PU’UHULUHULU, Hawaii — Andre Perez pulls on a blue rope, tightening a knot to hoist the Hawaii flag as he gives instructions to the other men helping him. He’s standing on a hill across from a road leading up to the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on Hawaii Island that he and others hold sacred.
A cool wind is blowing and the sound of people singing in Hawaiian rises up from the parking area below at the intersection of Saddle Road and Mauna Kea Access Road. More than 100 cars are parked there near an ahu, a Native Hawaiian altar, along with more than a dozen Hawaii flags. Like the flag that Perez is helping to plant, all of the flags are upside-down, a symbol of distress.
It’s Sunday morning and there are fewer than 24 hours until construction trucks are expected to attempt to drive up Mauna Kea to begin site preparation for the Thirty Meter Telescope. The $1.4 billion internationally funded project is 16 years in the making, but four years delayed due to persistent opposition from a vocal group of Native Hawaiian activists and their supporters.
Despite losing legal battles — and according to some polls, public support — TMT opponents are just as determined as they were in 2015 when their protests gained international attention and resulted in more than 30 arrests. They call themselves the kia’i, the guardian or protectors, of the mountain, and have embraced nonviolent civil disobedience.
Perez, an activist from Kauai who lives on Oahu, has been facilitating training on nonviolent direct action much like he did while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.
“We allowed too much to happen to the mountain,” he says of Mauna Kea, which is already home to more than a dozen telescopes. But even though it’s not Perez’s first time protesting TMT construction, he says this time is different.
“We’re more organized and they’re more organized,” he says.
He’s right. The state and Hawaii County have been working together closely to plan security to ensure construction vehicles and workers can get up the mountain.
Gov. David Ige announced Mauna Kea Access Road will close at 7 a.m. Monday and even created a specific phone and email line to handle media inquiries across agencies. He’s also asked the National Guard for help, although he said they will be unarmed.
Meanwhile, anti-TMT activists spent Thursday planning and Friday buying supplies and establishing a camp at the base of Mauna Kea Access Road. By Sunday, they’ve already slept here two nights and have enough food to last multiple days, although some joke they’ll have a lot extra if they’re arrested right away.
Despite better organization this time around, there’s still lots of uncertainty. Both the government and the activists are worried about violence and concerned about how they’ll be portrayed in the media.
The state is committed to supporting the TMT which has overcome all legal hurdles. And the activists are just as committed to stopping it.
Mahi’ai Dochin from Waimea, Hawaii Island, said Sunday that he hopes that Monday’s demonstration inspires more supporters to come to Mauna Kea and ultimately persuades the TMT’s funders to move the project to the Canary Islands.
“I hope that they get the message,” he said. “We’re here, we’re not giving up.”
Just before dawn Sunday, the stars are piercingly clear at the base of Mauna Kea Access Road, a subtle reminder of why astronomers from multiple countries really want the TMT to be built here.
Then the sky starts to lighten and campers start to awake. By 6 a.m., the group gathers to sing and welcome in the sun before forming a circle on cracked lava rock where elders share stories about Mauna Kea along with advice.
“Behave in the highest order of dignity,” advises Luana Busby-Neff. “We show them what reverence is truly all about. We move with that grace.”
She’s talking about kapu aloha, a phrase that refers to disciplined behavior that members of the kia’i have for years urged their supporters to follow. The idea is to treat everyone with kindness, with no cussing or anger, even as they protest. It’s a noble cause but it’s also shrewd — the activists don’t want to give the state or county a reason to crack down on them.
Throughout the camp there’s a palpable sense of anticipation tinged with anxiety. Rumors abound — that law enforcement will use tear gas and pepper spray against protestors Monday, that they’re planning to come at 9 p.m. Sunday to force everyone to leave — an action Ige assured reporters would not happen at a press conference at the governor’s office Sunday afternoon.
Some Hawaii Island residents who came to pray and support the group Sunday plan to stay away Monday because they’re so worried about potential violence.
Activist Lakea Trask from Hawaii Island said Sunday that he knows he and his fellow demonstrators are committed to nonviolence but is suspicious of the state.
“I believe the state is looking for any reason to use their heavy hands on us,” he said.
Besides promising no sweep on Sunday, Ige didn’t reveal specifics about law enforcement plans when speaking to the press Sunday afternoon.
“We are prepared to respond to whatever the situation may be,” he said, adding that law enforcement officers have been trained in deescalation tactics and remaining calm.
Officials are primarily concerned with making sure construction crews can get to the TMT site and with keeping the road clear, he said. He added police should be mindful of cultural practices.
About 30 miles away from the base camp on Sunday afternoon, Stephen Davies mans an art gallery in downtown Hilo. Davies has been living on Hawaii Island for two decades and says he thinks most of his neighbors feel conflicted about the protests, like he does.
Davies isn’t Hawaiian and he isn’t religious, but he does think it’s important to respect indigenous beliefs. He supports the scientific discoveries that the TMT could achieve but knows that historically the University of Hawaii hasn’t done a good job of managing the mountain or negotiating leases with the observatories.
“I’m conflicted,” Davies says. “I would like to see the state build the telescope but do a lot more to clean up the place.”
His colleague, Phyllis Cullen, who works as both an artist and a physician, is more critical of the anti-TMT activists.
“I think they’re very misguided,” she said. “I think they’re blowing it out of proportion and getting a lot of attention.”
Davies thinks the activists’ frustration makes sense given the history of land being stolen from Native Hawaiians.
“We’ve ripped the place off,” Davies says, referring to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by U.S. businessmen in 1893.
“That’s the history of the whole world,” Cullen replies. She says she knows many Native Hawaiian people who also support the TMT — a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll that said most Native Hawaiians on Hawaii Island back the project rang true to her.
Part of her exasperation with the activists is their persistence in stopping the entire project. She thinks there should be compromise.
“The sooner this all blows over,” she adds, “the better.”
But that’s unlikely to happen, says Lanakila Manguil, another anti-TMT activist who is spending the night at the base of Mauna Kea Access Road and planning to meet construction trucks in the morning.
“This is a long haul,” he said. “They say 10 years of construction? We’ll be here every step of the way.”
Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this story.
Civil Beat readership has more than doubled in the past nine months. That’s incredible growth for which we’re so grateful.
But for a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall, 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?