We’ve been producing journalism in the public interest for 10 years, with the aim of making Hawaii a better place, and we have no plans to stop any time soon. But we need your help to keep this critical work going strong. For a limited time, donations to Civil Beat will be doubled, thanks to a matching gift from the NewsMatch program!
Civil Beat has raised $76,000 towards our $200,000 goal!
MAUNA KEA, Hawaii – Hawaii Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation Wednesday after state and city law enforcement failed to remove demonstrators from the base of Mauna Kea Access Road despite making 34 arrests.
The announcement came after a full day of protests on Mauna Kea Access Road and smaller demonstrations at the University of Hawaii Manoa and on Oahu’s H-1 freeway. Authorities also shut down about 30 miles of Saddle Road, a major east-west highway across the Big Island, forcing motorists to take long detours.
The day started calmly with a long morning of ceremonious and courteous arrests of kupuna, many of whom are longtime Native Hawaiian activists. But the situation on the mountain took a tense turn around 11:30 a.m. when many police officers suddenly appeared in full riot gear and lined Mauna Kea Access Road between the intersection of Saddle Road and the activists’ camp a few yards up the road.
For more than two hours, Honolulu police officers wearing batons and red canisters and holding large helmets with face masks stood side-by-side rows of protesters. A state officer warned them in English and Hawaiian that they must get off the road or face arrest. The activists linked arms, sang and refused to move.
By 2 p.m., however, the officers retreated unexpectedly and protesters celebrated the temporary “truce.”
“It’s a beautiful day to be a Hawaiian,” said Kahookahi Kanuha. He’s one of the leaders of the kia’i, the Hawaiian word for “guard” that is what is used to refer to the activists protesting the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope. “It’s a beautiful day to protect Mauna Kea.” “These are just little victories,” he added, saying the struggle was “far from over.”
At a subsequent media briefing, state officials wouldn’t say why officers pulled back, citing security concerns. But Kanuha said he was told by law enforcement officials that they would retreat if activists agreed to move some of their cars that had parked at the intersection of Mauna Kea Access Road and Saddle Road after police officers’ arrival, blocking their exit and the entrance for TMT construction vehicles parked on Saddle Road.
At 3:30 p.m., Ige announced the proclamation he said would allow authorities “to secure access in a better way.” He said it provides more authority to activate the National Guard, issue warnings, mobilize personnel and control public access to Mauna Kea — all steps that have already been taken to some degree.
The National Guard sent 80 volunteer soldiers and airmen from Oahu to Hawaii Island Monday, according to Jeff Hickman, a spokesman for the Department of Defense. He said Hawaii County requested they help with transporting personnel and equipment and they were engaged in that Wednesday. But he added the National Guard isn’t necessarily limited to that.
Kanuha denounced the proclamation as irresponsible.
“They’re utilizing the funds of our people, our monies, to protect the rights of foreign investors and corporations over the rights of people in this place,” he said.
The afternoon standoff was unexpected in part because the morning had gone so smoothly. Law enforcement worked closely with kupuna and gave them the option of how they wanted to be arrested.
At about 7:15 a.m., state officers warned the elderly activists who were sitting under tents on Mauna Kea Access Road that they would be arrested if they didn’t move, giving them time to use the bathroom.
Billy Frietas was among more than two dozen who refused to leave. “Kapu aloha gives me strength,” he said as he waited to be taken away. He was carried out.
The removal was conducted largely by officers with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Many of the officers are from Hawaii Island and were friends or family with the kupuna they were arresting.
Officers gave the kupuna the option of how they wanted to be taken. Some walked out, others were pushed on wheelchairs. A few were taken by ambulance for minor health concerns. Several lay down and had to be carried out by officers.
Younger activists mostly watched from the sidelines, sitting in silence and occasionally cheering when kupuna gave speeches or sang. A few sang in the tent with the kupuna who waited to be taken away or tended to them.
The arrestees included but weren’t limited to Walter Ritte, a longtime activist who protested the Navy’s bombing of Kahoolawe; Carmen Hulu Lindsey, a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs; and four members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I.
After driving the kupuna away to a processing center on Mauna Loa Access Road, officers gave them a choice of being booked or simply receive citations for obstructing a government operation. Everyone chose to be cited, which involves paying a fine and all were immediately released.
Around 11 a.m., state officials announced there would be a pause in arrests and held a press conference praising how well both activists and law enforcement behaved.
But within half an hour, the mood changed drastically. Police officers from Hawaii County, Honolulu and Maui arrived on the scene wearing riot gear. Some activists pulled their cars up to block the intersection at Saddle Road and Mauna Kea. Authorities shut down Saddle Road, placing tire-spike strips to prevent people from crossing.
To observers, the road closure appeared timed with the arrival of police, perhaps a precautionary measure if the situation got out of hand. But Ed Sniffen from the Department of Transportation later told news media that DOT had decided to close the road at 11:15 a.m. because activists had parked at the intersection.
If that’s the case, no one told David Rodriguez, a senior DOT official who was stuck outside the Hilo road closure that was enforced by Hawaii County police. Saddle Road is a state highway and DOT wasn’t told about the road closure, he told county police officers.
Miscommunication among state and county agencies has appeared to be a daily occurrence on Mauna Kea, where numerous agencies are operating under a “unified command.”
Regardless, the Saddle Road closure was infuriating to people stuck at the eastern checkpoint. Tourists said they’d miss their flights. Motorists were forced to take a 75-mile detour. Several anti-TMT who were stopped set off on foot toward the activists’ camp 19 miles away.
“We all came from Molokai and Lanai to stand with our brothers and kupuna,” said Kaniu Hernandez as she and three friends sat on the side of the road.
The road was reopened around 2:40 p.m. after police retreated.
The anti-TMT protests have extended far from their center on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
On Oahu, a midday crowd of over 150 TMT protesters gathered outside Bachman Hall at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Some of them were university employees.
UH President David Lassner stood next to some of the activists, who spoke to the crowd over loudspeakers.
“This is not just a Hawaiian issue. It’s a universal issue,” said Makahiapo Cashman, director of the Ka Papa Loi O Kanewai at UH Manoa. “It’s not the end. It’s just the beginning. We will be here for a while.”
Lassner addressed the crowd and apologized for a message sent out that some perceived as insensitive. It mentions kapu aloha, the concept of restraint that has been core to the non-violent protestors on Mauna Kea.
He reiterated the state’s talking point of making safety a priority on the mountain. Some in the crowd called for his resignation as he left the microphone headed for his office, flanked by campus security guards.
Later, some of the protesters were blocking westbound lanes of the H-1 Freeway, the Star-Advertiser reported.
For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.