The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
— John Prine
I’ve been listening to Prine’s music as he battled the COVID-19 that took him last week, and those words from “Paradise,” about the Kentucky town of his parents’ birth, resonated as I processed Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s unfathomable decision to pick a fight with Waimanalo residents by resuming work on his unwanted park at Sherwood Forest in the middle of a pandemic.
It was a jerk move at the most inopportune time, surprisingly heartless even for a mayor whose idea of community betterment always seems to start with a big shovel.
After the history of bitter contention over Sherwood’s, he knew it would draw impassioned residents out to protest, compelled to risk their safety despite the stay-at-home orders issued by Caldwell and Gov. David Ige to stem the coronavirus.
City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson, the district representative and one of the mayor’s closest political allies, all but pleaded with him to hold off for this reason, saying, “My concern is, and the main priority of government should be, the health, safety and well-being of all during this pandemic.”
Caldwell’s answer was to send his police to harass the few dozen protesters with warnings and citations for violating the stay-at-home order, creating a petri dish of potential virus exposure among construction workers, protesters and police.
And as with much of the discord this mayor causes, it was all for nothing when he was forced two days later to shut down the construction after workers dug up burial remains — exactly as protesters predicted they would at a site they regard as a major native burial ground.
Caldwell had defended the start of construction as “another way to put money in the pockets of our local contractors and employees,” but there are many pending city construction projects around the island that are not controversial; he didn’t have to choose this one.
In the end, it’s difficult to understand what would motivate an elected official to sow such anguish among peaceful constituents already under duress from the public health crisis of a lifetime.
Was it more mean streak from a guy who regularly uses the word “compassionate” to describe the smashing of homeless camps? Was he showing the contractors and developers he hopes will finance his 2022 gubernatorial bid how ruthless he’s willing to be in their service? Or was he simply as brainless as one of those tree stumps he couldn’t wait to bulldoze?
Some leaders rise to the moment in a crisis, while others shrink into their smallest selves.
Reach David Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.