MAUNAKEA — A tense standoff between Thirty Meter Telescope protesters and law enforcement ended with jubilation after officers assured they would make no arrests Tuesday afternoon.
Tuesday began with protesters and law enforcement on friendly terms, with two checkpoints having been established by the two parties on the Maunakea Access Road, which closed Monday.
The checkpoint operated by the protesters — who refer to themselves as kia‘i or “protectors” of Maunakea, which they consider sacred — consisted of a line of kupuna, or elders, stretching across the access road and several tents about 100 feet from the road entrance; the police checkpoint was several hundred feet further down the road, at a cattle guard that was the site of a previous standoff Monday.
However, the mood turned sour after protest leaders reported negotiations between the two sides broke down.
Protest leader Kahookahi Kanuha said he and others requested several terms from the police: that no National Guard personnel be permitted access to the mountain, that observatory staff be permitted access in exchange for a daily visit to the summit by a single protester vehicle and that protesters be allowed to maintain their checkpoint.
Those terms, Kanuha said, were “non-negotiable,” and discussions broke down between the parties.
As reports spread of a large cadre of law enforcement officers arriving on the island from Honolulu, protesters prepared for a showdown with grim determination.
The standoff revolved around the few dozen kupuna who positioned themselves in a line across the Maunakea Access Road. Addressing the crowd of protesters, protest leader Pua Case relayed the kupuna’s directions: None were to stand between the advancing police and the waiting kupuna.
“This is not your story,” Case told the protesters through a megaphone. “This is about their honor.”
“I’m okay with (the directive),” said protester Michelangelo Kekuku-McPeek. “They’re the elders, they’ve been through this before. If anyone knows what to do, it’s them.”
Obeying the kupuna’s requests, hundreds of other protesters lined both sides of the road. After about a dozen westbound law enforcement vehicles passed the mouth of the access road, nothing could be heard save the crunch of gravel, the whistling of the wind and the low singing of the kupuna awaiting arrest.
And then it ended.
Lino Kamakau, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources branch chief officer in Hawaii County who handled negotiations with the protesters throughout Monday and Tuesday, approached the kupuna and promised no arrests would be made Tuesday, so long as approximately 20 workers on the mountain and police officers were allowed to leave.
As the crowd erupted in elated cheers and song, Kanuha praised the kupuna, who he said won the day.
“That final deal was made by our kupuna,” Kanuha said. “If we were playing poker, I guess we called their bluff.”
Kanuha was under no illusions about the state of the protest. The mass of law enforcement officers that previously passed the protest by would certainly be back tomorrow, he said.
“This leaves us where we started this morning,” Kanuha said.
Although the protesters might have won a reprieve Tuesday, a confrontation between the two sides appears inevitable.
Jason Redulla, chief of the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, said the goal of the police is currently to prepare the access road for construction crews and equipment, although he declined to disclose specifics of their plan to do so, citing operational security reasons.
Redulla said officers are prepared to make arrests, and while they will treat kupuna with the care he said is due their age and prominence within the community, they will be arrested all the same.
The ongoing unresolved conflict also has left the Maunakea Observatories in crisis. Late Tuesday, directors of the observatories made a joint decision to suspend all operations and withdraw their personnel from the 13 existing summit telescopes.
Jessica Dempsey, spokeswoman for the observatories, said 25 people were withdrawn from the facilities. As of Tuesday night, no staff remained at any of the summit telescopes, she said.
The decision to remove the staff was a difficult one, Dempsey said. Without maintenance staff available at the telescopes, certain critical systems cannot be adjusted or maintained, which could cause millions of dollars of damage to the telescopes.
Dempsey said the telescopes also will not be operated remotely, for fear that a system could fail during operation with no way to fix it — for example, if an observatory’s dome locked open with severe weather approaching.
Earlier Tuesday, maintenance staff and an operator attempted to reach NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility.
Imai Namahoe, observatory manager, said maintenance needed to be done on the IRTF to ensure the telescope can move smoothly, and IRTF night telescope operator Greg Engh said he needed to reach the telescope to relieve another operator, who had to come down the mountain for undisclosed medical reasons.
While Namahoe and Engh were ultimately able to reach the telescope Tuesday, they left again shortly thereafter with the rest of the observatories’ staff, while the operator who required medical assistance was brought down in an ambulance.
Though protesters have been present near the access road for several days, the state only closed the road Monday. Gov. David Ige announced last week that construction of the long-delayed TMT would begin this week, after a notice to proceed was issued in June.
Litigation and protests have delayed the start of construction of TMT on Maunakea, which was selected as the site for the state-of-the-art telescope in 2009. TMT International Observatory officials say the 180-foot-tall telescope will keep Hawaii at the forefront of astronomy and is part of a next-generation class of observatories.
Protests in 2014 and 2015 against TMT’s construction ended with 31 arrested.
On Oct. 30, 2018, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled by a 4-1 vote to affirm the approval of the project’s Conservation District Use Permit by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
In a speech to gathered protesters and reporters prior to the end of Tuesday’s standoff, Kanuha reaffirmed his commitment to nonviolent protest.
“We’re gonna stand. We will stand in kapu aloha,” Kanuha said. “We are committed, we’re absolutely committed to peace, peaceful protest, nonviolent action. We are not wavering from that. So to the makai (police officers), I ask you folks to make the same commitment. Because you guys are not my enemy. None of you are my enemy. Our enemy is this illegal occupying state that continues to deny the rights of kanaka, that continues to treat us as a nonexistent, dead people. …
“We’re alive. We’re not going anywhere.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at email@example.com and John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.