MAUNA KEA, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Dozens of Honolulu police officers were en route to Hawaii Island on Tuesday morning to support law enforcement at the base of Mauna Kea after what was a heated day of standoffs and negotiations between authorities and opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Officials with the Honolulu Police Department said the officers were chosen from various units and shifts so the deployment would not impact police operations on Oahu.
Meanwhile, opponents of the TMT maintained their presence at the base of Mauna Kea on Tuesday morning, for a second day of protests. Although the crowd was smaller than Monday’s, officials said several hundred people had gathered.
Opponents came out in droves on Monday after it was announced that construction on the TMT project would begin that day.
State officials, however, said they never intended to move heavy equipment up the mountain on Monday. Instead, their focus was securing areas along the roads leading up to Mauna Kea.
From the early-morning hours, some protesters were chained to a grate in the road in an attempt to prevent movement up the mountain. Some stayed there for nearly 12 hours.
“They told us, for safety reasons, they not arresting anybody. You all free to go,” said Walter Ritte, a well-known Hawaiian activist. “For this event, we got 'em.”
The decision to stand down and not attempt to transport any equipment was made for safety reasons, Thirty Meter Telescope officials claimed Monday afternoon.
But it also signaled a likely end to what had been an energetic yet peaceful day of demonstrations at the base of the mountain ― on the same day when construction on the controversial project was supposed to begin.
“We’re just very hopeful to start construction soon on Mauna Kea and we hope, we think, this is going to benefit everyone,” TMT spokesperson Scott Ishikawa said.
Emotions are running high on both sides of the debate.
Native Hawaiians and other activists who oppose the telescope being built on Mauna Kea argue the mountain is one of, if not the most, sacred places in Hawaii. However, supporters say the telescope is needed for science and economic benefits.
“TMT is going to be incredible compared to all the other telescopes. There’s going to be detail and things we can’t even imagine,” supporter Arlene Buklarewicz said.
“I personally know many Hawaiian people who support this project, so I know they are like the silent majority. Almost all my friends and neighbors support TMT," Buklarewicz added.
Demonstrators began showing up hours before Mauna Kea Access Road was scheduled to close for construction crews. By dawn, hundreds of people ― including the eight protesters who chained themselves to the cattle guard, and a row of kupuna who sat in the middle of the road ― had shown up.
They were joined before long by dozens of law enforcement officers, who converged on the base of Mauna Kea as work was scheduled to begin.
But instead of forceful arrests and the literal clearing of roads, what followed were lengthy discussions between law enforcement officers and protest organizers about what could be done to ensure the safe ― and law-abiding ― continuation of the demonstrations.
“If anybody here gets outta hand, you take them out,” Kahookahi Kanuha told one law enforcement officer. “I’ll point them out to you.”
Kanuha ― long viewed as one of the leaders of the demonstrations against the Thirty Meter Telescope ― delivered an impassioned speech to other protesters after a conversation with police, imploring them to continue their fight but asking all to obey the law and be respectful of officers on the mountain.
"They’re gonna come up and they’ve given us their commitment ... these officers that I’m talking to, from what I can see, they’re not bad people,” said Kahookahi Kanuha, a well-known Hawaiian activist who has long been among those at the forefront of the demonstrations against TMT. “They are not the enemy. The state is the enemy.”
Though no equipment was moved on Monday, there was certainly some activity.
At around 11 a.m., state Department of Transportation crews began using heavy machinery to place barricades along either side of Daniel K. Inouye Highway.
The barricades were to be used as pedestrian safety measures, due to heavy traffic along the highway, though they were also intended to prevent protesters from being able to park along the shoulder lanes of the highway.
But the placement work forced lengthy traffic delays, due to roving lane closures, and an extraction team that had been sent to arrest the protesters ― including Ritte ― that had chained themselves to the grate was late arriving to the scene.
As a result, with temperatures rising atop the hot metal grate, Hawaii County police officials told the group at around 1:45 p.m. that they were concerned about the protesters’ health and said that they would not be placed under arrest.
“We do not want those trucks up the mountain,” Ritte said, while lying on the cattle guard. “We do not want this TMT on this mountain. This mountain represents more than just their building they want to build. This mountain represents the last thing they want to take that we will not give them."
The demonstrators believe Mauna Kea is a sacred place, and any obstruction would be blocking their religious rights. But the state has said TMT has the legal right to build.
Gov. David Ige said in a press conference on Sunday there would be no sweep of protesters at 8 p.m.
“There’s no intention for law enforcement to intervene on any activity as long as participants are behaving in a lawful behavior," Ige said.
However, Clare Connors, Hawaii’s Attorney General, said people would be asked to leave the road for safety reasons during Monday’s closure because the vehicles and equipment that need to travel up the summit road are very wide.
If a person doesn’t comply with the government’s request, they would be arrested, Connors said. There had been no reported arrests on Monday.
There were also questions of whether tear gas would be used. The governor did not specifically answer but said law enforcement officials would respond according to training.
“Law enforcement has been preparing in a number of different way, and we are prepared to respond to whatever the situation may be," he said.
Officials also said that the so-called “sound cannon," a military device that produces long-range voice and alert tone broadcasts, will be used to publicly address a large group if communication is needed.
Construction on the controversial TMT project commences after a years-long battle over the $1.4 billion project.
“We have followed a 10-year process to get to this point, and the day for construction to begin has arrived,” Ige said last week during a press conference.
Since the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the 18-story telescope in October 2018, state departments and other law enforcement agencies have begun gearing up for what’s sure to be a heated construction period.
In recent weeks, law enforcement officials have headed up the mountain to begin clearing the way for construction, including the dismantling of several prayer altars that were built by Native Hawaiian activists.
Protesters have taken to the area to express their opposition to what they consider to be desecration of a sacred Native Hawaiian space, with some demonstrators even risking arrest. Opponents have expressed concern over potential uses of excessive force in future demonstrations.
The project was first announced nearly a decade ago as part of a new class of very large telescopes designed to look farther into space ― and potentially millions of years back in time.
While supporters believe the project will be a great technological advancement, opponents fear it will place restrictions against the native people’s access to a revered land.