Hawaiian protesters converged in large numbers Monday morning in opposition to a controversial city plan to build a ball field and parking lot at a popular Waimanalo beach park that many residents believe has historic and sacred significance as a burial ground.
Dozens of activists lined the sides of Kalanianaole Highway, waving signs, banners and Hawaiian flags, at times chanting “Aloha Aina.” The protest, which has been underway for six months, appears modeled on what is happening at Mauna Kea.
Protesters had been told that the city planned to send contractors to resume the stalled construction work at the site. They hoped to block the entry of earth moving equipment into the park. Work on the site stopped after a fire there in May.
“It’s my mauna,” said Waimanalo resident Ahonui Ohelo, who, like the others, stood in the humid heat and then a drizzling rain, to keep watch on the site. “Before I go any place, I need to protect my house. This is definitely my mauna.”
Like on Mauna Kea, “it’s the people versus the government,” said Kalani Kalima, another protester from Waimanalo.
Many motorists passing by honked and waved their hands in support of the demonstration.
The heavily treed park is known by residents as Sherwood Forest. Its official name is Waimanalo Bay Beach Park.
In April, after minimal public notice, Honolulu embarked on the first phase of a multi-phase construction project that would turn the serene and secluded enclave into a regional ball field with up to 470 parking spaces. Many residents did not know the project was underway until the bulldozers arrived and started clearing the formerly forested area, stripping it of vegetation.
Large numbers of Waimanalo residents asked city officials to stop the construction work. But Mayor Kirk Caldwell previously said that it would cost $300,000 to stop it because the contracts had been signed and the city was committed.
In June, the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board voted 10 to 1 to oppose construction at the site, calling on Caldwell and City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson, who lives in Waimanalo, to stop what it called further destruction of Sherwood Forest.
City officials say they will stop the project after the first phase is completed. This first phase, they say, will include a multi-purpose field, a playground, a parking lot and a water irrigation line. They say they will plant native Hawaiian vegetation on the periphery of the developed areas.
In an email, Nathan Serota, a public information officer for the city Department of Parks and Recreation, confirmed that the city was resuming work on the site on Monday. He said the city is also investigating whether “another waterline can be tapped which is further away from two identified burial sites.”
Protesters say they believe city officials are running roughshod over community opinion, pushing through construction plans that many people oppose.
“We wanted to be here to prevent the machines coming through,” said Kau Kalama, who arrived at the park at about 5:30 in the morning.
“The city is doing what they want to do and not listening to what people want,” she said. “The mayor only wants to listen to opinions that align with his agenda.”
On Monday, the demonstration drew people of all ages, including senior citizens and mothers with babies.
Liloa Kilima, 17, arrived at the park at 7 a.m., prepared to stop the movement of construction equipment onto the site, holding aloft a Hawaiian flag flying upside down. He said the city should repair existing Waimanalo ball fields that have fallen into disrepair rather than building new ones.
“I don’t like it,” Kalima said. “Constructing a sports field will destroy the park. They already have two parks. They should fix both of them.”
It was unclear what the city had intended to do at the site on Monday. A group of police cars arrived early in the morning, but soon mostly departed, leaving one police officer sitting in a van at the construction site.
A single construction worker, wearing a Kaikor Construction Co. T-shirt, set to work mending a fence but refused further comment, saying that any inquiries should be directed to city officials.
As they are doing on Mauna Kea, where Hawaiian residents are opposing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the park opponents are using a strategy called kapu aloha. The term refers to a passive resistance model that is peaceful and persistent and minimizes the risk of physical injury to any of the participants.
Protest leader Kuike Kamakea-Ohelo, using a bullhorn, alternated between messages explaining why the civic action was needed and urging people to drink water regularly in the heat to stay hydrated during what he suggested may be a lengthy travail.
“My biggest concern is safety,” he said.
Similarly, during the early morning hours, Ohelo stood on the side of the road wearing a neon-colored construction jacket to help protesters and pedestrians move back and forth safely across the busy highway.
“We’re here to hold the space,” he said.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.