Kaho’okahi Kanuha stood in the cold on Mauna Kea a few hours before dawn on June 20. He was trying to get to the site of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope so that he could videotape state and county officials as they dismantled an altar used by Native Hawaiians like Kanuha to make offerings on the sacred mountaintop.
Within hours, he was arrested and taken down to a police station in Hilo. He was charged with obstruction of a government operation. It was his third time getting arrested on the mountain. It’s unlikely to be the last.
While Kanuha was sitting in a county jail, Hawaii Gov. David Ige held a press conference announcing that the state had given the green light to the Thirty Meter Telescope to proceed with construction. The $1.4 billion project has been in limbo for several years due to legal challenges, environmental reviews and other permitting hurdles.
The announcement kicked into gear state and county officials’ preparations not just for construction, but for the inevitable protests against a telescope that for some has come to symbolize the destruction of Hawaii’s sacred lands and disregard for Hawaiian sovereignty.
Everyone seems to recognize that some kind of confrontation on the mountain is now inevitable. The question is when that will happen, and what it will look like. So far, no one is sure.
State officials have been tight-lipped about their plans.
“Law enforcement plans are never revealed in advance,” Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison said in an email. But it’s clear they fear this could turn into Hawaii’s version of Standing Rock, where thousands from across the nation gathered to block an oil pipeline.
“This is not an oil pipeline,” Ige said pointedly last week. “It is a telescope to look into the very origins of life in the universe.”
A repeat of the 2015 protests could mean more international headlines. The controversy went viral after movie star Jason Momoa of “Aquaman” fame posted about the telescope on Instagram. Soon the news media was flooded with images of dozens of Native Hawaiians getting arrested. Eventually the governor called for the construction to stop.
But that was when legal challenges against the telescope were still pending. This time, there’s an air of inevitability about the project.
Leaders of the fight against TMT dispute government assertions that they have exhausted all legal avenues for opposing the telescope. But it’s not clear what options remain now that the Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the telescope construction proceeding.
TMT wants to start construction as soon as possible, says Scott Ishikawa, spokesman for the project. Ishikawa says the board doesn’t need to vote on whether to proceed on Mauna Kea because Mauna Kea has always been the preferred site over the alternative in the Canary Islands.
Season 2 of Civil Beat’s podcast, Offshore, explores the tension at the heart of the conflict over building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Click here to listen to the first episode of season 2.
Ige promised to respect Hawaiian culture during last week’s press conference, but that rang hollow to opponents of the TMT, spoken the same day the state had dismantled two ahu.
The governor also said it’s possible the state may have to close Mauna Kea Access Road or other roads to ensure construction can proceed safely.
But it’s unclear what that would actually entail. Dan Meisenzahl, a spokesman for the University of Hawaii, which manages Mauna Kea, said that road closures can happen when heavy equipment is being transported and are opened afterward.
“There’s a lot of people on all sides of the issue that want to make sure that whatever happens, happens in a safe way,” he said, adding that there’s much better inter-agency coordination this year compared with 2015.
But he said he can’t speak specifically about how law enforcement plans could affect road closures.
The uncertainty worries Mateo Caballero, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, who said the governor of North Dakota’s decision to shut down a highway during Standing Rock ignited what had been previously a peaceful protest.
“That lack of municipal access really escalated things because then people felt like they couldn’t be heard,” he said. “As the ACLU we want to make sure that people have a meaningful way to protest the building of the telescope and closing down roads is the opposite of that. Any actions that prevent that (protest) from happening and are potentially arbitrary we will be looking at very closely.”
During last week’s press conference, Ige also left open the possibility of calling in the National Guard. It wouldn’t be the first time the National Guard had been called in to quell a protest by Native Hawaiians — in 1978, Gov. George Ariyoshi activated the National Guard when protestors shut down the Hilo Airport. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported 51 Native Hawaiians were arrested and nine members of the media.
Jonathan Osorio, who leads the Hawaiian Studies department at the University of Hawaii, says he and other professors met with the state attorney general a few months ago to share their concerns about the TMT and urged her to be transparent and communicative with demonstrators about the state’s plans.
“We asked for communication. We asked for cooperation. So that this conflict, which is a conflict, could run its course,” he said.
And then the ahu were removed suddenly, Osorio said. “It makes me deeply concerned about whether or not we can have this very necessary public conflict managed without a danger to our people.”
If Google searches are any indication, worldwide interest in Mauna Kea has waned over the past four years. Google Analytics shows that interest in the term “Mauna Kea” peaked in April 2015 and now is at a third of what it was. It’s also a lot harder to get to Mauna Kea and join the protests than it was for many supporters to get to Standing Rock — they could drive from nearby states instead of buying plane tickets.
But opponents of the TMT, who prefer to be called protectors of the Mauna, believe that support for their cause has grown over the past few years rather than dwindled. They’ve also been frustrated by the dominant media narrative, which has largely framed the conflict as science versus culture.
“It doesn’t matter if they were building a hospital on Mauna Kea, the issue would be the same,” says TMT opponent Kealoha Pisciotta, describing Mauna Kea as a sacred place of prayer, the site of Hawaii’s creation story. “That wouldn’t mean we were against healthcare.”
She said she and others will take every nonviolent means possible to stand their ground.
“So long as we continue to stand in our aloha, in our power, and with the Akua and the earth, we will never be defeated,” she said. “I think the people of Hawaii are ready to stand, they want something much greater and much better for Hawaii.”
Pisciotta plans to speak at a press conference Friday morning in downtown Honolulu, where activists will share concerns about the state’s “potential uses of excessive force,” according to a press release.
Osorio from the University of Hawaii is also worried. He remembers how Honolulu police spent $700,000 on crowd-control weaponry in the lead-up to the 2011 international conference called Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
That seemed unnecessary to Osorio, who helped organize the march that went smoothly without incident. But two months later, Christopher Deedy, a federal agent who flew to Hawaii to serve a security detail during APEC, shot and killed a Native Hawaiian man named Kollin Elderts in Waikiki. Osorio sees Elderts’ death as partially a consequence of excessive security preparations.
“I am deeply concerned about where the state thinks this is going to lead,” he said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?