MAUNAKEA — Gov. David Ige said Friday he remains committed to allowing construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope to proceed atop Maunakea despite protests against the project and criticism from some lawmakers.
At a news conference at Hilo International Airport Friday afternoon, Ige said he and Mayor Harry Kim had discussed possible solutions to the continuing stalemate at Maunakea Access Road, where opponents of TMT have camped for five days in order to block construction equipment from ascending the mountain, which many believe is sacred.
Ige said he decided not to call for additional National Guard troops to avoid escalating the conflict. The 80 guard members on the Big Island since the start of the protests will remain, state officials said.
The governor said last week that National Guard units would be used to transport personnel and equipment as well as to enforce road closures.
Ige also denied rumors that the state would ever consider the use of tear gas to deter protesters.
“We will not be utilizing tear gas, as some of the rumors have been (saying),” Ige said. “We are looking for the best way forward without hurting anyone.”
Ige said Friday his has no plan to withdraw the emergency proclamation that he enacted Wednesday after 33 protesters were arrested. The emergency order broadened the state’s authority to remove protesters from the mountain, including the use of the National Guard for security.
Ige said his No. 1 priority remains public safety. He said his proclamation would remain in effect because of safety concerns he identified at the protest site and the nearby Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘u Huluhulu, the camp established by protesters.
“There are inadequate bathroom and rubbish facilities for this many people, and we are seeing the effects on the environment,” Ige said. “Pedestrians are running back and forth across a major highway at night and when visibility is poor.”
Ige said police reported the use of drugs and alcohol at the Pu’uhonua, which violates terms agreed to earlier this week, whereby police would not take action against the Pu’uhonua so long as it sheltered no illicit activity. Despite this, he said there is still no intention for police to sweep the Pu’uhonua.
Ige said negotiations with protest leaders will continue.
“But many of the leaders of this protest do not want to meet,” he said. “They would rather post to social media, spread rumors and fear, rather than engage in real world conversations about how we can move forward together.
“Right now I am asking the leaders of this protest to meet,” he continued. “I’m asking them to commit to keeping everyone safe to work together towards the many issues that are fueling the protest. We have lots to do.”
Ige said he was willing to meet protesters but, as of Friday afternoon, did not have plans to go to Maunakea.
Mayor Harry Kim said Friday that he had called the governor to request a meeting after the events of Wednesday unfolded. The purpose of the meeting was to give the governor a “real update from people in the field,” and a look a the “total picture, so they could understand what people are going through,” as well as to discuss next steps forward.
“I am very hopeful,” Kim said, adding that it “seems to be an unanimous consent that (we) would need to find a better way to address this issue.”
Kim said there seems to be “total agreement by all we don’t like what’s happening. I feel very bad about it … We need to find a better way to get to a better place. They all agreed on that, and we’ll try to find a better way.”
After Ige’s press conference, protest leader Kahookahi Kanuha said he is now unwilling to negotiate with Ige until the governor issues a public apology for his statements.
“I am not willing to meet with a liar,” Kanuha said. “I see no point in meeting with someone who has shown a lack of integrity, a lack of honesty and has resorted to lies over and over and over again.”
Kanuha said Ige’s comments about the conditions at the Pu’uhonua were inaccurate. The camp now has 12 portable toilets that are emptied twice a day, and trash is taken down from the mountain daily by supporters. He also emphasized that drugs and alcohol are prohibited within the Pu’uhonua.
“Look deep inside yourself,” Kanuha said, addressing Ige. “If you have any humanity left in you, any decency, any sense of honesty, dig down deep. Try to bring that back out. And then we’ll move forward.”
While Ige expressed sympathy with the protesters, he did not entertain the possibility of delaying the project, despite statements by several politicians in support of the protesters.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Friday urged Ige to “withdraw the emergency declaration, delay any new construction, and bring leaders together from both sides in the spirit of aloha to ho‘oponopono and determine the best path forward.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “We must guarantee native people’s right to self-determination and their right to protest. I stand with Native Hawaiians who are peacefully demonstrating to protect their sacred mountain of Mauna Kea.”
In a Facebook post, Lt. Gov. Josh Green opposed the use of National Guard troops.
“First and most important in my opinion, there must not be any violence on Maunakea,” he wrote. “That would cause irreparable damage to our state and people, culturally and spiritually.”
He recognized the “protectors” of the mountain for their peaceful approach.
“I trust and respect the National Guard, however my belief is they should only be used when there is no other way to protect life and safety.”
Throughout the day, protesters continued to occupy the access road, waiting for a police force that never arrived. In the morning, protest leader Andre Perez led a training session for the gathered protesters — estimated to number between 800 and 1,200 — to learn nonviolent resistance tactics.
The first line of defense is to be lines of wahine (women), Perez said, stretched across the road in front of the kupuna (elders), who will remain seated across the road. The wahine are to sit and not resist if seized; rather, they were advised to go limp and be carried away.
Perez said the image of armed police seizing unresisting women will reflect poorly upon the state, but advised that any action that could be interpreted as aggression would give police justification to resort to violence.
Perez also warned protesters to be vigilant for infiltrators attempting to instigate violence while posing as protesters.
After two days without any police contact, and support for the protest growing online, the TMT opponents were optimistic.
“It’s bringing us together as a people,” said protester Kalani Tipon. “It’s bringing us more in touch with our Hawaiian-ness, and letting us be as we be.”
Even so, the protest is prone to some degree of paranoia. Early Friday morning, rumors spread on social media of an impending police raid that would close Daniel K. Inouye Highway, leading protesters to park vehicles on the access road to impede traffic.
While that raid never came, it remains unclear when police will take action.
“If (the police) come in, I’ll be standing on the lava field in full belief that aloha and truth will prevail,” said protester Sheena Lopes.
“We’re at ease, but steady and ready,” Tipon said.
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