Government employees targeted in social media attacks for role in TMT standoff

  • Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors talks to reporters Friday in Honolulu about threats state employees have received amid the heated debate about building the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Maunakea. Behind her are Department of Hawaiian Homelands Director William Aila Jr., left; Department of Public Safety Director Nola Espinda, middle, and Gov. David Ige. (AP photo/Associated Press)

  • A social media post targets law enforcement involved in removal of an illegal structure near the Maunakea Access Road. (Screenshot/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Gov. David Ige on Friday urged people to remain civil during the ongoing Thirty Meter Telescope standoff after calling out threats and harassment against state employees.

During a press conference in Honolulu, Ige and state Attorney General Clare Connors highlighted a series of social media posts that urged violence against employees and officials connected to enforcement actions at the Maunakea Access Road.

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In particular, Connors pointed to an image circulating on social media offering a $5,000 bounty for the identity of a law enforcement officer who destroyed a Hawaii state flag while dismantling an unpermitted structure at Maunakea Access Road last week.

Nolan Espinda, director of the state Department of Public Safety, said he stood by the actions of the officer who destroyed the flag, explaining it was affixed to a barricade across the structure’s entrance and could not be quickly removed.

Connors said other state employees have had their identities, addresses and contact information leaked online, leading to harassing and threatening messages. She played a voicemail reportedly left for another officer involved in removing the structure, wherein a man told the officer, “I hope you (expletive) die.”

Another comment highlighted during the press conference called a law enforcement officer “a traitor to his people,” while another said “Time for the Hawaiians to start assassinating these terrorists!!!” along with the personal information of a TMT employee.

Another comment on a Facebook photo of a supporter of TMT read “I THINK WE HAVE TOO KIDNAP HER. LOL,” while a YouTube comment posted under an interview with an astronomer included the statement “just kill yourself old man, you wasting all this free oxygen!!!”

Connors pointed out other comments that were less directly aggressive, but could still escalate rhetoric surrounding the standoff. In particular, she criticized language used in some social media comments that “falsely characterize law enforcement as ‘out to get people,’” such as posts by prominent protester channels warning of an “attack” by law enforcement, or reports that law enforcement approved the use of “excessive force” or would weaponize the downdraft from a helicopter to blow away protesters and their structures.

While Ige and Connors only exhibited comments claiming to be from TMT opponents, Ige also denounced “terrible and racist things being said about protesters” that he read online.

“As governor of the state of Hawaii, I’m calling on everyone responsible for these examples of cyberbullying and hateful speech to stop, immediately,” Ige said. “Personal attacks and threats of violence have no place in America and certainly no place here in Hawaii.”

Some of the comments exhibited during the press conference might necessitate law enforcement action, Connors said.

“If the evidence demonstrates that there clearly was an intent to threaten someone or impact the ability of a public servant to engage in their public service duties … then that could rise to the level of a crime,” the attorney general said.

Ige said he also received death threats since the standoff began in July, but Connors said the threats have not precipitated a higher level of security around the governor.

Andre Perez, one of the protest leaders, said the demonstrators “are constantly preaching, indoctrinating peace and nonviolence.” Law enforcement officers and county and state officials — including Mayor Harry Kim — are able to travel among the demonstrators without fear of violence, Perez said.

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“We condemn violent language, we condemn putting a bounty out on people, we condemn putting out language that targets individuals in harmful ways,” Perez said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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