TMT protesters brace for possibility of more law enforcement action

Updated: Jul. 19, 2019 at 11:04 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Friday were concerned that a larger presence of law enforcement officers would move in to Mauna Kea, but there had been no indication from authorities so far that any officers were in the area yet.

Activists say they are still preparing, though, for the possibility of swarms of law enforcement and even the potential use of excessive force.

Starting Friday, no one is allowed past the cattle guard up Mauna Kea by foot or vehicle, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said. The new restriction, however, has been a source of contention for opponents, especially the activists who want to go up the mountain for cultural or religious purposes.

“We have now been denied complete access even though we requested only one van for cultural purposes and that was denied twice when we asked for that in our negotiation,” said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who has been at the access road for days.

Tensions have been growing over the past few days due in large part by the governor’s emergency proclamation and law enforcement officers converging on Mauna Kea and arresting 34 people for blocking the access road to the summit on Wednesday.

Despite the arrests, leaders of the growing TMT protest say they’re not going anywhere and claimed the governor’s emergency proclamation for the mountain is an “abuse of power.”

“Calling out the National Guard is an insult to Hawaiians,” said Native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte, speaking at a news conference Thursday morning. “This mountain is united. We cannot get a governor who is abusing powers take it away from us. This is an issue that goes out to all Hawaiians."

Ritte was among 34 people ― all but one of whom were kupuna ― arrested Wednesday at protest against the Thirty Meter Telescope planned for Mauna Kea’s summit.

Following the arrests, the governor issued a state of emergency for Mauna Kea, saying the proclamation would give the state “more flexibility” to handle the protest and try to secure access for construction equipment to get to planned site for the telescope on the mountain.

“The protesters continue to break the law and place the safety of the public at risk," Ige said, at a news conference. "It’s very clear that we need to be able to secure access in a better way.”

Despite the strong words, there was no immediate action Thursday morning to try to move protesters again from the access road to the summit ― and the state hasn’t said when more arrests could happen.

On Thursday afternoon, state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison offered few new updates but did say that the Mauna Kea Access Road has now been closed to pedestrian traffic. Previously, the road had been closed only to cars.

Kahookahi Kanuha, among those leading the protest, said it did not appear law enforcement was ready to take action Thursday morning but an announcement could happen later in the day.

“Right now we don’t really know what’s going on. There’s nothing imminent at this point, so we anticipate having a little bit of downtime,” Kanuha said.

The arrests Wednesday started around 8 a.m. and continued until about 11 a.m., when they stopped abruptly. Authorities said those arrested all elected to get cited with a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of a government operation, rather than being booked at the Hilo police station.

Despite the arrests, the protest at the base of the summit has remained peaceful, with some going so far as to embrace law enforcement officers before they were taken into custody.

#LIVE: State DLNR issues its latest update at base of Mauna Kea as TMT protest continues. MORE: #HINews #HNN

Posted by Hawaii News Now on Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The arrests happened on the third day of protests at the base of Mauna Kea, where an estimated 1,000 protesters have gathered to try to block construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Before the arrests, law enforcement agencies were in intense negotiations with protesters to try to convince them to clear the Mauna Kea Access Road and allow TMT construction equipment to pass.

Police lined the roadway to the Mauna Kea summit on Wednesday afternoon. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Police lined the roadway to the Mauna Kea summit on Wednesday afternoon. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Law enforcement officials carry a protester from the Mauna Kea Access Road to a waiting van....
Law enforcement officials carry a protester from the Mauna Kea Access Road to a waiting van. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

Around mid-day Wednesday, Dennison said arrests had “stopped for the time being” and he could not say when they would resume.

He characterized the day as an emotional one, and said protesters and law enforcement officers were remaining respectful to one another.

“Some of the people arrested were actually related to some of the officers. It was pretty tough,” Dennison said, adding that the state is “prepared to uphold the law and be sure everyone remains safe and secure.”

Those who were arrested were bused from the area, and given the option to be cited and released or transported to Hilo to face charges. The 34 who were cited are due in court on Sept. 20.

The arrests were of those sitting in tents blocking the Mauna Kea Access Road to the summit. As one person in the tent was arrested, however, they were being replaced by someone else.

Meanwhile, tensions at the base of the mountain remain high and activists said the arrests would not deter them from their efforts to protect a place they believe is sacred.

“We’re kupuna fighting for our families,” said Ranette Robinson, one of those arrested.

“We came to protect our sacred land,” another protester said. “There’s not much more we have left.”

Native Hawaiian activist raised his fist and yelled "unity" as he was arrested Wednesday...
Native Hawaiian activist raised his fist and yelled "unity" as he was arrested Wednesday morning. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
The arrests at the base of Mauna Kea began just after 8 a.m. Wednesday (Image: Hawaii News Now)
The arrests at the base of Mauna Kea began just after 8 a.m. Wednesday (Image: Hawaii News Now)

Also arrested Wednesday was Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Carmen Hulu Lindsey. She said she joined the protest because she has always been against the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

A number of the arrested protesters were escorted to a waiting van in loosely-fitted zip ties.

But several protesters was carried away by several officers. Another kupuna in a wheelchair, who appeared to be crying, was being pushed to a waiting van by an officer.

The arrests come a decade after plans for the $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea were first announced, and after activists exhausted all legal avenues to try to prevent its construction.

Supporters of the 18-story telescope say it will push forward the field of astronomy, allowing humans to peer farther into space ― and back in time ― than any other telescope in the world.

[Special section: Conflict on Mauna Kea]

#BREAKING: Law enforcement officials have begun arresting protesters who are blocking Mauna Kea Access Road. STORY: #HINews #HNN

Posted by Hawaii News Now on Wednesday, July 17, 2019

But protesters say the telescope will further desecrate a place they consider sacred.

The arrests Wednesday happened after two already-intense days at Mauna Kea.

On Tuesday, negotiations between protesters and law enforcement agencies ended in a stalemate.

For much of the day, a crowd of people ― led by a group of kupuna at the front lines ― sat under pop-up tents erected over Mauna Kea Access Road to block anyone from going up the mountain.

But unlike what unfolded Monday morning ― when dozens of officers were seen marching down Daniel K. Inouye Highway toward the site of the demonstrations ― there was never a significant law enforcement presence in the vicinity of the protests.

[Read more: Dozens of Honolulu police officers deployed to assist law enforcement at Mauna Kea]

[Read more: Exploring the timeline leading up to the ‘Conflict on Mauna Kea’]

Instead, the most notable interaction between the two sides Tuesday happened when officers tried to escort what was described as a group of employees to the existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea.

Protest leaders asked that the National Guard not be allowed past their makeshift checkpoint and that they wanted one vehicle per day to be allowed to access the summit to perform cultural practices.

Conflict on Mauna Kea: Day 2

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Posted by Hawaii News Now on Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The law enforcement officials reportedly told protesters those requests wouldn’t be granted, and so activists subsequently refused to move to allow the employees to access their workplaces.

A few hours later, though, protesters eventually did make way ― for telescope employees leaving the mountain. Just before 4 p.m., the directors of the existing telescopes atop Mauna Kea decided to abandon the mountain in order to ensure the safety of their employees.

“Without guaranteed reliable access to the telescopes, the Maunakea Observatories will suspend all summit activities,” said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory.

he added that “the Maunakea Observatories have millions of dollars of instrumentation. This is a risk for us to have to step away at this point.”

Though Tuesday ended relatively peacefully, there were some moments of tension.

That included when word began to spread that 60 officers with the Honolulu Police Department had landed on Hawaii Island to support law enforcement efforts at Mauna Kea.

The protest at the summit of Mauna Kea started Monday, the day that construction on the giant telescope was slated to start. State officials, however, said they never intended to move heavy equipment up the mountain that day. Instead, their focus was securing areas along the roads leading up to Mauna Kea.

This story will be updated.

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