Thousands of Native Hawaiians and other residents mobilized in Waikiki on Sunday for the “Aloha Aina Unity March” — a massive show of strength that organizers hope to translate into ongoing political actions.
“This is about political pressure,” said organizer Tiare Lawrence, pointing to volunteers collecting information and helping register voters at the event. “I think next year a lot of people’s seats are going to be up for grabs. This is about getting people into office who are committed to protecting our land and sacred spaces.”
The march was by far the largest in Hawaii since protests erupted across the state last spring over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
The arrests of protesters on the mountain served as a lightning rod for many Native Hawaiians, said Kuhio Lewis, who helped organize the march.
“Hawaiians, I have always felt, are a sleeping giant,” Lewis said. “I think Mauna Kea has awakened Hawaiians.”
Sunday’s event, which started on Saratoga Road and ended several hours later at Kapiolani Park, was about more than TMT, participants said. The march brought together representatives from more than 30 groups concerned with a range of land preservation issues — from telescopes on Haleakala to GMOs.
“This is something we’ve been hoping to see for a long time,” said Jeri DiPietro, president of the anti-GMO nonprofit Hawaii SEED. “Bringing together the aloha aina issues will help define them and make our messaging clearer to the masses.”
Though the full size and scope of the march was difficult to ascertain, marchers clearly numbered in the thousands. Some event organizers and a police officer along the route estimated the crowd to be as large as 10,000 to 11,000 people.
“People are rising up and coming together to have a stronger voice,” said Lori Halemano, who was one of the protesters arrested atop Mauna Kea in June.
Police blocked off two lanes of traffic along Kalakaua Avenue for the marchers, who stopped frequently along the way to chant, sing and blow the pu. The blowing of conch shells could be heard up and down the street, along with shouts of “ku kiai mauna” or “guardians of the mountain.”
Along the way, marchers were greeted with occasional honks of support from passing drivers and a few words of encouragement.
“This is working,” one man called out as he drove by in a white van. “Stay strong.”
The event was planned for Sunday because it was a day off for the International Astronomical Union’s triennial conference, held this year at the Hawaii Convention Center. At a press conference last week, protesters had issued an invitation to the visiting astronomers to join them at the march to learn about the land hosting the conference and multiple telescopes.
It was unclear how many astronomers showed up, but the event was hard to miss for thousands of tourists in Waikiki.Some thought the march was a parade and used selfie sticks to pose for pictures in front of marchers dressed in malo or loin cloths. A few told protesters that their hotels had warned them about the march, and advised them to stay away.
Still, marchers passing out fliers along the route drew many tourists into amiable conversation.
Dina Marra, a 26-year-old from Florida, said she was unaware of the issues surrounding Mauna Kea and TMT before arriving in Hawaii for her vacation. Talking to one of the marchers gave her a respect for the people of Hawaii, she said.
“The reason we came here is because it’s beautiful and sacred,” she said. “Protecting the environment is important.”
The march took more than two hours to make its way down Kalakaua. When the group leading the march reached the Prince Kuhio statue on the eastern end of Waikiki, the final groups were leaving Saratoga Road — over a mile away.
“I think what will come out of this is state agencies that are much more careful with our public trust lands,” said University of Hawaii Professor Jonathan Osorio. “I think what comes out of this is many more people going to public meetings and speaking up and a much more active citizenry.”