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TMT protesters arrested: Spirit of aloha pervades as police break up Mauna Kea roadblocks

Updated: 
April 2, 2015 - 8:09pm

Shouts of “ku kiai mauna” — the guardians of the mountain — reverberated off ancient cinder cones and dome-shaped telescopes Thursday at Mauna Kea’s summit as police led 12 arrested protesters away from the Thirty Meter Telescope construction site.

They were among about 30 arrested on the mountain by Hawaii County Police and state Department of Land and Natural Resources officers as opponents of the $1.4 billion project staged another dramatic protest on a mountain they say is sacred ground.

Between 75 and 100 protesters, who referred to themselves as protectors, participated in the second roadblock this week on the Mauna Kea Access Road. The roadblock was intended to prevent construction workers from reaching the site at 13,150 feet above sea level.

The TMT opponents, who arrived outside the Mauna Kea visitor center at the 9,000-foot level before sunrise, held the workers back for the first few hours as they staged multiple roadblocks up the steep, winding summit road.

The crews eventually reached the construction area and began their work at about noon, but not before the protesters held another stand at the site, which they filled with the sounds of Hawaiian chants and songs.

About 30 to 40 TMT opponents gathered at the summit, and warmly embraced those who were willing to be detained as they were loaded into a police van. They stood afterward in a prayer circle on the summit road with a few police officers who joined them at their request.

“This is unprecedented,” Luana Palapala Busby Neff of Hilo said to the rest of the group. “This is just the beginning. A beginning of movement of aloha, a firm commitment to what’s pono.”

There appeared to be little debate that nothing like it had been seen before on the mountain, which is already home to 13 telescopes, at least not since protesters put a stop to the TMT’s groundbreaking ceremony last October. But even then their actions appeared to be reactive rather than planned civil disobedience.

Palikapu Dedman, a veteran Hawaiian activist, attributed the strength of the protest to growing appreciation and awareness of Hawaiian traditions by the younger generation.

“I got to feel proud of how far we’ve come,” he said.

TMT will be more advanced than any existing optical telescope and is expected to capture nine times more light than the other observatories on the summit.

It has won the support of state and county officials and business leaders for its promise to keep Hawaii at the forefront of astronomy, create several hundred jobs, and provide up to $1.08 million in lease payments a year, in addition to educational grants for Hawaii Island. Lease payments will benefit the offices of Mauna Kea Management and Hawaiian Affairs.

But the concern of the opponents, who were mostly Native Hawaiians, remained the protection of a sacred temple they say has already been desecrated by too many telescopes.

“Wherever you go, there are a lot of sacred places and values that you believe in,” said Cookie Gaspar of Ahualoa.

“We have to honor our Sky Father and our Earth Mother.”

Koa Paulo of Waimea said he also was standing up for his Hawaiian identity.

“A big part of it is not just desecration of our aina, but being part of this to protect our identities as Hawaiians and indigenous cultures,” he said.

In a written statement, TMT Project Manager Gary Sanders said he respects the rights of protesters.

“We also respect the laws of the state of Hawaii and the seven-year public process and authority that granted us permits to build the Thirty Meter Telescope in the Maunakea Science Reserve’s Astronomy Precinct,” he said. “Like most people in the community, we truly believe that science and culture can coexist on Maunakea as it has for the past 50 years along with other public uses.”

Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for University of Hawaii, which operates the astronomy precinct, said the TMT location will be the last new telescope construction site on the mountain. Any additional projects will have to replace existing telescopes.

The protesters gathered despite warnings from police that they would face arrests for blocking the road a second time this week.

As they stood outside the visitor center, wrapped in blankets and winter jackets high above the clouds, a few of the protest leaders instructed them that they needed to act respectfully and show aloha to the workers and police. Those who were not with the construction crews were allowed to pass.

“Uphold that aloha,” said Lanakila Mangauil of Honokaa. “We stand strong, we walk strong, we pray strong.”

As a Hawaiian prayer was said, the sun signaled the end of dawn as it rose over a nearby puu, or cinder cone. Down below, between 30 and 40 police officers were already on their way.

Capt. Richard Sherlock, of the Hawaii Police Department, greeted the group as “protectors,” using the name they preferred to be called, and notified them, as he did earlier this week, that he would give them multiple warnings before making arrests.

Protesters turned toward police in a prayer chant with an arm directed toward the officers, a few of whom appeared moved by their actions. Nearby, members of a halau played a drum and performed traditional hula.

“We will follow our hearts and rights as sovereign human beings, as children of Akua,” Mangauil told the officers. “We pule for you.”

Sherlock said his only concern was those blocking the road.

“We want to do this the peaceful and respectful way,” he said.

“This is not a show of force,” Sherlock added. “Your health is entrusted to us.”

The officers calmly walked up to those who remained within the road and, after sharing ha, or breath, in the Hawaiian tradition, directed those who would be detained to the side of the road.

As that occurred, several dozen protesters hiked up the road, where they held another roadblock with a rope made from ti leaves above Hale Pohaku.

About 12 DLNR officers, after asking the protesters to move, joined them in a prayer circle as an expression of good will.

Protesters held their ground until they were told they could keep walking up the mountain ahead of the caravan of police and construction crews.

“My love for this land is more important than anything,” said Billy Freitas, as he sat on the ground before the officers, at times weeping.

Kealoha Pisciotta, a TMT opponent, said protesters would likely discuss Thursday evening about what to do next. She said she expected a presence on the mountain today but didn’t know if there would be another attempt at a roadblock.

Meisenzahl said UH hopes to continue a dialogue with the TMT protesters, adding the university wants to balance culture and science.

“We’re really interested in being better stewards, at the same time continue the pursuit of knowledge,” he said. “We’re trying to balance all those things.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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