MAUNA KEA >> The activists blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope project on Mauna Kea are using nonviolent tactics that have successfully spurred social change over the years, but in the last decade law enforcement agencies across the nation have refined their own tactics for containing and controlling such movements.
After years of Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests in major U.S. cities, many law enforcement agencies have adopted a “soft” approach to managing crowds engaged in civil disobedience and protest, a strategy that emphasizes flexibility, patience and open communication with protest leaders.
But that takes time, and TMT must decide “soon” whether it will proceed with plans to build the project in Hawaii. Gordon Squires, vice president for external relations for TMT, said in an interview Friday he can’t exactly define when “soon” might be, but TMT has a backup site in the Canary Islands.
Protesters have now been camped at the Mauna Kea Access Road for six weeks to prevent construction vehicles from reaching the summit area to begin work on the $1.4 billion TMT project, and the activists have planned for a long blockade.
As protest leader Kaho‘okahi Kanuha put it in a videotaped statement to the media on July 29, “we did not come into this thinking it would be a two-week stance. We are committed to a prolonged struggle, and the truth of the matter is, you cannot arrest this issue away.”
Without explicitly mentioning arrests or the use of force, state Sen. Lorraine Inouye pointedly told Gov. David Ige in an open letter recently that “It’s time,” adding, “We cannot pick and choose. Laws must be followed, all laws, all the time.” Other critics have been more blunt, demanding that police move in, make arrests and use force if necessary to clear the road.
Ige, who is ultimately responsible for resolving the impasse, said in an interview Thursday that “it’s more complex than people think.”
“We want to be safe, and we want to do it in as peaceful a manner as we can, so it’s about being able to listen, seek opportunities to find peaceful solutions, and then, yes, we do know that we need to enforce the law. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about,” he said.
The protesters say they will never allow TMT to be built on Mauna Kea, which many Hawaiians consider to be sacred, and there is no sign yet that discussions led by Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim to try to resolve the standoff are making any progress.
Hardy Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C., said that when people organize as they have on Mauna Kea to use nonviolent tactics such as strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience, those efforts have “a pretty remarkable record of success in the United States and around the world.”
He cited the examples of the U.S. civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, labor organizing by the United Farm Workers and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, which pressured authorities to address the AIDS epidemic. Each of those movements relied on people who were historically disenfranchised, he said.
“When people perceive that the institutions are not going to be effective or historically haven’t been effective or sufficient to them, (and) when they see there’s a way for ordinary people to organize, unify and wield genuine political and economic power, that’s enormously powerful,” Merriman said.
Certainly the protesters on Mauna Kea are skeptical that existing political institutions have served Hawaiians well. In a speech to more than 1,000 protesters on July 28, Kanuha said the power brokers in Hawaii would “be better off without us, and they’ve done everything that they could to ensure that that happens, but they did not succeed. They will never succeed. We will always be here.”
“I know as long as we have each other, as long as we are unified and united, there is no end to the things that we can do, there is no end to our people. We will be here forever, we will fight to protect these lands, and to ensure that Hawaiians have a future in Hawaii,” Kanuha told the crowd.
That sort of talk is deeply troubling to supporters of the TMT, who worry the opponents of the project have no “exit strategy” or any plan for any sort of compromise.
Merriman, a social scientist who has studied nonviolent movements for 17 years, said the use of the word “sacred” to describe Mauna Kea suggests TMT is caught in what experts describe as an acute conflict, or one where people believe they face a fundamental or existential threat, which can include threats to “cultural survival.”
In less intense conflicts, adversaries can make deals over easier issues such as pay or working conditions, but “when people perceive themselves as being in an acute conflict, the negotiation by itself becomes very challenging,” he said.
And that may shift the focus to law enforcement.
William “Billy” Evans was superintendent of the uniform branch of the Boston Police Department in 2011 when as many as 5,000 Occupy Boston protesters rallied, marched and repeatedly tied up city traffic to agitate for economic reforms. Ten days into the protests there were 141 arrests, but then police settled in for a standoff with protesters camped at Dewey Square in the city’s financial district.
Evans said there was plenty of political pressure in Boston to have police rush in and clear out the protesters.
“At its outset sometimes we had a good 200 people camped out there, and the public was beating up our mayor who was Mayor (Thomas) Menino at that time, saying ‘Why are you letting them stay? Why? They didn’t pull a permit. They have no right to be there.’ But I think a lot of them had legitimate issues,” Evans said of the protesters.
Evans used a different approach. He got to know the informal leaders of the Occupy group, sometimes visited the camp four times a day, and worked out modest agreements in which the police and the protesters each got things they wanted or needed. “They had my cell phone, and I had theirs,” Evans said.
The Boston protesters remained in Dewey Square for 70 days until the mayor obtained a court order to clear the camp, and police finally moved in at 4 a.m. and quietly moved them out. In the end, there were only a few arrests, Evans said.
“Even when we went in and took them out, we never had any show of force. We didn’t have helmets, we didn’t have sticks, we didn’t have all that turtle gear on. We just really did it the soft approach,” he said. “If you come in hard like that, and we’ve seen it in Hong Kong with what’s going on right now, you seem to galvanize the crowd, so the next day you’re going to have more and more people.”
A paper published last year by the Police Executive Research Forum on police responses to public protests stressed it is critical that authorities respond in ways that are “proportional to the actions and mood of the crowd” so that police do not escalate tensions.
In Hawaii, “I know people are getting frustrated, but I think if you come in hard on them they’re going to get sympathy, and you’ll get double the amount of people the next time,” Evans said. “We’ve handled a lot of protests here and we’ve always used the soft approach, and it seems to have worked.”
Squires, the TMT vice president, said a simple police sweep of the access road and the nearby camp at Puu Huluhulu cannot resolve the Mauna Kea protests, which have spread across the state and beyond Hawaii.
“This situation that we’re in in Hawaii now is clearly about issues far beyond TMT and Mauna Kea,” he said. Many of the issues the activists raise on the mountain are vast, complex and historical, including Hawaiian sovereignty and self- governance, preservation of Hawaiian language and culture, and environmental protection.
The TMT project has become a catalyst for those much bigger issues “to come to the surface and potentially be addressed, hopefully this time successfully,” Squires said. Those issues have now become the focus of community discussions including Hawaiian community leaders, Ige and Kim, he said.
“I don’t see the resolution of the current situation being simply opening that road and reestablishing access to Mauna Kea,” Squires said. “There’s a bigger component that has to be part of this.”
When asked if the larger issues raised by the protesters could possibly be resolved in time to clear the way for TMT, Squires replied that perhaps the prospect of losing a project as important as TMT will help “leadership to emerge and for people to come together to address these fundamental issues.”
“I think this is a situation that has triggered something that is almost unprecedented in Hawaii. I think that’s a fair statement, and so that’s a good thing, and maybe that now gives the impetus for leaders from everywhere to come together and address some things,” Squires said.