Here are four facts about the ongoing TMT protests that show why it looks bad for the telescope’s future.

First and most obvious, the anti-TMT protestors won. They have stopped TMT in its tracks.

Forever? Forever enough.

Gov. David Ige’s so-called two-year extension of the telescope’s construction start date is as meaningful and predictive as a Honolulu rail deadline.

In a very short time the issue has moved from a stalemate to a question mark: pie in the sky by and bye — if the sky don’t fall and the crust don’t burn.

Young mother holds her child as Hawaii island Police officers move up the city and county portion of the access road. Hawaii. 24 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A young mother holds her child as Hawaii County police officers move up the Mauna Kea Access Road in the early days of the protest. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Realistically, the protesting “protectors” couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Second, and even more significantly, the incident on the mountain highlighted the protestor’s strength as well as the authorities’ inherent weaknesses.

The protestors have shown a remarkable — and I would guess for many of you surprising — level of organization, discipline and sophistication.

Play Monday morning quarterback if you want: the governor should have done this, the cops should have done that, etc. But that’s the small stuff.

Here is the big stuff, involving a doomsday scenario that would go like this: Hundreds of protestors in a strategic location willing to be arrested facing off against law enforcement officers who would need to overcome the resistance of each individual protestor and secure a large fleet of vehicles to get arrestees to some secure facility somewhere.

Mass resistance and mass arrests — in scope, passion, and effort, this is totally different from those kindly, kabuki-like ritualized arrests that took place during the protest’s early days.

That’s not to take away from the bravery and dedication of the kupuna who were willing to take that step, but mass civil disobedience and mass arrests are something different entirely.

The optics are bad enough. The logistics are worse.

Third, the protests highlight the limits of law.

Law acts as a justification for the use of force: coercive. Law is also used as a linguistic device — a language that people use in their everyday speech as a way of justifying, framing or convincing. “It’s the law.” “Respect the process.” “Majority rules.” Discursive.

Such language taps into basic American values of fairness. It mobilizes people.

But both the coercive and discursive sides of law have come up short.

As I suggested already, the coercive limits are obvious. Having legal permits is one thing. Enforcing them is quite something else.

Less than a month into this very crucial stage we witness an increasingly powerful protest encountering an increasingly hollowed government response.

Law regarding TMT is a nuclear option with enormous collateral damage. The most destructive thing about a nuclear bomb is having to use it.

So the state may have the proper papers, but those papers are a paper tiger unless government is willing to use stark and violent mechanisms that right now seem beyond the pale.

The limits of conversations about law are more subtle. Everyday conversation about TMT, especially among those who support it, is full of legal language — variations of the idea that America depends on respect for the Rule of Law. “The courts have decided.”

But something has happened to the power of this common folk legal language. You just don’t hear it very much, certainly not by public officials.

It is drowned out by the opponents’ passion, intensity and media savvy and by the emerging need generally to use other kinds of discussions about culture, history, reconciliation that displace law talk.

Fourth, politicians are bailing on TMT.

Not obviously. Of all public officials Lt. Gov. Josh Green has come the closest to explicitly withdrawing his support.

Other elected officials have been less definitive than Green. But they are acting and talking in ways that avoid giving the governor or the University of Hawaii president support at this watershed moment.

There’s a nice Yiddish phrase that describes what’s happening here: “gay ga zinte hate,” which literally means “go in good health” but commonly means “do your own thing because, good buddy, you are now on your own.”

(By the way, it’s kind of odd that politicians have now discovered that Native Hawaiians are angry, and that TMT involves basic historical and cultural issues. Where have these politicians been living? Omaha?)

A number of politicians have responded by jumping all over Ige’s emergency order. Focus on the process. Ignore the substance.

Protesting the emergency order was a red herring that provided public officials a safety net insulating them from the real issue, which of course is whether or not the telescope needs to get built.

So less than a month into this very crucial stage we witness an increasingly powerful protest encountering an increasingly hollowed government response.

According to what’s become conventional wisdom here, the way to deal with this is to talk some more to find ways that accommodate both sides.

This is right out of the conflict resolution play book. It is such a safe, conventional alternative that important people have gravitated toward it like a shipwrecked person toward a life raft.

To be fair, under the circumstance, more talk is the best of a set of bad alternatives.

The thing is, though, that for years people have been unsuccessfully looking for ways both to build the telescope and accommodate those who don’t want it.

Why would protestors be willing to be accommodating now when they have grown stronger and the long arm of the state has grown weaker?

While visiting the protestors on the mauna, Josh Green said that it was time for a “reckoning” about the telescope. That’s an apt term because a reckoning is quite different from a reconciliation. A reckoning is more open-ended and scarier.

There’s a whole lot of talking going on, but, as they say, talk is cheap. It’s easy to do but may have very little currency.

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