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Aloha Poke Protesters Take Boycott To The Loop This Week

More than 162,000 people have signed an online petition against the Chicago-based Aloha Poke Co.

The owner of an Alaska-based poke shop, who is Hawaiian, teared up when describing the hoops she had to jump through to rebrand after receiving a cease and desist letter from Aloha Poke Co.
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DOWNTOWN — Activists plan to protest Aloha Poke Co. during several days of rallies and marches.

The Chicago-based poke chain has been facing a torrent of criticism and calls for boycotts since the end of July, when activists on social media said Aloha Poke Co. had targeted native-Hawaiian-owned businesses over the use of “aloha” and “aloha poke.”

Aloha Poke Co. has said “misinformation” is being spread in social media posts and its CEO, Chris Birkinshaw, said in a statement that the company has only tried to stop “trademark infringers” who use its trademarked name, “Aloha Poke.”

But activists have said no one should be allowed to own “aloha,” and organizers are now planning a march for Monday and a rally on Wednesday in protest of Aloha Poke Co.

The peaceful protest march will start 10 a.m. Monday at the Millennium Monument within Millennium Park. Attendees will walk to the Aloha Poke Co. at 125 S. Clark St. Then, on Wednesday, there will be a peaceful rally 12:30-2:30 p.m. at 818 W. Fullerton Ave.

There will be a pre-march workshop at 5-8 p.m. Sunday at Amundsen High School’s auditorium, 5110 N. Damen Ave., so those who attend the march and rally can learn the chants and prayers that will be said at the protests.

“We fully support the expression of free speech and their right to protest in a peaceful manner,” Aloha Poke Co. said in a statement Friday.

Businesses in Connecticut, Hawaii and Alaska have said they were sent cease and desist letters by Aloha Poke Co. Two of those businesses — including one owned by a native Hawaiian woman living in Alaska — had to change their business names from Aloha Poke to other names.

More than 162,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the Aloha Poke Co. to stop using the words “aloha” and “poke.” Others have called on people to boycott locations of the chain.

Kalama O Ka Aina Niheu, an activist in Hawaii who fights for Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) families, spread the word about Aloha Poke’s legal threats on Facebook and started the online petition.

“Hawaiian culture is probably one of the most commodified cultures on the planet,” Niheu said. “This is something that is far from new, and we’re very, extremely familiar with the devastation it can cause.”

Birkinshaw said the chain has not attempted to “own” the words “aloha” or “poke” and will not attempt to do so in the future.

“We know that this misinformation has caused a considerable amount of anger and offense among those who care very passionately about their Hawaiian culture. First, we want to say to them directly how deeply sorry we are that this issue has been so triggering,” Birkinshaw said. “Second, there is zero truth to the assertion that we have attempted to tell Hawaiian-owned businesses and Hawaiian natives that they cannot use the word Aloha or the word Poke. This simply has not happened, nor will it happen.

“We truly celebrate Hawaiian culture and what makes it so wonderful, which is very much the reason why we branded our business as we did.”

Aloha — a word that dates back to the origins of Hawaii and serves as both a greeting and a way of life there — has no business being owned by anyone, especially by a white non-Hawaiian, critics of Aloha Poke say.