MAUNA KEA >> Hundreds of Native Hawaiian activists encamped Sunday at the bottom of Mauna Kea were determined to stand their ground against the launching of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope — unsure of how law enforcement would intervene or what the morning would bring.
Four years after protesters stopped construction by preventing vehicles from hauling equipment up to the designated site, the battle over Mauna Kea is set to begin again.
At least, that’s what many here were thinking after state officials announced last week that construction would begin and that Mauna Kea Access Road would be shut down at its intersection with Saddle Road starting at 7 a.m. today.
Hundreds of Native Hawaiian activists Sunday night were encamped across from the intersection following an all-day vigil and ceremony. Activists on Saturday had declared the site a puuhonua, or place of refuge.
>> Photo gallery: Hundreds gather against Thirty Meter Telescope
Rumors were flying around the encampment Sunday night as people were speculating about what kind of force the state would use to combat their protest.
The state has been mobilizing specially trained law enforcement units from various jurisdictions that sources say are going to be armed with tear gas and more.
“If the police come with their guns blazing like cowboys off the hill, it’s not going to be good,” said Paul Neves, who is one of the opponents fighting the TMT in court.
Hundreds of cars Sunday were parked along the road at Puu Huluhulu with dozens of upside- down Hawaiian flags waving in a brisk wind. Hawaiians were arriving from islands across the state.
Earlier, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim made an appearance at the refuge and said that while it wasn’t his jurisdiction, he would not support forcing anyone off the land, activists said.
By 7:30 a.m. Sunday there were already about 200 people gathered for the daylong vigil at Puu Huluhulu.
The crowd clustered around an altar of rocks stacked on an elevated hill of pahoehoe lava at the base of Mauna Kea Access Road, with parents lifting up small children for a better view of the ceremony.
A Hawaiian chant began, and participants stepped forward with offerings, lei and jars of water brought to Mauna Kea from around Hawaii and other parts of the world. The water was accepted, and poured on plants on the altar. In the audience a man with a wild beard, glasses and a beanie removed his shoes and knelt on the rough lava in his stocking feet.
After the ceremony longtime activist Pua Case, who has been involved in Mauna Kea protests before, urged listeners in the crowd to “absorb everything today” and use Sunday to ready themselves.
“It takes stamina to stay in community,” she said. “However, it’s good training for us because the days to come will demand that from us.”
“There are people praying for us all over the world,” she told the crowd. “All those prayers, coming to Mauna Kea, they are sending them all here. Let’s really know that and be aware of that and utilize that, really receive the prayers today.”
Case, 58, said she is from Parker Ranch, born and raised on the slopes of Mauna Kea. “This big mama Mauna Kea has taken care of me my whole life,” she said. “I’m a chanter, and if I do nothing, then how can I ever chant to this mountain again? If I do nothing, how can I?”
When asked what she believes will happen next, Case replied, “I think you have to ask the other side about realistically what’s going to happen, because we’re just here. We’re just here standing as we always have for a sacred mountain, for our sacred ways, for our life ways, for our water, for everything.”
By 9 a.m. there were more than 160 cars and trucks lining more than a half-mile of Daniel K. Inouye Highway near Puu Huluhulu. Reports of police activities and preparations circulated among the activists, including an unconfirmed rumor that a “sweep” to clear the puuhonua was planned for the evening.
Gov. David Ige called a press conference at the state Capitol on Sunday afternoon to assure the TMT opponents that no sweep of the gathering was planned for Sunday.
“There’s no intention to intervene by law enforcement on any activity as long as participants are behaving in a lawful manner on open public lands and abiding by lawful instructions from any law enforcement officers,” he said to dispel rumors of an impending sweep at 8 p.m.
Ige said he had no problems with the vigil at Puu Huluhulu, which will not interfere with the TMT’s construction, and stressed that there are no sweeps planned.
“As construction begins, our No. 1 priority is to keep our community safe. Law enforcement’s mission is to ensure that everyone can do their job, that truck drivers can drive and deliver equipment and materials as they are asked to do,” he said.
He said he wasn’t sure of the number of police officers there, but noted that there were hundreds of protesters.
“We are concerned that these false rumors and speculation about state law enforcement activities creates anxiety in our community, and we just really want to remind people that the men and women in law enforcement are your neighbors,” he said.
Ige didn’t mention what equipment was available for law enforcement officers on Mauna Kea or what agencies would be present there, but said, “Law enforcement has been preparing in a number of different ways, and we are prepared to respond to whatever the situation may be. … We don’t expect protesters to get out of line, but in terms of preparation, law enforcement has gone through and prepared for every scenario you might be able to imagine.”
Ige said law enforcement crews have been training to manage large groups of people, but when he was asked about tear gas, Ige said he couldn’t comment on what officers have on hand.
Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope regard it as a desecration of a mountain that some Hawaiians consider sacred. TMT would be the largest telescope on Mauna Kea, and is expected to cost more than $1.4 billion.
Construction on TMT was supposed to start in 2015, but work was halted after protesters were arrested for preventing vehicles from traveling up the access road to the site. Efforts to restart construction months later prompted more arrests, and a court challenge to the project temporarily halted TMT construction later that year.
After a months-long contested case hearing, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled last year that the project had a valid conservation district permit, and cleared the way for construction to begin again. In June the state issued a notice to proceed for TMT.
Ige last week announced that Mauna Kea Access Road will be closed at 7 a.m. today to clear the way for heavy equipment to be moved to the construction site at the summit.
Star-Advertiser reporter Mark Ladao contributed to this report.