***Commentary*** Not Really About A Shoplifter Per Se

By Tiffany Edwards Hunt

You may or may not know this but my family owns a retail shop on the island.  And we have had a perennial problem with shoplifting. Now and then I have mentioned my clashes with the thieves. Today, in yet another confrontation with yet another shoplifter, I was hit with all sorts of epiphanies and was overcome with a wave of empathy that motivated me to respond differently than I have in the past.

The shoplifter is a 15-year-old boy, who is a friend of a friend and who come in to the shop often to talk story with us and to use a skateboard tool.  This week, after using the shop’s tool to tighten the bearings on his skateboard, he took advantage of the shop being busy and stuffed some tee shirts in his book bag. He was caught on video surveillance, and we were prepared to call authorities.  But, because he is a friend of a friend, he was given an opportunity to bring the tee shirts back this morning.

Last night and early this morning, I replayed the scenes of the theft in my mind, infuriated at the thought of him coming in to borrow the shop tool and making small talk as a distraction while he stole from us.  The illusion is that we own all our merchandise.  We struggle to survive in a small village that, some days, has more vagrants and panhandlers coming through our doors than actual customers. Like most small-business owners, we live off our good credit with a heavy dose of credit card debt to keep us hungry.

Every time that I have confronted a shoplifter, it is with a fierceness that is motivated by the thought of our children who we hope will some day take over our business, hopefully, minus our debts.

When the boy showed up with his mother this morning and put four tees he had taken from us on the counter, I greeted him with the same sort of fierceness that motivated me to track down and confront Georgie Santos in 2007; to chase after and confront Alyson Correia and other shoplifters in December 2009 and Jahbari Lawfer in April 2011, to confront Chantelle Kalani in July 2010, and to track down and confront Tarra Swenson in October 2011.

“Why did you think that we should fund your wardrobe?” I asked the boy.  He didn’t understand the question.  I rephrased, “Why did you take these shirts?” “Because I thought they would look nice on me,” he responded.  I got more infuriated with the boy.  I told him what I told you, about the illusion of us owning everything in the store. We are not rich, we struggle and worry about making ends meet.  

I told him how sociopathic it is to be making nice with people at the same time you steal from them, and how our jails and prisons are filled with sociopaths.  “You’re at a point in your life where you need to figure out what you’re going to do with it.  You can either work for stuff, or you can keep stealing from people and end up in jail.”

“Do you have a job?” No.

“Do you get an allowance?” No.

Both mom and stepdad are unemployed and receive benefits.

I smelled the shirts.  They still had the new-shirt smell. He hadn’t worn any of them. “Why haven’t you worn the shirts?” I asked.

He shifted his crossed arms and legs and looked down at the floor.  “Because I felt guilty.”

That’s when I melted.

And I flashed on one of the students I have advised the last year and a half at University of Hawaii Hilo.  Anthony Holzman Escareno.  You might have read about him in the local newspaper recently.  Anthony, who was the sports editor for Ke Kalahea, University of Hawaii-Hilo’s student newspaper before becoming the editor in chief this school year, will be UH Hilo’s commencement speaker tomorrow.

Anthony, a 9th grade dropout, was all set for a crime-filled life, having grown up with a poverty-stricken mother, resorting to stealing and even robbery.

In a detention home, Anthony had his own epiphany.  The story he has told involves him peering out from a hole in the roof in the middle of the building.  “‘One night, I was looking through the roof at the high rises.  I remember seeing people out on their porches living their lives.  ‘I thought, no matter how hard life was, it wasn’t worth living it in a box.'”

I looked down at the shirts, looked at the boy, and saw Anthony’s face in the boy’s face.  Anthony, in his former life on Oahu, would have gone for the cash register.

He came to this island to live with his grandmother after the detention home, took the Compass Test, got enrolled at Hawaii Community College, and is now graduating with highest honors. He just got his first law-school acceptance letter this week.

“You have two choices,” I told the boy.  “We can call the police and make a report, and you can pay me back when a judge orders you. Or, you can earn back our trust by working in the yard.” He chose the latter. “Go home, get in to some grubby clothes, and come back here in the next half hour.” He was back within 15 minutes.

I showed him what I wanted trimmed in the back yard and where to pile the green waste.  I told him when and how long I want him to work for us.  He compiled.

He went to work.  And I fought back my emotions, thinking, not just about him, about Anthony, even myself, who have made mistakes and been given second chances.

I thought about poverty and how pervasive it is in Hawaii, and in Puna, especially.

There are so many young men who loiter outside of businesses in Pahoa, and you are really naive if you don’t know that they are hustlers or they deal drugs, predominantly marijuana.  Can you blame them, really? They are actually seeking to be entrepreneurial in an area in which they can find no legitimate work.  Many of them are undereducated, and lack any technical skills.  What else can they do?  Some of them don’t even bother to earn money.  Those are the ones whose mug shots accompany horrifying news stories of burglaries and robberies in your neighborhoods, or whose names are listed in the crime blotter.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about geothermal technology.  Some see that renewable energy as a potential job source for Puna.  Others are adamantly opposed to goethermal. Some are convinced that Puna’s future lies with diversified agriculture.  Others see that Hawaii has a long history of importing agricultural workers because residents aren’t willing to do that kind of labor themselves.

As I thought about the boy working in our backyard, the young men who hustle outside of Pahoa’s businesses, and Anthony, my student, the rose, who grew from the concrete, I flashed on an idea I’ve had before.

We need to hold what I would call an “Economic Think Tank.”

Actually, to give due credit to how this idea was formed, it was years ago in conversation with Walter Moe, the Hawaiian Paradise Park resident who is now one of the leaders of Conservative Forum for Hawaii.  Back when I worked for West Hawaii Today and Moe was a police commissioner, we used to talk with each other often.  Moe, if you know him, is quite a character.  Prior to moving to Hawaii, he was actually a toy inventor.  He told me about how they would invent toys:  brilliant minds sat in a room together brainstorming.

Why not take the same approach with economic development.

Invite some truly entrepreneurial, creative and brilliant people from around the community, along with government bureaucrats.  Feed them and give them a facilitator to write their ideas on extra-large pieces of paper that can be taped to the walls.  Come up with ways to create jobs in Puna, and islandwide or across the state, tapping the minds of people who have been able to defy the odds.

We really cannot afford to do anything else but explore solutions. In actuality, there aren’t that many roses that grow out of concrete.

If we don’t set people up for the win, I have to tell you honestly, it’s only a matter of time before you are going to be victimized by a helpless or hopeless person with no job prospect in sight.

10 replies
  1. CSGray
    CSGray says:

    I spend every day with middle schoolers who are poised at a major fork in the road of their lives, they are struggling to figure out which way to go, often with really negative role models in their lives pulling them one way, while their innate nature is pulling them towards being good caring people. The education system here can be brutal, especially for kids who come from families who are spending so much energy on pure survival that education just isn’t a priority.

    The Keaau youth business center is doing amazing stuff with kids, so are many individual teachers, programs and schools, these are people you might want to join your brainstorming session. I know I would want to participate.

    As an aside: is Moe still around? I would love to have him come talk with my hand on thinking class.

  2. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:

    If I can help with your idea for a brainstorming session, please let me know. At the least, I can offer to bring some bananas; avocados, too, if they are in season, to contribute to the food.
    In any event, please do try to do local food as much as you can.
    Thanks for thinking.

  3. Roy Dean
    Roy Dean says:

    It is understandable, to me, why “thievery” is the
    norm today. When the role models of society, the
    judicial, legislative, administrative and spiritual
    leaders behavior is no different from shoplifters and
    the like, how can anyone expect the younger people
    to know what civil behavior is in society.

    Just a thought.

  4. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Thanks Roy, and to you all with such compassion.
    Thanks tiffany for the idea; no such thing as ‘everyone for themself’.

  5. Rick
    Rick says:

    CSGray has hit the nail on the head. His suggestion, or hint, that professionals should deal with problems of juveniles is an excellent one. Better to address the problem this way initially than to prosecute him in court. Even the prosecutor’s office prefers this approach for first-time property crime juvenile offenders (or
    it used to – not sure of current policy).

    It is tempting to explain the crime on his parent’s problems, but that does not help the parents nor their son. If his behavior cannot be curbed, you should call the police and feel no guilt for doing so.

  6. Frankie Stapleton
    Frankie Stapleton says:

    Aloha Tiffany…

    Just read your commentary about the realities of shoplifting and other property crimes in Puna and am touched that you documented your changing perspective for all to read.

    Additionally, I’d like to take advantage of your online forum seeking economic ideas, in hope someone with the financial and/or political power will see the potential of this proposal and move it forward. I sincerely believe it could provide a beneficial future for Hawaii’s people and economy!

    Here’s my plan: Our powers-that-be should investigate the potential of two plants, coconut and cassava (AKA casava, manioc, tapioca, yucca), for fuel as well as food self-sustenance and as export products (biodegradable plastics…shopping bags, pills, think about all the fossil-fuel based wrapping used in the food and medical industries).

    I truly believe these two ag crops could supplement and even eventually replace tourism and the military as Hawaii’s economic foundation. Hawaii’s consumers are currently paying premium dollars for grain-based foods and fuel, for fossil fuels and imported coconut and cassava foodstuffs. These two plants could substantially reduced Hawaii’s dependence on fossil fuels and its need to import so many grain-based foods, creating a serious dent in Hawaii’s carbon footprint.

    Cassava is being used in Southeast Asia for bioplastics (biodegradable shopping bags and other bioplastics used in the medical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries) as well as gluten-free flour and other food products, and is also used to make ethanol. These products in Hawaii are corn- and wheat-based, the two most expensive soft commodities on the U.S. market. Corn-based ethanol is very expensive and we have to import all our wheat products so when you go to the store you get sticker-shock from the prices we have to pay for our bread and cereals!

    Coconut’s health benefits are being touted by everyone from Dr. Oz to nutritionists worldwide. When the food industry started using partially hydrogenated coconut and palm oils, particulary in margarine, coconut got a bad rap when the nutritionists warned that those products were worse for us than butter.

    But organic, non-hydrogenated coconut is actually very good for us, those experts are now telling us. Some doctors are using coconut oil to stave off Alzheimer’s Disease. Consumers here are paying a dollar an ounce for non-hydrogenated coconut oil that we’re importing from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand etc. while here in Hawaii, we’re throwing away coconuts. Thai restaurant owners here on the island are complaining about the price of coconut milk tripling lately.

    As foodstuffs, both of these plants grow readily throughout the state. Yet, of food consumed by Hawaii’s population, less than 15 percent is produced in the state. Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a staple food of nearly one billion people in 105 countries worldwide, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. And according to an official with the UH College of Tropical Agriculture, it has been “at least” 20 years since any Hawaii government-sponsored (UH or Dept. of Ag) scientific study has investigated coconut as a crop of any value!

    The state’s leadership has been looking for a substitute for the sugar industry that was Hawaii’s economic base for more than 100 years. I suggest they couldn’t see the forest for the trees! I believe most of Hawaii’s population would rather invest in self-sustenance than in tourism and having to cave into the militarism of our state for economic reasons. There are still some sugar plantation facilities around that could probably be upgraded and converted to use for processing products from coconut and cassava.

    Think of the jobs that could be created just in growing coconut and/or cassava for local consumption, with eventual development of products for export. I think it’s a goal worth actively studying. Let me know what you think. Aloha, Frankie Stapleton

  7. GD
    GD says:

    After 32 yrs here I think the powers that be just don’t want us here. They have the pie already divided up. The state motto “Just come leave your money and go home”. It’s sad to see so many smart people come and beat their heads against the rocks then leave. Small business is on its own. Sorry for being a downer but thats all I’ve seen here. Some people last two years some ten others twenty but few last longer in Small Business. GD

  8. Pete Altomare
    Pete Altomare says:

    We are like a moonbase on life support here, and must get serious about surviving long term in isolating circumstances that may occur for one reason or another.
    The value added part is equally important. We need a real economy. We need that kind of independence.
    There are many things to understand and plan for, what do we see those as being?

  9. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    @ GD; where in global capitalism is it different?
    Large corporations rule. They make the laws, rig the game. Our challenge seems to be creating local economy in ways that sidestep the business model. An economy that values clean air, clean water, fresh food as our birthright AND responsibility to bring about.

  10. tj
    tj says:

    Thanks for a great story. Young people need compassionate community and support, not incarceration.

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