MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — As the sun rose Monday over Hawaii’s tallest mountain, a mass protest was well underway on the road that leads up to the Thirty Meter Telescope construction site. By mid-afternoon, there had been no arrests and there were no apparent plans to send construction equipment up the Mauna Kea Access Road on Monday.
Tensions seemed to flare anew late Monday afternoon when protestors were seen blocking three police vehicles from going up the Mauna Kea Access Road.
Authorities were still negotiating with the protestors at 4:45 p.m. in an attempt to get them to move.
The standoff came after a work crew had erected a gate next to where protestors had chained themselves to a cattle grate earlier in the day. Later, authorities agreed to take the gate back down as they continued to negotiate for passage up the mountain.
Eight anti-TMT activists who were secured to a cattle guard since about 3:30 a.m. were suddenly released and told that they won’t be taken into custody Monday afternoon.
That seemed to defuse the tension between authorities and protestors, and it appeared that no TMT construction equipment would be headed up Mauna Kea Access Road on Monday. No arrests have been made.
An officer walked up and interrupted a group of activists who were singing in a circle that included the protestors attached to the cattle guard. He told them they were going to be let go (they were told earlier they’d be arrested) and the crowd erupted in cheers.
The activists say they achieved what they came here for Monday.
Two of those who had been chained to the grate, Noelani Goodyear-Keopua and her husband Imai Winchester, said they were grateful to be part of a movement to protect Mauna Kea.
After the activists freed themselves from the cattle guard, much of the crowd quickly dispersed. Several dozen cars continue to line Saddle Road and the activists are largely now gathered at Pu’u Huluhulu.
Authorities have no plans to sweep that area today, said Jason Redulla, director of the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement.
One of the protest leaders, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, says that DOCARE has assured him no TMT construction trucks will go up Mauna Kea tonight.
Kanuha says a law enforcement officer told him that authorities were worried people had been tied to the cattle guard for too long and that’s why they decided to let them go.
For the first time in more than 20 years, Hawaii National guard troops are being used to “support civilian activities,” said spokesman Jeff Hickman.
They will be staffing checkpoints and providing information, he said, adding all the personnel volunteered for the active duty.
Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim requested Guard support, Hickman said.
Meanwhile, an unspecified number of Honolulu Police Department officers are also going to the Big Island to help keep roads clear for construction vehicles, HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said.
With traffic continuing to back up on Saddle Road, the Department of Transportation is setting up barriers on both sides of the road to protect all the people milling around its intersection with the Mauna Kea Access Road.
Meanwhile, heavy machinery has been showing up at the intersection, and authorities have blocked both the public and the media from going up the access road any farther than where protestors have locked themselves to a cattle grate.
Protest leader Andre Perez is on the loudspeaker asking everyone except kupuna and those who have a job to do to move back now and keep the access road clear.
A Hawaii County Police command center just arrived, and an extraction team is on its way.
Still it remains a peaceful protest, with people playing soft music, passing out food and hugging one another.
Mahi’ai Dochin lies underneath the cattle guard on Mauna Kea Access Road, chained to his friend and fellow activist Kamuela Park, who is one of seven protestors lying on top of the grate.
Dochin says it’s hard to explain why he feels so strongly against the Thirty Meter Telescope that he’s willing to get arrested, but he likens it to someone burglarizing your grandmother’s house.
“These people who have no connection to this place are coming in for their own interest,” he said of the developers of the TMT. “They don’t care what happens to the Mauna during or after. They don’t care if it’s a 180 foot-piece of trash on the mountain.”
He’s referring to the telescopes on the mountain that haven’t been removed despite no longer being in use.
By 10 a.m., Dochin has been lying underneath the grate for nearly seven hours. The temperature has swung from really cold to really hot and he’s not able to use the bathroom.
“For what we’re going for it’s a small price to pay,” he says.
Activists gathered at the cattle guard who aren’t lying down are singing and playing guitar as they wait for the police to move in. Every few minutes the sound of the police radio crackling interrupts the Hawaiian lyrics.
Traffic is backing up on Saddle Road, a 60-mph cross-island highway that has been officially renamed Daniel K. Inouye Highway.
The state Department of Transportation issued a statement urging all motorists to exercise caution as they approach the intersection with of Mauna Kea Access Road because of the protestors in the area.
The DOT has placed trucks with flashing lights on the shoulders of the road a half-mile from the intersection in both directions to warn motorists.
The access road was closed earlier this morning, although there are still protestors on it.
Many of the protestors at the intersection of Saddle Road and the Mauna Kea Access Road plan to step aside and allow the construction convoy to pass when the time comes, according to one of the leaders, Kahookahi Kanuha.
“We don’t want to risk mass arrests today because we don’t feel like we need that to stop the TMT,” Kanuha said.
But a group of elders at the entrance to the road are expected to be arrested. After speaking with police, protest leaders say the group will step aside, but the elders will remain.
Meanwhile, about 150 yards up the access road, protestors are still tied to a cattle grate.
A sheriff’s deputy said the protestors lying on the grate were technically arrested earlier but allowed to stay in place.
“If later on they won’t move then we will (remove) them,” the deputy said.
There were seven protestors on top of the cattle guard and one underneath. They’ve been there since about 3:30 a.m., and they’re being tended to and offered drinks and massages by other activists as the day gets hotter.
Protestors tied to the cattle grate are removing blankets and their supporters are putting up umbrellas for shade. Police officers are nearby but they haven’t started arresting or removing anyone yet.
At the bottom of the access road, Kona trucker Keola Emeliano said TMT opponents are keeping him from delivering 800 gallons of fuel for a project up on the mountain, but he’s not upset.
“Sucks, cause I feel like I’m caught in the middle of this,” said Emeliano, who is half-Hawaiian. “This is my own people.”
Protestor Gene Tamashiro said he’s full Okinawan, but considers himself “sovereign Hawaiian,” adding he is here to help establish ownership of the mountain. “If we don’t stand together now, then we’ll lose Ke Akua’s law,” he said.
Several hundred people began singing and chanting at first light. Many had spent the night at the base of the road that leads up the mountain, at the intersection of Saddle Road and the Mauna Kea Access Road.
The road is expected to be shut down at about 7 a.m. by state and county officials so construction trucks can begin making their way up the mountain. Construction on the $1.4 billion telescope is set to begin after years of legal action and other opposition delayed the project.
Protestors have organized themselves with many kupuna sitting down as the front line of the protest, with others standing behind waving signs and upside down Hawaii state flags.
Eight protestors had chained themselves to a cattle guard a short distance up the road in an effort to slow down the caravan of vehicles. They are lying down, and one protestor told a KHON news reporter that they used a combination of chains and duct tape in a way designed to make it as difficult as possible to remove them.
Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua and others chained to the cattle guard emphasized that they are just trying to delay the construction and don’t plan to turn to violence to stop it.
“Our movement is a peaceful and nonviolent one,” she said while laying prone across the guard.
Police officers from the state attorney general’s investigations unit have been on the scene since about 4 a.m. and are standing behind the group.
Civil Beat reporters Anita Hofschneider and Jason Armstrong and photographer Cory Lum are covering the events on the mountain. This post will be updated throughout the day.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org