MAUNA KEA, Hawaii —A second straight day of around-the-clock telescope protests started Tuesday with a much different energy, with many demonstrators increasingly distrustful of law enforcement now controlling access to the top of the mountain.
The wariness was triggered by an incident early Monday evening, when flag-waving protesters who thought they were done after an exhausting day rallied to block a small convoy of state sheriff’s deputies and National Guard members who were trying to drive up the mountain to sleep at Hale Pohaku.
The demonstrators were provoked when the state installed a gate on the Mauna Kea Access Road after it had seemed that any head-to-head confrontations were over for Monday, a day of mass protests but no arrests.
The encore standoff lasted for hours, underscoring just how precarious the situation at the foot of the mountain really is as the state moves to facilitate construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
A late-afternoon standoff took shape as protesters angered about the sudden installation of an access road gate blocked authorities who were trying to get up the mountain.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
On Tuesday, the nearly 200 protesters who were blockaded spent much of the morning discussing their options in a request to allow astronomers and service personnel for the telescopes unfettered passage up the mountain. They voted against allowing scientists access, but continued discussing whether to allow service workers through.
Meanwhile, around 100 protesters gathered outside the Capitol waving flags waving Hawaiian flags and signs. Then, they took their protest to Ige’s office inside the Capitol, chanting outside his door.
Peaceful Protests on Monday
Opponents of the TMT have committed to peacefully protesting the telescope construction for as long as it takes to protect a mountaintop many consider sacred. The $1.4 billion project has a 10-year construction timeline. The state and Hawaii County have assembled a mass of law enforcement, although they won’t reveal specific numbers about who is there and what equipment they may carry.
Courtesy and aloha between the activists and law enforcement were displayed for much of Monday. Demonstrators helped authorities push a broken-down Hawaii County Command Center vehicle off the road and offered them water and sunscreen.
Members of the state attorney general’s investigations unit chatted amiably with activists who had attached themselves to a cattle guard across Mauna Kea Access Road. They actually escorted one of the protesters, Walter Ritte, 74, to and from the cattle guard so he could go to the bathroom.
By mid-morning, hundreds of activists who had held vigil on Mauna Kea Access Road since before sunrise agreed to step aside and allow the state to put up pedestrian safety barriers on both sides of Saddle Road, a major cross-island highway where traffic was backed up much of the day.
Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a spokesman for the TMT opponents, said they didn’t want mass arrests and he agreed with the state that the barriers would help with pedestrian safety despite limiting parking. Only a few kupuna and the eight protesters secured to the cattle guard would stay, it was decided.
Walter Ritte from Molokai receives hugs after law enforcement informed all the demonstrators chained to the cattle gate that they were not being arrested.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Around 2:30 p.m., officers from the attorney general’s office told the eight activists that they would be let go with no arrests. An officer had previously told them that they were under arrest for refusing to move, but no one had attempted to force their removal.
The news was greeted with cheers and everyone got up to stretch and use the port-a-potties. By then the cattle guard protesters had been lying there for 11 hours. Hundreds of activists retreated across the street to eat and rest. Some members of the media left.
But within two hours, protesters noticed Department of Transportation officials erecting a gate across the access road right by the cattle guard.
It felt like a betrayal to Jamaica Osorio, a Native Hawaiian poet and scholar, who was among the eight protesters who had attached themselves to the cattle guard. From her understanding, the state had promised not to engage in any construction Monday except for the pedestrian safety barriers.
“We feel like the state demonstrated that we can’t trust them,” she said around 6 p.m. “It’s a spit in the face.”
The law enforcement vehicles were blocked for hours.
While sheriff’s deputies and Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers negotiated with activists blocking their way for several hours, other officials cut down the gate. Demonstrators agreed to let the cars go by around 7 p.m., Kanuha said.
He told Civil Beat that part of the agreement is that for Monday night, the only people allowed up the mountain would be sheriff’s deputies, members of the National Guard, rangers and employees of Hale Pohaku. Kanuha said authorities agreed that no astronomers would be allowed up the mountain. Many activists are frustrated that astronomers get access to the mountain that they are being denied.
“What was really obvious today was that the communication between the different agencies involved was horrible,” Kanuha said. He said he had assurances from authorities that they were only going to put barricades on the highway.
He blamed the DOT for the gate installation, although a spokesman for the state said that the decision to build the gate was a joint one among the agencies, including the sheriff’s deputies.
By Monday evening, there was a temporary calm on the mountain.
“There’s a truce until 7 a.m. tomorrow morning when we expect them to arrive again,” Kanuha said.
Jason Armstrong contributed to this report.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues
Before you go . . .
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. 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.