Four years ago, Gordon C. Cockett decided he’d had enough. No activist for most of his 78 years, Cockett served in the Maui Police Department for two-and-a-half decades before retiring from the force in 1979 to ensure receipt of a pension.
Cockett then spent the next 17 years working for various restaurants and operating a fish market in Lahaina before retiring for a second time in 1995. Ten years later, everything changed.
“I really can’t explain it,” Cockett said of his new activism. “It was just something that got to me — all that traffic created by development. I got fed up with it — not only the traffic but everything else.”
A modest, soft-spoken man, Cockett started speaking up at community meetings. Not long after, working on the theory that organizations advocating little or no growth need a united front, Cockett teamed up with Elle Cochran, first president of the highly successful Save Honolua Coalition, to form Maui Unite.
Maui-born Cockett, part Hawaiian, used to patrol Honoapiilani Highway when there was only one traffic signal on the island. Back then, star-studded nights were uninterrupted by the glowing lights, and green was the color of the great swaths of sugar cane swaying in the wind everywhere. In today’s Maui, Cockett contends, the color green is mostly associated with money.
He believes developers are destroying Maui. “These are not local people. They have come here and see the color green in the form of money. Greed is the driving force behind all this development — greed for money. The problem is you can’t eliminate greed,” Cockett said.
“I oppose million dollar homes,” Cockett continued. “Millionaires generally don’t come here to learn or live the culture. They come here to do their own thing. They want everybody else to abide by their own thinking. They want to change everything to suit themselves.”
Cockett knows the clock can’t be turned back, but he believes that development should go no further.
“I care for this island. When I fly into and out of Honolulu, I shudder at the sight of houses on the ridges. There is a hierarchy in the Hawaiian culture that we maka‘ainanas, or commoners, belong down here. The ali‘i (royalty) belong further up, and higher up are the deities, the gods,” he explained.
Cockett came to his philosophy late. Concerned with making a living, he did not know much about Hawaiian culture. But one day he decided to learn. He struggled to learn the Hawaiian language. He met Kahu Lyons Naone, an instructor at Maui Community College, and became a regular in his cultural classes, repeating the same or related courses 12 times to master the subjects and learn new things each time. This evolved into a belief about the importance of protecting land and preserving a Maui confronted with massive changes that have been rapidly altering its character.
Cockett is resentful of newcomers who want change, believing if they can’t accept life as it is here, they should go back to where they came from. He cites the example of putting roadside memorial crosses near sites of fatal auto crashes. This is a Maui custom, but some newcomers regard them as unsightly and want them removed, he said.
The longtime Lahaina resident is upset about the power of unions to influence County Council decisions on development. Although more building means more jobs, the reality is contractors often have to import construction workers from California to get the job done, Cockett believes. Sprawl, more infrastructure needs and limited jobs for locals are among the drawbacks.
Cockett believes the Lahaina Bypass will spur further development: “I’ve never been in favor of the bypass road, but I have stayed out of it. It would benefit developers and development.” He does not want a new four-lane road built above Honoapiilani Highway.
“No way are you going to put that road up there,” he has told the state. “But I wouldn’t mind two more lanes along cane roads, providing two lanes in each direction.” He claims County Councilwoman Jo Anne Johnson has said if the higher road is built, there would need to be roads for beach access every couple of miles. He believes this is precisely the kind of thinking that will lead to more development.
Cockett’s Maui Unite organization has met with little success. Maui Tomorrow and the ‘Ohana Coalition stand for many of the same principles he does, but so far Maui Unite has failed to unite them.
Cockett is quick to point out that he has not found answers to questions of development and jobs, but he soldiers on. “We have had enough development here. Let’s stop. Let’s slow down and take a look at where we are,” he commented.
Cockett would like to be known as a person who cares rather than a person who is negative. “I fight development with the thought in the back of my mind that the harder I fight, the longer we will keep houses from being built on those ridges (above Kaanapali and elsewhere),” he concluded.
No one knows whether development will stop, slow or continue, but Cockett is clear that he wants to protect Maui’s environment and island way of life, declaring “we are going to try. We are going to give it a shot.”
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