MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — James Manaku stood on Mauna Kea Access Road in his bare feet Monday morning while a cold wind whipped through.
Manaku’s OK with it, though — he says he stopped wearing shoes in the 1980s. He bounds across the jagged lava rock on his way to grab some coffee to keep warm. His shell lei sways on his neck.
The 73-year-old from Waianae arrived on Mauna Kea Sunday morning to answer a call put out by the kia’i, or guards of Mauna Kea, asking for reinforcements in preparation of a possible move by law enforcement to sweep the area of protesters to clear the way for the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit.
He even left behind a wife struggling with cancer, with her blessing, because he is angry at how the TMT project has been handled.
As of Monday evening, though, it was unclear whether anything would happen as tensions ran high and authorities either said no move was imminent or kept quiet. Protesters say that, while they get tips almost daily that law enforcement may be moving in, the signal recently got louder and more consistent that something would happen this week.
Hundreds like Manaku came to Mauna Kea over the weekend to lend their support, leaving behind other commitments to add to the numbers and dissuade the authorities from acting.
The kia’i spent Sunday preparing for the arrival of National Guard troops with a host of state law enforcement. Despite several scares overnight, once daylight broke, no officers had shown up, save for those already stationed near a cattle guard 100 yards away.
Still, the activists are staying vigilant after hearing form multiple sources that law enforcement could move in anytime between Monday and the end of the week.
Krishna Jarayam, special assistant to state Attorney General Clare Connors, said he couldn’t comment on law enforcement operations on Mauna Kea. Since July, the state has adhered to a policy of not talking about law enforcement plans related to the protests.
Jarayam wouldn’t speculate on where the information is coming from, but said that it was not from official government sources.
Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim said on Saturday that he hadn’t heard of plans to sweep the area, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
In an interview Monday, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a protest leader, said he and the other protest leaders hear about rumors and receive information regarding the state and TMT almost every day. They’ve heard rumors of impending law enforcement action for weeks now.
But Friday was different. Kanuha said protest leaders received information from multiple sources in a short time that all pointed to police moving in this week.
“There hadn’t been a time up until this point we’ve received so much information expressing the same message,” Kanuha said.
One source said late Sunday night that the state was reconsidering any action this week. Kanuha wouldn’t say where their information is coming from.
“We know we could be right, or we could be wrong,” Kanuha said.
Manaku, who prefers to just go by his last name, says he, as an elder, is ready to be arrested if it comes to that. He plans to stay as long as he needs to, or “until my old lady says I need to be home.”
Leaders like Kanuha recognize that supporting the movement can cost time and money. Many of the protesters are taking time off of work and away from their families. Some are flying back and forth to tend to work, school and home life while also supporting the movement on Mauna Kea.
“It’s not a decision made lightly,” Kanuha said of the leaders putting out the call to action. “We understand people are going to be coming in from off island. It’s going to be all over Hawaii, and even beyond.”
The protest is beginning to wear on those who have been there for the whole time, some two months now.
“The longer and longer they drag this out, the harder it is to stay here on a day-to-day basis,” Kanuha said. “But we’ve always had enough people to stay here.”
Having large numbers of protesters apparently worked last time law enforcement tried to move in. Sam Jesma, a Hawaii Police Department commander, wrote in court filings that the number of protesters was a key factor in the decision to retreat when construction was scheduled to begin in early July.
The activists numbered around 1,000 Sunday, and many stayed through Monday morning.
Kaleikoa Ka’eo, a University of Hawaii Maui professor and protest leader, said the state underestimates the support, which he said has grown far beyond Mauna Kea.
It has provided the kia’i with a network of informants from ticket agents and flight attendants who see officials coming to the Big Island to the waitresses who overhear conversations of police officers over a pau hana.
“They somehow falsely believe we’re just some kind of fringe group out here,” Ka’eo said. “They don’t realize, we are the community.”
The state worries, though, that some of the activists’ messaging could trigger dangerous responses.
The protesters’ recent call to action describes a meeting by state officials to “coordinate their attack on peaceful and nonviolent protectors of Maunakea.”
Jarayam said a message like that could mobilize people who don’t follow the strict rules of the nonviolent protest.
“Additionally, falsely and negatively characterizing law enforcement actions as an attack, and doing it constantly, creates a dangerous narrative that delegitimizes the law,” he said.
The activists have adhered to nonviolent protest, but tensions have been high since the state dismantled a structure built by the protesters last week.
Some welcomed the opportunity to passively resist while being arrested.
“I hope they come with an army,” said Kai Prais, who said he got a concussion while being arrested protesting another telescope on Maui. “Think of what an image that would make.”
TMT construction is expected to take at least a decade, and the kia’i have vowed to wait as long.
“This is the front lines,” Ka’eo told the crowd during a Sunday gathering. “Even if they come and bring 1,000, we’ll come back again. Stronger. Bigger. Better.”
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