MAUNA KEA >> Law enforcement authorities on three islands and opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope are ramping up this weekend for what could be a long series of protests on Mauna Kea, with Hawaii County police going so far as to mount tear gas “cannons” on heavy vehicles used by its special response team, sources said.
Dozens of police officers from Oahu and Maui will bolster state law enforcement officers and county police, with riot training conducted on Hawaii island in recent weeks, according to law enforcement sources.
Helmets and long batons have been issued to officers who expect to be deployed to the protests, and police vans that can be used to transport officers or arrested protesters were shipped last week from Oahu to Hilo, the sources said.
At the mountain, members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I joined with self-proclaimed “protectors” opposed to the telescope project to designate a puuhonua or place of refuge at Puu Huluhulu at the base of the Mauna Kea Access Road. A daylong vigil there is planned for today.
According to an announcement from the TMT opponents, given “the extreme and excessive mobilization of Hawaii county and state law enforcement agencies, the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, and the kiai feel it is imperative to dedicate a puuhonua.” A kiai is a guard or caretaker.
“Protecting Maunakea is of the utmost importance to the kiai,” said activist Kaho‘okahi Kanuha in a written statement. “However, our primary concern is the safety, health and well-being of all of people involved, whether they are kiai or not, in what we know will be a prolonged struggle to protect Maunakea.”
The state last month issued a notice to proceed for TMT, a high-tech telescope expected to cost more than $1.4 billion. Opponents of the project condemn it as a desecration of a mountain that some Hawaiians consider sacred.
Telescope construction was supposed to start in 2015, but work was halted after protesters were arrested for blocking vehicles from traveling up the access road to the site. An effort to re-start construction months later prompted more arrests, and the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt to the project later that year in connection with a court challenge.
After a months-long contested case proceeding, the court last year ruled the project had a valid conservation district permit, which cleared the way for construction to resume.
In a letter to Gov. David Ige Saturday, Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Colette Machado and OHA Trustee Dan Ahuna demanded a halt to TMT construction until steps are taken “to avoid harm to Native Hawaiians” and ensure public safety.
Those steps include prohibiting action that may provoke or intimidate cultural practitioners and protesters, including the dismantling of culturally or spiritually significant structures. The OHA officials also want the government to prohibit use of “unwarranted force” against nonviolent protesters.
Machado and Ahuna also urged meaningful engagement of all parties in the controversy in an effort to alleviate tensions, and the establishment of mutually agreed-upon spaces where cultural practitioners and protesters can safely assemble, voice their opposition and monitor construction activities and cultural sites.
On Saturday afternoon about 50 cars were parked at the site designated as a puuhonua at the base of the access road, with upside-down Hawaii state flags fluttering in the sun. “Stop Cultural Genocide” was the message displayed on the sun shield of one car.
People clustered in groups at the tailgates of parked trucks, and participants embraced and warmly greeted acquaintances they had not seen since the 2015 protests.
One of those was Mehana Kihoi, 35, a food-and-beverage worker who drove to the site from Kona when her hotel shift ended Saturday.
Her family comes from Waimea, and her ancestors would drink the water and breathe the air from the mountain, Kihoi said. “She is a part of our ohana, I see her as our ancestor, a kupuna, our grandmother,” she said. “We all have that responsibility.”
Kihoi was handcuffed during a protest in 2015, but she is six months’ pregnant now with a baby girl and plans to step back this time to care for children and the elderly during the demonstrations. She sees the response to TMT “as a reactivation of our people and an awakening.”
“That’s really why I am here, is just to show my keiki, my future keiki, my moopuna (grandchildren), that I stood for what I believe is pono. No matter what we were faced against and no matter what was on the opposite side, we still continue to stand without any fear, because we know that our kupuna are present and have been present,” she said.
Ige last week announced the Mauna Kea Access Road will be closed at 7 a.m. Monday to clear the way for heavy equipment to be moved to the construction site at the summit, when more demonstrations are expected.
Ige has expressed concern that outside agitators or protesters from the mainland might create a situation similar to the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota over the Dakota Access Pipeline, where protesters clashed with police, barricades were set on fire and hundreds of people were arrested.
In addition to the police preparations, state sheriff’s deputies have been mobilizing, and state officials said unarmed Hawaii National Guard troops will support operations on Mauna Kea.
Kealoha Pisciotta, a cultural practitioner who worships on the mountain and is president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, said Saturday that is a “misuse” of the National Guard.
“There’s been no violence, so why do they have all of these people out there?” said Pisciotta, who has been active in Mauna Kea issues and protests for years.
“They are clearly sending a message that they are willing to hurt people to build a telescope that really could be built in Chile,” she said. “For Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is our only place to do our ceremony. They have another place to build their telescope.”
Protesters in 2015 pushed rocks and boulders into the access road to try to stop construction vehicles from reaching the summit, but “putting rocks in the road is a reasonable alternative to stopping the truck from rolling,” Pisciotta said. “Listen, nobody threw rocks. That’s violence.
“There’s rules for protesters, but we’re really not protesters. We’re practitioners, and Mauna Kea is our church, so to speak. It is our temple, is our mosque, so all of their plans are to stop us from going up there, and why is that?” she said. “We have a right to worship in the environment of our beliefs, and it’s a First Amendment violation, and treating us as protesters when we’re clearly religious practitioners is a violation of our right.”
Pisciotta also cited reports that the state would use a newly acquired Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) or “sound cannon” for crowd control, which Ige has denied.
Ige said the LRAD would be used only as a long-range public address system, not for crowd control.