Both sides downplay likelihood of confrontation on Maunakea Access Road

  • MICHAEL BRESTOVANSKY/Tribune-Herald file photo A makeshift traffic lane snakes around the kupuna tent at the Maunakea Access Road.

HILO — County officials and protesters alike seem skeptical that a confrontation will occur at Maunakea Access Road on Thursday, but both sides remain cautious.

After Gov. David Ige reopened the access road to the public last week, a state official told the gathered demonstrators — who have camped across the road since July in protest of the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea — that they have until Dec. 26 to completely clear the road.

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While protest leaders claimed the official implied the state would use force against noncomplying protesters, officials on both sides have downplayed the likelihood of a violent clash.

Mayor Harry Kim told the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday that the Dec. 26 deadline is a meaningless date with no real significance.

“Right now, Dec. 26 is not a relevant date,” Kim said. “But the goal of clearing it out as soon as possible still remains.”

Kim said he is working with the university and the protesters — notably referring to them as protectors, their preferred appellation — to open the road peacefully.

Currently, drivers attempting to reach the summit must circumvent a large conglomeration of tents on the access road, through a makeshift dirt lane on the west side of the road. Although the lane is wide enough to accommodate large vehicles, the high number of pedestrians in the area requires constant vigilance.

However, protest leaders also seem to doubt the possibility of a clash Thursday. Protest leader Andre Perez said Tuesday he is confident that there will be no enforcement action Thursday.

“My understanding is that, when they said ‘leave by Dec. 26 or else,’ that ‘or else’ is not definitive,” Perez said.

Perez said he understands any major enforcement action to clear the road will require significant planning and mobilization, which is unlikely to happen the day the deadline expires. Presumably, he said, any enforcement will occur at a later date.

Perez said the protest’s kupuna, or elders, were in communication with Kim on Tuesday and are deliberating about their options. One of those options might be shifting the tents to the side of the road to open both lanes, while still being able to block the road to interfere with TMT construction if needed, but it is not clear whether the state would accommodate such a compromise.

An update on the protesters’ official social media channels reads, “While the deadline to clear the road is December 26th, we do not believe that law enforcement will attempt to sweep kupuna and kia‘i on this day, but we must remain vigilant and prepared.”

The update urges all those in opposition to TMT on the island gather at the access road to spend the holiday on the mountain and be ready to oppose state officers should they arrive Thursday.

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Tribune-Herald reporter John Burnett contributed to this article.

Email Michael Brestovansky and John Burnett at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com and jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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