The state of Hawaii is putting pressure on Thirty Meter Telescope protesters with allegations that they may be harming endangered species and, without providing details, suggesting that they have created an environment leading to threats against Gov. David Ige and other state officials.
In separate press conferences over two days this week, state officials suggested that protesters fighting the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea are to blame for the destruction of endangered plants and creating an atmosphere in which social media users have threatened officials, including Ige.
In both instances, the state would not overtly pin blame on the protesters, but suggested that ill effects were the result of the movement.
At a Friday news conference, Ige said that he and other state officials have been targets of death threats.
Attorney General Clare Connors said her office could pursue investigations of terroristic threats and extortion. State officials did not respond to a question about how common it is for the state to receive threats such as those described Friday.
While state officials said they do not hold protesters responsible for provocative remarks on social media, they began the news conference denouncing a statement made by protest leaders regarding a possible sweep of the area.
The statement, which was a call to action that brought about 1,000 people to Mauna Kea last weekend, suggested that law enforcement might use excessive force. State officials took exception to that Friday.
Andre Perez, one of the leaders, said it was meant to prepare anyone who came to Mauna Kea for possible action by police. Protest leaders said they had reliable information indicating the state planned to make a move this week, but would not identify the sources.
On Friday, Ige said there was no plan for law enforcement action this week. But earlier in the week, in response to inquiries by Civil Beat and other media, the state said they couldn’t comment on whether it planned to act.
Perez joined the governor in condemning cyberbullying and threats made to state officials and law enforcement. The kia’i have praised the professionalism of most state officers since the confrontation began in July.
Still, some worry that the state may attempt to cast the movement in the worst light possible.
“The idea is we are already criminalized just for being here,” Kaleikoa Kaeo said in an interview on Mauna Kea earlier this week. “We’re criminals because we continue to challenge the mechanisms of power.”
On Thursday, at a press conference in Hilo, state officials pointed out the damage done to several endangered plants on Puu Huluhulu by the large crowds.
The plants appeared to be recovering, Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Suzanne Case said. However, a rare vine, the anunu, was apparently cut off a koa tree and died.
Edwin Shishido, an officer with DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, said that he examined the Puu Huluhulu area after a Damien Marley concert at the activist camp on Mauna Kea Access Road after seeing more than a hundred people scale the hill.
While there with another officer, Shishido saw the cut vine and several trampled plants. Case said bootprints were found next to the plants, which were located off a designated trail.
The state wouldn’t pin the blame directly on the protesters, but observed that large crowds could harm endangered species.
Since the Marley concert, which happened nearly two months ago, protesters have closed off access to the Puu Huluhulu except for guided tours twice a day and only on certain weekends.
The Kanaka Rangers, a volunteer group, led those tours, but said in a statement posted to social media Thursday that they would close the guided educational walks to assess the plant habitats.
“The management of our aina, and the protection of our Pu’uhonua (place of refuge) begins with the cultural understanding that our kipuka (lava flow) must rest for rehabilitation purposes,” the statement said.
The activists have two major advantages, says Neal Milner, a political analyst and former political science professor at the University of Hawaii.
One is time, since there’s a deadline for the project, Milner said. The other is their strategic hold of the intersection of Mauna Kea Access Road and Saddle Road, which is the lone route for large construction vehicles to scale the mountain.
“I don’t think the governor anticipated this kind of resistance,” Milner said. “They have a plan. The state doesn’t appear to have a plan.”
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell