MAUNA KEA, Hawaii >> Summer is over, and colder weather could soon have an impact on the months-long blockade of Mauna Kea Access Road. It is getting chillier at the tents along the highway that are the sleeping quarters for opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the months ahead will further test their determination.
The larger the crowds gathered to block the road, the more challenging it is for police to clear it. But if the number of people camping at the protest site dwindles in the weeks ahead, that could signal an opening for law enforcement to make arrests and open the way for heavy equipment to pass so that TMT site work can begin near the summit.
The nonviolent protests have attracted thousands of supporters to the mountain, and the protests have spread to other locations. Police estimate a march through Waikiki on Oct. 5 in support of the protests on the mountain attracted 12,000 to 15,000 people.
Last week there were about 150 protesters on Mauna Kea during a regular noon ceremony.
The anti-TMT organizers are well aware there is safety in crowds.
“Numbers are our protection,” activist Hawane Rios told a gathering of anti-TMT activists late last month as she closed out a midday ceremony. The TMT opponents often urge their fellow activists to bring their friends and family to the mountain, and last week dozens of first-time participants arrived at the camp during the fall school break.
However, attracting crowds might become more difficult in the months ahead. The protests have already lasted for 13 weeks, and the passage of time could strain the resources of some protesters. People have jobs, school and other responsibilities that demand their time and attention.
And some who have been watching the protests expect weather will also play a role. The protest camp is about 6,600 feet above sea level, and that area gets cold by Hawaii standards.
Winter temperatures at the nearby Pohakuloa Training Area occasionally sink into the high 30s, said Mike Donnelly, public affairs officer for PTA. Exposure is
always a concern for the soldiers and Marines who train at PTA, particularly when they operate in a cold rain, he said.
Edward Maguire, professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, said weather often affects public protests around the world.
He cited the extreme heat during the G20 summit at Brisbane, Australia, in 2014, which police believe deterred many protesters who might otherwise have joined in, and the cold weather that helped dissolve the Occupy Salt Lake City movement in that city’s Pioneer Park in 2011.
The camp at the Salt Lake City park grew to about 150 people for a time, according to media accounts, but by November the police needed to make only 18 arrests to clear the site.
But Maguire said those precedents might not apply to Mauna Kea, where the dispute revolves around deeply held cultural issues. The protesters camped on the access road say construction of TMT would be a desecration of a mountain that many Hawaiians consider sacred.
“Your protesters seem to be quite a bit more organized and have greater resolve,” he said. “Expect them to be less influenced by weather, probably to be more hardy and more committed than maybe some of these other loosely organized protest movements, but it’s still going to influence things. It always does.”
Maguire, who has studied and written on policing of U.S. protest movements, also said it is unusual for protesters to gain public support as time goes on.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Hawaii Poll last month showed that backing for TMT has eroded, with about 50% of those polled saying they support the project, down from 77% in a similar poll 18 months ago. Of the registered voters who were surveyed, 59% said the state should not use force to clear the blocked access road.
“I think because you’ve got the elders involved, and you’ve got the cultural connections between the protesters and the community, I think you’ve got something unique there,” Maguire said. In other communities, “for the most part, protesters are seen as a thorn in people’s backside, causing traffic and disruptions.”
“It gets more difficult as you have increasing public support for the protesters, and it could make eviction day all that much more challenging, particularly if they can rally bodies that day in support, right?” he said.
Anti-TMT activists say they are prepared for colder weather.
Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a leader of the anti-TMT protests who has camped for months on the access road, said the activists “relaxed a little bit” in recent weeks as state and county law enforcement agencies stood down to make time for what some hoped would be a negotiated settlement.
No settlement agreement has been reached, and both sides are planning their next moves, she said. The protesters say they will not allow the telescope to be built on Mauna Kea.
The number of people at the protest camp drops on weekdays and rises again on the weekends, Wong-Wilson said, but the activists know they can summon help if they need it. “I think we can get over 1,000 people there in a short period of time, and we’ve demonstrated that already.”
Wong-Wilson was among 39 Hawaiian elders and other protesters who were arrested July 17 on the access road, and she has slept in the “kupuna tent” on the access road almost every night since.
“We’re prepared to be there through the winter if that’s what it takes,” she said. The kupuna tent has space heaters that run at night, “and it’s quite comfortable,” she said.
If law enforcement does
finally move in to clear the road, Maguire said it should be done in a measured and transparent way, using the least force possible with
media present to document the events.
Any arrests should be “peaceful arrests,” he said, and the operation should be led by someone with clear and absolute authority, such as the chief of police or even the governor.
“The lower-ranking troops need to know what the limits are on what they’re able to do,” he said. “Their protocol for when to use force should be very clear to them.” The police chief and command staff should send down those instructions, not a captain, lieutenant or sergeant, he said.
“What I think police need to avoid is proactively moving in and using force against the entire crowd,” Maguire said. “That just can’t happen, especially in this case where you’ve got elders and you’ve got the cultural connection between the protesters and the citizenry, and the police for that matter. That’s my hope for this protest.”
Ige said in an interview last month he is well aware most people oppose the use of force to clear the road, and “that is one of the reasons that both the mayor and I have been very patient in working through the issue.”
He is exploring some
proposals that have been suggested to resolve the
impasse, and “use of force is the absolute last step that we would want to be looking at.” The violent protests Hong Kong in recent months have been on the minds of many, including Ige.
“Obviously, if you look at media and you look at the news reports from elsewhere, certainly it looks not like Hawaii, so certainly whatever action that we take to physically move those who are breaking the law will be done in a respectful and nonviolent way,” Ige said.
When asked whether that means police would pick up protesters and move them off the road, Ige replied, “Certainly.”
Maguire said there are plenty of examples where police temporarily backed away from massed protesters for safety reasons or to avoid escalating a confrontation, but said he does not know of any example where the authorities caved in to the demands of street protesters over the long term. “That would be surprising to me,” he said.