Islands are small towns. Not much happens without people finding out about it. It’s just the nature of things.

Word of a big announcement on the TMT was in the air for the last couple of weeks, and rumor had it that the governor would be making an announcement by Christmas. The rumors were coupled with hope, for if there wasn’t going to be a permanent solution, then at least there would be some development that allowed everyone to stand down and enjoy the holidays with their families.

Last week, Gov. David Ige announced a withdrawal of the law enforcement presence on Mauna Kea. Since mid-July, law enforcement, both state and county, have stationed officers around the clock near the area where kia‘i, or guardians, have built their encampment.

Lone demonstrator holds a Hawaiian flag near the summit of Mauna Kea as hundreds of protestors lined the road down at the visitor's center. 24 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A lone demonstrator holds a Hawaiian flag near the summit of Mauna Kea. Law enforcement has given protestors on the mountain a deadline of Thursday to leave. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

These law enforcement efforts have cost the state $15 million.

That’s $15 million that should have gone to real needs, like air conditioning in public schools or services for the homeless.

Ige’s announcement should have come as a relief for all. While not a signal on the end of the project, this could have been a welcome respite from the conflict, which has steadily hummed in the background throughout the second half of 2019.

Yet, Ige’s press conference had barely ended when word started to come out from the kia‘i camp that law enforcement on the ground there were giving kia‘i an ultimatum: leave by Thursday or get arrested.

So instead of making plans to be home for the holidays, kia‘i and their supporters are planning to mobilize for this standoff.

The ultimatum is a bizarre addition to a situation already overflowing with mistakes and missteps. Particularly bothersome is the disconnect in communication between the governor and law enforcement on the ground.

If the governor knew during his press conference that the kia’i would shortly thereafter be issued an ultimatum, then he should have disclosed that at the press conference where the media had full opportunity to follow up with questions.

If he didn’t know the ultimatum was coming, then where did it come from? Is it actually a reflection of the governor or Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim’s positions, which at least made some overtures toward working with kia‘i during the stand down?

It’s winter. Those construction trucks aren’t going anywhere. It would be extremely difficult and dangerous for large construction vehicles to safely navigate up Mauna Kea. Near the summit snow, high winds and ice often make the roads treacherous if not completely impassable.

There was no reason for the governor not to declare a full moratorium on construction and a full withdrawal of law enforcement. And that’s where he should have stopped. Full stop.

Had he simply stopped there, chances are kia‘i would have reduced their presence as well. Or he could have perhaps asked the kia‘i to consider reducing their presence.

As it is, the governor is clearly in no position to be making demands, and he’s in even less of a position to be making threats. What is confusing is that there appear to be multiple messengers, giving the impression that either Ige isn’t being fully truthful in his announcement or his administration and law enforcement are not on the same page.

Either way, what should have been a de-escalation of the situation is now a showdown.

No one wins. If law enforcement follows through and arrests kupuna again, it will catapult the conflict back into the national spotlight, attention that waned in the last couple of months. The only difference now being that law enforcement will be making arrests during the holidays for reasons that remain elusive.

TMT announced it’s not proceeding with construction right now, so the state has decided to make, as we say, “big body.” Why now? The threat feels arbitrary and egotistical.

If state officials stand down, which is what they should do, it’s a bit of egg on their faces. But so what? This whole thing is already an international embarrassment for the state.

In my opinion, this is what the state should do:

  1. Publicly announce there will be no arrests on Thursday
  2. Continue with the withdrawal of law enforcement from the area
  3. Nicely, respectfully, kindly ask the kia‘i to consider a reduction in their presence in the area, but leave the decision up to them
  4. Reopen Mauna Kea Access Road
  5. If the kia‘i decide they also want to reduce their presence, see if they’re willing to negotiate and come to an agreement as to what that looks like. For example, offer them use of the restroom facilities at the visitor center. Help them to access the summit for cultural activities.

I don’t see any obvious reason that kia‘i should not be allowed to maintain a presence that allows for continued monitoring of the situation on Mauna Kea, but also allows the state to withdraw its forces.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.