The sun was beating down on more than a hundred peaceful protesters who stood, linking arms, on Mauna Kea on July 17, facing Honolulu police officers armed with pepper spray, guns and batons. Native Hawaiian poet Jamaica Osorio was on the front line, singing “Hawaii Ponoi” and recounting the story of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“Resistance is a Hawaiian tradition!” Osorio said. The tension between the officers and the activists was palpable.
But if Osorio was afraid, her voice didn’t waver.
No one knew it at the time, but law enforcement was asking Gov. David Ige for permission to use force to break up the road blockade. The governor said no. Within hours, the police backed off. An officer later testified that the police were vastly outnumbered by demonstrators. It was only Day 3 of what’s since grown into more than a month-long protest against building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawaii island’s tallest mountain.
The issue has sparked a surge of activism, with opponents setting up a camp at the base of Mauna Kea Access Road and refusing to let construction trucks past. The merits of their cause have been widely debated and, even among Native Hawaiians, opinions are split.
For the hundreds of activists on the mountain facing off with police officers, the protests are the latest in a long history of Native Hawaiian civil disobedience and acts of resistance. There are too many examples to list but here are some of the best known instances.
Kalama Valley, 1971
In 1971, nearly three dozen Hawaiian activists were arrested in Kalama Valley in East Oahu while protesting the evictions of local pig farmers from land owned by Bishop Estate.
A Honolulu Star-Advertiser article describes demonstrators singing and chanting, and saying to police officers, “Hey, you guys are Hawaiian. You should be up here with us.” The protest was peaceful and had been anticipated for a month.
Meanwhile, other activists picketed Bishop Estate to protest the arrests.
Perhaps the most famous example of Native Hawaiian activism is the fight to regain control over the Navy target island Kahoolawe, which took decades and cost two lives.
Kahoolawe had been a bombing range since 1953, and the Navy even simulated an atomic bomb explosion there. By the 1970s, an organization called Protect Kahoolawe Ohana formed to protest the bombings and get the island back. Activists took boats to the island off the coast of Maui in defiance of Navy rules.
Numerous protesters were arrested for illegally trespassing on Kahoolawe, including a Time Magazine journalist who accompanied activists. Although the protests were peaceful, they weren’t always safe. Activists George Helm and Kimo Mitchell disappeared while traveling between Kahoolawe and Maui.
After a lawsuit, the Navy agreed to stop the bombing in 1980. But the island wasn’t formally given back to Hawaii until the 1990s. The federal government funded a $300 million cleanup in the early 1990s.
Still, Kahoolawe remains littered with unexploded ordnance and visitors are warned against walking around unaccompanied.
Protests against evictions in Hawaii were common in the 1960s and 1970s, but among the best-known is the refusal of farmers and other tenants to leave Waiahole-Waikane despite plans for a big 7,000-unit development in the Windward Oahu valley.
More than 200 people blocked traffic on Kamehameha Highway in January 1977 to protest the evictions. Organizers told reporters that they did so because they heard police were on their way to forcibly remove the tenants, although police denied this.
Like the TMT protests, where Native Hawaiian activists serenaded one another, a reporter described the Waiahole-Waikane protests as musical:
“Out near the highway a group of young Hawaiians was holding new signs boasting “We Stopped the Cops.” But it was not an angry or defiant scene. One was playing ukulele; another, a guitar. One was singing — a song his father or maybe even grandfather had sung years before, perhaps in this same valley.”
The protests were successful — the state eventually intervened and preserved the land from development.
Hilo Airport, 1978
In the summer of 1978, dozens of Hawaiians and their supporters occupied Hilo airport in protest of numerous injustices against Native Hawaiian people — not only the Kahoolawe bombing, but also the disproportionate incarceration of the Hawaiian people and alleged mismanagement at Bishop Estate.
“About 50 native Hawaiian protesters, many of them dressed in malos and flowing white robes, voluntarily submitted to arrest yesterday after a pushing and shoving match with Hawaii National Guardsmen on the edge of the Hilo Airport runway,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported.
Nine members of the media were also arrested, the news article said, adding that a previous demonstration at the airport had protested the Big Island airport’s lack of rent payment to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Makua Valley, 1996
Makua Valley in West Oahu is another former military training range that has been the site of numerous arrests.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported several evictions of people living on Makua Beach in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. On Jan. 20, 1983, six people camping were arrested for obstructing a government operation, the newspaper reported.
More arrests came in 1996. According to the book “A Nation Rising,” 16 campers were arrested in January 1996 and dozens of others were cleared from the area. Then-Gov. Ben Cayetano actually barred news media from covering a raid on Makua that year, threatening to arrest journalists if they were present.
Haleakala and Mauna Kea, 2015
In the past decade, civil disobedience in Hawaii has often focused on blocking construction of telescopes on mountaintops on Maui and Hawaii Island. Native Hawaiian activists consider Haleakala and Mauna Kea to be sacred but the sites are desirable for astronomy.
The issue attracted international attention after more than 30 activists were arrested on Mauna Kea on April 2, 2015 blocking the Thirty Meter Telescope construction. Six protesters were arrested on Haleakala in early August 2015 in opposition to the Daniel K. Inouye telescope, and eight more were arrested on Haleakala later that month. Eight more activists got arrested on Mauna Kea in September that year.
The arrests have sparked additional controversies. When one of the activists arrested on Haleakala spoke only Hawaiian in court, a judge issued a bench warrant for him, prompting a public outcry.
The arrests of more than three dozen kupuna on Mauna Kea in July weren’t the first arrests on the mountain this year, nor are they expected to be the last.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues
Not a subscription
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.