military families and veterans and so I’m really hoping that I see this guy’s boss there, or at least some other members of the Armed Services Committees that I can pose my questions to.
Being here in the heart of at least half of the political class of the United States, and the figures and ideas from which it draws its power, I can see another side of American colonialism. On Guam, this colonial existence is felt through being disrespected, dismissed, treated as not really American, and feeling constantly inferior because of this never realized American longing. In Washington D.C., in the United States, we see the more passive, lazy side of colonialism, where ignorance and disinterest protects and maintains what is a fundamentally unequal relationship. People in the United States may not know much about Guam, but that ignorance of their colonies shouldn’t save them from being held accountable for the territories whose fates they determine everyday. In an ideal world, only those who have a full and holistic knowledge of a thing should be allowed to govern or control it, but in the case of Guam, it was once again proven to me tonight, that this is especially never the case in terms of the territories.
I've finished typing up this story now, but looking back on it, it still feels surreal. Except for a few moments hanging around with people from the Guam delegation, I've felt out place almost the whole time I've been here. This exchange at a street corner in Denver is just another moment where I feel as if the questions I have, the issues I represent aren't welcome here, don't belong.
This doesn't mean that I'm not having a good time, or making some great contacts and friends, but still...there is still an uneasiness about being here, with so many people welcoming me, celebrating my presence here, but not really caring to engage with me on the critical issues, beyond simple inclusion, that have brought me here.