It was Monday evening when Mayor Harry Kim got a call from Gov. David Ige’s office telling him that Ige planned to put Kim in charge of the ongoing controversy over plans to build another telescope on Mauna Kea.
The public wouldn’t be told about the governor’s decision until late Tuesday morning, but immediately the pressure was on. It felt like the ninth inning of a baseball game and Kim was being asked to be the pinch hitter with three balls and two strikes. It was all or nothing.
“Oh shit,” he thought.
Two days later, the stakes still feel high. “I’ve got to do everything I can to make this right,” he said in a phone interview late Wednesday afternoon. “I’m responsible for this island.”
Kim is mayor of Hawaii County, Hawaii’s biggest island home to about 180,000 people. He’s no stranger to tough situations, having spent the last two years triaging natural disasters. Major flooding associated with Hurricane Lane forced some residents to evacuate their homes. Volcanic eruptions swallowed entire communities, including a house Kim owned.
But the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope is different. Hundreds of people set up camp at the base of Mauna Kea Access Road for more than a week to block construction vehicles from heading to the summit. Dozens of kupuna were arrested for blocking the road last week, and over the weekend the number of protesters swelled to more than 2,000.
The protests have captured national attention, sparking rallies in U.S. cities and across the Hawaiian islands. While the passionate opposition to the TMT has mystified some who question what’s wrong with putting a telescope on a mountain, Kim isn’t surprised.
Back in 1981, he remembers a board affiliated with the University of Hawaii interviewed him about growing the astronomy industry on Hawaii Island.
“You have to realize the sensitivity of this,” Kim says he told them, warning of the importance of Mauna Kea to Hawaii’s indigenous people. The mountain is the site of the Hawaiian creation story, a place where some go to pray and conduct cultural practices. “Please tread with caution, with care, and above all compassion,” he remembers saying.
That’s not what happened, Kim says. “That’s why we’re here where we are.”
A 1998 state audit lambasted the University of Hawaii for neglecting natural resources and historic preservation on Mauna Kea and ignoring the cultural value of the mountain. Only in the last 18 years has the university’s management really improved, Kim said.
Kim says he understands the issue is about a lot more than just whether or not a telescope should be built on Mauna Kea. It’s about how the state has treated Native Hawaiians and their land. It’s about ceded lands — public land that previously belonged to the Hawaiian Kingdom, which includes land on Mauna Kea.
It’s about how the state has dealt with Hawaiian-serving organizations like the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Bishop Estate Kamehameha Schools and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Thousands of Hawaiian people languish on the wait list for homesteads and the agency doesn’t have a lot of land suitable for building houses.
When he visited activists on Mauna Kea, Kim says he told them, “I believe that a lot of you are here not for the telescope issue, not for the mountain issue… but for the sheer joy of being able to openly say I’m proud to be Hawaiian.”
“We have done a good job of making them feel not proud to be Hawaiian,” he told Civil Beat.
“I’ve got to do everything I can to make this right. I’m responsible for this island.” — Big Island Mayor Harry Kim
Still, Kim says he’s seen progress in Hawaii. He attended several graduations this year and every single one had a tribute to Hawaiian culture. He thinks the state’s progress could be better conveyed.
“One of the things we’ve failed to do is demonstrate how we’ve gotten better and the goals of getting better,” he said.
Before Kim agreed to take control over the TMT stalemate, the mayor says he told Ige that the management of Mauna Kea needs to be changed to include Native Hawaiians and the governor promised he would do that.
Last Wednesday, as dozens of kupuna were arrested, Kim was proud of how gently and respectfully police officers did their jobs.
Still, “I hated to see that,” he said. “I had an inward prayer that this would not be necessary.”
After the kupuna were taken away, the mood on the mountain quickly shifted. Dozens of Honolulu police officers in riot gear appeared on Mauna Kea Access Road and many more activists linked arms, blocking the road. As police officers ordered protesters to move — and they refused — the situation got tense.
“You can see (pepper spray) hanging on their waists, you can feel the anxiety growing,” Kim said.
That’s when Kim got a call from Hawaii County Police Chief Paul Ferreira. “We’re in a position where the numbers game is against us,” Kim says the chief told him before adding that removing all the activists would require the use of force with taser guns and pepper spray.
Kim immediately called Ige, relayed the situation and recommended not using any physical or chemical weapons. The governor agreed.
“Then it was stopped,” Kim said. “That’s the beauty of Hawaii.”
When Kim became the lead on TMT negotiations Tuesday, his first step was to pray for guidance and meet with his police chief. Then he started calling leaders in the Hawaiian community to arrange a meeting. He wants to hear their opinions and figure out the path forward.
The mayor seems optimistic that he can find a solution despite the diametrical perspectives. His vision for Mauna Kea, posted on the county website, describes a utopia of respect and harmony.
“Let this telescope be a symbol of nations working together,” he said. “This is not about science, this is about combining culture and science.”
He noted that with last year’s state Supreme Court decision, the law allows the Thirty Meter Telescope to be built.
“I am a person of law, whether I like it or not is not the issue,” he said of the telescope. “This is not about Harry Kim … this is about us the community of Hawaii Island coming together to resolve this.”
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