Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has been blocked at Mauna Kea for more than a month by a
Native Hawaiian protest that seeks to safeguard what many regard a sacred mountain against a lawfully permitted project.
cutting-edge observatory, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope atop Haleakala,
is nearing completion after escaping a similar fate during protests in 2015 and 2017 involving some of the same people embroiled in the TMT protests.
While the Maui incidents weren’t exactly on the same scale, former Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa says authorities handling the TMT protest would have been wise to follow Maui’s example.
“We didn’t fool around,” Arakawa recalled. “It was, this is what the law is, and this is how you enforce it.”
Arakawa said the time for negotiation with TMT protesters was long past as the $1.4 billion project survived a lengthy governmental review plus legal challenges that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.
“It comes down to a simple question: Are we a community of laws, or are we a community where anyone who raises an objection can defy those laws?” he said. “We are legally bound to uphold the laws of the state of Hawaii and the U.S. That’s our obligation.
“We’re going to let a handful of people stop what most people believe is a good project? It hardly makes sense in a democratic society,” he said.
Arakawa said authorities should have taken decisive action at the beginning of the TMT protest because the task is only going to get harder.
“The governor is making decisions how he sees fit. He is the leader of the state,” he said. “If he did what we did, construction of the TMT would be underway. But the longer he delays and plays around with this … What goals are accomplished? We may not have a telescope.”
On Maui the $344 million Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope will be the largest
solar telescope in the world, providing unprecedented views of the sun’s atmosphere from a 4-meter mirror inside a 13-story dome that towers over its Science City neighbors. The telescope is expected to achieve first light in the coming months.
But its construction was thrown into doubt four years ago. A group of mostly Native Hawaiians, inspired by the 2015 TMT protests and citing the same concerns about desecration,
decided to make a stand against nighttime, wide-load shipments of telescope parts intended for delivery to the construction site.
After demonstrators blocked an initial shipment, Maui police were ready for subsequent ones, moving decisively to enforce the law twice in 2015 and once in 2017, each time facing between 100 and 200 demonstrators, some of whom traveled to Maui from other islands.
Police arrested 34 people over the three protests, including 20 in one night in 2015. Among those arrested were Kahookahi Kanuha, Kaleaikoa Kaeo and Lanakila Manguil, each of them leaders of the Mauna Kea
Arakawa said Maui police gave clear instructions about what would happen if the demonstrators deliberately tried to obstruct the trucks. They also came with enough officers to handle the job when the activists did get in the way, he said.
“Nobody was beaten up or physically hurt,” he said.
But that’s not how the protesters remember it.
Kanuha accused officers of being overly aggressive, “militaristic” and using unnecessary tactics against a group of peaceful protesters.
“We were there with ti leaf lei,” he said following the 2017 attempt to block delivery of DKIST’s last major shipment, the telescope’s 4-meter mirror. “They were there dressed in riot gear, as if they were going to war.”
Jennifer Noelani Ahia claims a fellow protester was slammed to the ground, held down forcefully and was having trouble breathing during the August 2017 conflict on the road in Kula.
Ahia said the man was
left on the ground handcuffed while police officers prevented bystanders from rendering aid. He lost consciousness for a time, she said, and ended up with a permanent brain injury.
“Despite the fact that the law enforcement officers are first responders and trained to deal with medical emergencies, they did nothing. Their callousness towards his safety and health was incredibly unsettling and traumatizing to all the kiai and supporters who were there that night,” she said.
For its part, the Maui Police Department reviewed the incident and determined that the officers accomplished what they were trained to do and did not use excessive force.
Arakawa said the protesters were told they can demonstrate all they want, but if they cross the line and create a hazard, they would be arrested.
“If they did, they were arrested. If they didn’t, they were left alone. The same thing should have happened at Mauna Kea,” he said.
On the Big Island police took action July 17 in the conflict’s first week, arresting 38 people, mostly kupuna, who were blocking Mauna Kea Access Road.
Despite a sizable contingent of Hawaii island police and state officers reinforced by 56 Honolulu and 27 Maui police officers, law enforcement ended up retreating as more than 1,000 people stood their ground.
Some type of enforcement action appeared imminent
in the next few days after
Ige issued an emergency proclamation giving authorities additional powers.
But no police engagement occurred.
Ige said at a news conference July 30 that he trusts in the judgment of the law enforcement personnel at Mauna Kea.
“They do understand that we are interested in using as little physical effort as possible in order to implement the law. Certainly they are trained fully and will take
defensive actions if they need to. I can assure you that state and county law enforcement will not initiate any violence. But clearly they are there to provide for the safety and security of everyone, and certainly will be taking action as necessary,” he said.
Ige added that no one was talking about making any further arrests at that time.
After the governor asked Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim to take over efforts to resolve the impasse, Kim said he couldn’t support
using physical force.
Thayne Currie, an astronomer who is part of the group called Yes2TMT, said, “My hope is that the state will act shrewdly and decisively to uphold the laws that all of us must follow.”
“Similarly, I hope that Mayor Kim working with community leaders can
resolve long-standing issues to allow us to more peacefully move forward.”