TMT protesters number more than 1,400 on Saturday

  • From left, Roger Thompson, Raukawa Manning and Mahara Nicholas exchange ha with kupuna after performing a haka Friday on the Maunakea Access Road. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

MAUNAKEA — On Saturday, the largest group of people gathered along the intersection of Daniel K. Inouye Highway and Maunakea Access Road since protests began Monday against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea.

State officials estimated the crowd at about 1,400. Cars appeared to line the highway, also known as Saddle Road, in both directions for perhaps a half-mile from the intersection.

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Despite the increase in vehicle and foot traffic around the intersection and the Pu‘uhonua O Pu‘uhuluhulu, a safe haven for TMT opponents set up across the highway from the intersection by the Royal Order of Kamehameha, tensions appeared lower than they had been on Wednesday, when 34 arrests were made by authorities for blocking the access road and Gov. David Ige declared a state of emergency.

One arrest was reported Saturday, but it wasn’t because of blocking access, authorities said.

At about 1:40 p.m., the Hawaii Police Department responded to a call of a disorderly man creating a disturbance at Pu’uhuluhulu and 60-year-old Derek Higa of Waimea was arrested without incident.

Among visitors to the protest site on the access road Saturday was Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, whose presence was generally a quiet one. Clad in a blue aloha shirt with a ti leaf lei, Kim sat quietly in a lawn chair and took in activities, which included chanting, music and hula. He made his way to the kupuna tent and exchanged hugs with some of the project opponents, including longtime Native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte Jr. of Molokai.

The mayor then crossed the highway and was given a guided tour of the pu‘uhonua, where organizers had set up increased food and kitchen capabilities and several more portable toilets than the three that were on site for last Sunday’s vigil prior to protests, as well as a medic tent.

Jason Redulla, enforcement chief for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said the dialog between law enforcement set up by a cattle grate about a quarter-mile up the access road and protesters “continues to be very respectful on both sides.”

“Today, state and county law enforcement agencies are continuing to plan for safe passage of construction equipment onto the Maunakea Access Road,” said Redulla. “… We’re continuing to plan and we’re remaining in a state of readiness, so we’re ready to respond to any type of situation.”

Redulla also attempted to quash scuttlebutt that the arrival of members of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment on Hawaii Island was in response to the demonstrators, saying they were here for annual training exercises.

“This is an Army Reserve unit,” he said. “These Army Reserve soldiers have no affiliation with the Hawaii National Guard. They have no affiliation with the TMT project.”

After a decade of protests, a contested case hearing and litigation, the Hawaii Supreme Court in October affirmed by a 4-1 vote the project’s Conservation District Use Permit issued by the Board of Land and Natural Resources on Sept. 27, 2017. The terms of that permit are valid for two years and specify construction on the $1.4 billion observatory project must start by Sept. 26.

Despite the court ruling, peaceful demonstrations have been held statewide and beyond. On Saturday, out-of-state protests included in Bremerton, Wash., a brief ferry ride from downtown Seattle, and Tempe, Ariz. Photos and videos on social media also showed people holding signs in solidarity with TMT opponents in locales as far-flung as New York City, Indiana, Dubai and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The Hawaiian caucuses of both houses of Hawaii’s state Legislature issued statements Saturday urging Ige to rescind his emergency proclamation.

Sen. J. Kalani English, a Maui Democrat, said he and his caucus colleagues “stand with the people engaged in peaceful demonstration on Maunakea and around Hawaii.”

“The Thirty Meter Telescope controversy underscores critical issues in our community, and calls for the highest levels of care and mutual respect,” English said. “While we support the governor’s commitment not to deploy the National Guard, we ask that the governor rescind his emergency proclamation in order to deescalate tensions. It is vitally important that people on both sides continue to engage in kapu aloha and use nonviolent means to express themselves and seek redress.”

Rep. Daniel Holt, an Oahu Democrat and House Hawaiian Caucus chairman, called the Hawaiian culture “one of aloha and respect,” and added, “It is inappropriate to respond to peaceful protests with disproportionate force.”

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“When an issue of this magnitude and sensitivity arises, it demands an approach of utmost care and understanding,” Holt said. “We urge Gov. Ige to reflect on current events and move forward with empathy, respect and righteousness. We hope to work with all parties to find a solution that is both compassionate and reasonable.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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