HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly a week after state crews used a saw to cut through the door of an illegal structure at a Mauna Kea protest camp, Governor Ige has accused activists of baiting law enforcement crews with the Hawaiian flag that had been affixed to the building.
Before the illegal structure was removed from Mauna Kea last Friday, an officer used the saw to cut through a boarded up door to make sure no one was inside. In doing so, he also cut through a Hawaiian flag that was affixed to the door.
The action quickly grew condemnation from protesters, who said the action amounted to desecration.
TMT opposition leader, Andre Perez, says the image incited anger and could have easily been avoided if law enforcement cut around the flag.
“They consciously chose to cut through the middle of the flag and I find that an egregious act of disrespect to Hawaiian people every where,” he said.
In a social media post published on Thursday, Gov. Ige said that the state’s law enforcement officers ‘serve proudly under the state flag’ and blamed activists for the incident.
“Protesters used screws to attach the state flag to plywood and then nailed additional pieces of wood over the flag to block entry to an unauthorized structure on Mauna Kea,” said Gov. Ige. “The screw heads were stripped to prevent removal of the flag with a screwdriver.”
Ige and other state officials said officers needed to move quickly to clear the building before it was demolished. Law enforcement sources say that the building needed to be brought down before the situation escalated, and because the windows of the building were blocked, they were unable to see inside, necessitating forced entry.
In video shot at the protest camp, a law enforcement officer can be seen cutting into the structure and leaving the Hawaiian flag cut and torn.
“Protester tactics such as putting the flag across an entrance then claiming officers didn’t respect it and crying “assault” and “attack” as they are peacefully doing their jobs were designed to interfere unfairly with law enforcement activities and produce an unnecessary reaction,” Gov. Ige said.
The damaged flag, along with another one located on the structure’s roof, were both returned to protesters, state officials said.
HNN’s law enforcement expert Tommy Aiu says despite optics, officers had a job to do.
“The intent is to get through that front door to make sure there’s no one inside. If the flag is being used to barricade that entry point, it’s got to be removed,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state land department is concerned the large volume of people at the encampment could be harming native plants and animals at Puuhuluhulu.
On August 21, state land officers discovered four endangered ʻānunu vines that appeared to have been cut or ripped from koa trees, but say the plants seem to have recovered.
“There are a lot of people there and intentional or not this damage is happening and it’s very concerning. There’s really no way to have hundreds or thousands of people. They’re in a sensitive natural area,” said DLNR chair Suzanne Case.
She says the way to mitigate the problem is for people to leave, but activists strongly disagree.
“DLNR hasn’t regulated anything at the Puuhuluhulu for the last 20 years. There has been people trampling all over that mountain. Now we are up there just for two months and now all of a sudden the news is very important. We educate people that go up there,” said Kini Burke who attended Thursday’s DLNR news conference in Hilo.
Perez says they’ve limited access at the puu to protect the environment and they’ll institute additional procedures to mitigate any damage to the native species.