Gov. David Ige said Friday that he and other state employees have been targeted with death threats amid the escalating friction generated by the ongoing Thirty Meter Telescope standoff.
During a news conference at the state Capitol, Ige and his lieutenants presented various examples of social media threats and harsh language and urged those on both sides of the issue to lower the tone of the debate before it escalates into violence.
“I’m calling on everyone responsible for these examples of cyberbullying and hateful speech to stop immediately,” Ige declared.
Attorney General Clare Connors said she could neither confirm nor deny any investigation connected to the death threats.
TMT protest leader Andre Perez told reporters afterward that he doubts members of the anti-TMT movement are involved. He said followers are urged every day to maintain “kapu aloha,” a nonviolent form of civil disobedience.
“We are not here to attack and to hurt people. We are here to protect a sacred mauna,” Perez said.
Activists continue to block construction of the $1.4 billion TMT on Mauna Kea, maintaining their position at the start of Mauna Kea Access Road where it meets Daniel K. Inouye Highway since mid-July.
Ige said Friday that he, Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim and others continue to search for a peaceful solution to the impasse.
Many thought Friday’s news conference would address the fate of the next- generation telescope in Hawaii, but the governor started by saying the briefing was not about whether the TMT should be built.
“It’s about how we speak to one another … while we work toward this path to a resolution,” he said.
Connors explained that there’s a growing concern about the public messaging and social media posts that followed the Sept. 6 demolition and removal of a small wooden house built by protesters near the Puu Huluhulu camp where they are blocking the TMT’s construction.
Connors said a narrative has emerged that characterizes law enforcement as “out to get people who oppose the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope or out to harm the very people they are sworn to protect.”
“This false narrative about law enforcement sets a tone. It causes alarm, and it can cause people to react,” she warned.
“To be very clear, law enforcement does not use excessive force as a tactic or as a strategy against anyone. Law enforcement responds to the type of conduct that it encounters and responds accordingly and appropriately,” she said.
Connors played a voicemail recording in which an unidentified man told a state employee, “I hope you die.”
She showed various examples of strident social media posts, including one suggesting that TMT employees should be assassinated and a meme offering a $5,000 reward for the identity of a law enforcement officer involved in the removal last week of an unpermitted building near Puu Huluhulu.
“I hope that we can all agree that putting a bounty on the head of a law enforcement officer is disturbing and deeply concerning. It’s dangerous,” Connors said.
“This post — directed at an individual, who day in and day out puts his life on the line as a law enforcement officer and public servant — is shameful,” added Nolan Espinda, director of the state Department of Public Safety.
William Aila, interim director of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, said officials fear that such rhetoric will cause someone to hurt a state employee who is only doing his or her job.
“This is not Hawaii that I grew up in,” he said.
Connors added that the state has contacted Facebook to remove posted names and phone numbers of state employees under threat, and the company complied.
“To those who claim to be protecting Hawaiian values, to resort to these tactics is disappointing, irresponsible and very painful for me to see,” Ige said.
“And I see, in the comments section of the news, terrible, racist things about the protesters as well. I completely denounce these types of horrible attacks against those opposed to TMT. Whatever happens to this project, those postings are unacceptable here. They do not represent who we are, and I urge the public to completely reject them,” he said.
Perez, the protest leader, said the kiai, or “protectors” of the mountain, do not and will not target law enforcement.
“We do not support violent language. We know that that undermines both sides,” he said. “We are firm in our commitment to protect the mauna, to engage in peaceful resistance that is rooted in peace and nonviolence, and we will maintain that position consistently.”
Healalani Sonoda-Pale of Ka Lahui Hawai‘i Political Action Committee said the governor’s accusations are intended to criminalize the protesters and to make a case in support of the use of excessive force.
“There have been death threats on both sides. There have been name-calling and ugliness on both sides. But we cannot control everyone, and we do stay in kapu aloha,” Sonoda-Pale said.
Cheryl Burghardt of Honolulu said the anti-TMT forces should not be singled out. Pro-TMT demonstrators, she said, were “aggressive” toward protesters during a rally Thursday at the state Capitol.
“Every single time that we come to these rallies, pro-TMT people come to our side of the street to instigate and be antagonistic,” said Honolulu resident Keiva Lei Cadena.
During the news conference, Ige denied planning any kind of enforcement action on the mountain earlier in the week.
Last week the protesters were saying they heard that 800 Hawaii National Guard troops were being summoned to clear the road, that authorities would deploy concertina or razor wire to restrict the movements of the crowd and that law enforcement officials had built containment cages to hold the people they arrest.
About 1,000 opponents massed at Mauna Kea Access Road by early afternoon Sunday, but the police action never materialized.
“I have no idea where that came from,” the governor said Friday.