- Special Projects
Gov. David Ige said Friday he will not order more National Guard troops to Mauna Kea to assist law enforcement during protests against the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
The police will not immediately use force to remove peaceful telescope protesters blocking a road to the summit, Ige said, adding he will not rescind an emergency proclamation he issued Wednesday that gave law enforcement more power to remove protesters from the mountain.
The governor said last week that National Guard units would be used to transport personnel and equipment as well as to enforce road closures. The emergency proclamation broadened the state’s authority to use the National Guard for security.
Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim told Civil Beat that the decision to hold off on more National Guard troops came from a discussion in Hilo the two had Friday morning on what the state and county will do moving forward.
“I expressed to the governor that we must continue a temperate response,” Kim said. “We’re still one island. Everyone needs to maintain that. I think he fully realized what the situation is.”
During a Friday afternoon press conference, Ige sought to dispel rumors on social media that the state would respond forcefully to protesters.
“I’m committed to nonviolence,” he said. “I have never, ever considered the use of tear gas at Mauna Kea.”
Ige said there have been reports of alcohol and drug use on the mountain. The main group of protesters, the Kia’i who call themselves Mauna Kea protecters, have said they expressly forbid drugs and alcohol in the area near Puuhuluhu.
Members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I rebutted the allegation that anyone on the mountain was doing drugs.
There are 800 to 1,200 people near the intersection of Mauna Kea Access Road and Saddle Road, according to state estimates. Ige said that there are more groups there now than the original core group of activists.
He said the protest leaders could not maintain control in the camps on the mountain.
However, Kahookahi Kanuha, a protest leader, said that those gathered on Mauna Kea are still unified.
“Yes, we do come from different groups, but we come from one lahui,” he said. “We’re one, and we stand together.”
Mayor Kim, meanwhile said one of his main concerns is road safety in the area.
Saddle Road is the shortest of three major roads that connect the east and west sides of the Big Island, Kim said, and it’s integral for commuters traveling between Hilo and Kona for work.
Kim said in the coming days that Hawaii County Police will be focused on traffic control on Saddle Road and making sure drivers travel safely.
“Our job is not to arrest or stop the demonstration of protesters,” Kim said.
The nonprofit Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation sued Ige on Thursday over his emergency proclamation.
The civil suit alleges that the proclamation — which grants law enforcement broad powers to control access to the mountain — could restrict the rights of free speech, assembly and religion for hundreds of people gathered to oppose the construction of the TMT.
Ige said Wednesday that the mass of protesters, who call themselves “protectors” of Mauna Kea, created a hazardous situation near the intersection of Saddle Road and Mauna Kea Access Road.
The lawsuit rebuts that.
“At no time has there been a threat of harm to the population of Hawai’i Island or to any member of the public caused by those exercising their constitutionally-protected conduct of free speech, religious worship, and traditional and customary practices,” the complaint says.
Cindy McMillan, the governor’s communications director, said that the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
David Kopper, an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation who represents Paul Neves, the plaintiff in the suit, declined to be interviewed Thursday night.
Neves is a prominent Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner who participated in the contested case hearings involving the TMT.
The lawsuit alleges that Ige’s proclamation could infringe on Neves’ rights, and by extension, the rights of those gathered on Mauna Kea. That could amount to a constitutional violation, the suit states, adding there was no emergency or disaster on Mauna Kea that warranted issuing the proclamation.
The suit asks that the proclamation be voided and that Ige be found in violation of the state constitution and Hawaii’s emergency management law.
It doesn’t ask the state to put a stop to TMT.
How exactly law enforcement might use the broad powers granted by the emergency proclamation is not yet clear.
Dan Dennison, a spokesman for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said Thursday those specifics can’t be discussed due to concerns over “operational security.”
However, Dennison told media Thursday afternoon that foot traffic past the cattle guard on Mauna Kea Access Road would be restricted and that the decision was related to the governor’s emergency proclamation.
“Because of the emergency proclamation and the additional authority law enforcement has, they can restrict access to anyone and everyone, including practitioners,” Dennison said.
Ige said Wednesday that he believed issuing an emergency proclamation was the best option the state had to give state law enforcement more flexibility on Mauna Kea.
“It’s very clear we need to secure access in a better way,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, 33 kupuna and a caregiver were arrested and charged with misdemeanors for refusing to move off the road.
On Friday, protesters’ vehicles lined both sides of Saddle Road, for about a half-mile on either side of the intersection with Mauna Kea Access Road, where a human barricade has been maintained since Monday.
Many again camped overnight, their trucks and cars parked perpendicular behind a wall of concrete and plastic barricades lining the highway.
Protesters have continued adding improvements to their encampment. A blowhorn and hand-held loudspeaker have been replaced with a professional-looking PA system. They also are using radio communications, gas heaters for the cold mountain air and even a dedicated van to shuttle elders to portable bathrooms.
Authorites will permit protesters to maintain their cultural sanctuary established near the road blockade, Dennison said Friday.
He also said there is “no chance” police will restrict access to the public parking lot and hiking trail on Puu Huluhulu.
Despite a camping prohibition, numerous protesters have been staying on the state land. Their encampment includes a cooking area, first aid tent and portable toilets.
The puuhonua was established using strict Hawaiian protocals and received the blessing of The Royal Order of Kamehameha, protest leaders have said. Signs warn against unacceptable behavior that includes profanity, drinking and smoking of any kind.
Even larger crowds are expected during the weekend when many people are off from work.
Read the complaint and the emergency proclamation:
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, factual, honest journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?