HILO — For the first time since July, demonstrators opposing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope will vacate the Maunakea Access Road, thanks to an agreement with Mayor Harry Kim.
That agreement, which was offered in writing to the protesters early Thursday, gives Kim’s word that no TMT construction equipment will attempt to ascend Maunakea, nor will there be any further attempt by police to remove protesters from their camp, until at least the end of February.
“During this time, state and county agencies and law enforcement will agree to stand down,” Kim’s letter reads. “There will be no attempt by State of Hawaii law enforcement agencies or Hawaii County Police Department to remove the protectors’ encampment from the sides of Maunakea Access Road or from Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu.”
“We declare this a victory,” said protest leader Noe Noe Wong-Wilson as she announced the agreement Thursday at the access road. “A victory for the protectors, a victory for all of us. …We will sleep safely on the side of the road and allow passage for our people.”
The protesters, called kia‘i, or protectors of Maunakea, have been under threat from law enforcement to clear their demonstration since July, Wong-Wilson said. Even after July 17, when more than two dozen elders, or kupuna, were arrested, she said there have been moments when the protesters were informed of imminent police raids that were only averted because the protesters were able to marshal enough resistance.
Under the new agreement, the kupuna tent — a large collection of tents that have sheltered the protest’s elders on the access road since July — will be moved to the side of the road this week, Wong-Wilson said, to allow full public access to both lanes of the road.
Hawaii County Civil Defense announced Thursday that the access road is temporarily closed again until Saturday in order to give the protesters time to move their camp.
Wong-Wilson said the agreement seems to supersede a deadline imposed last week by the state, which gave protesters until Thursday to clear the road.
In response to that deadline, dozens of protesters gathered at the access road through Christmas, with more than a hundred waiting in attendance Thursday for a possible police raid that never came.
While the protesters ultimately agreed that accepting the offer is in everybody’s best interests — the scores of protesters gathered on Thursday greeted the news with cheers — it was not an agreement that came easily. The kupuna deliberated for more than two hours before coming to a decision, with some kupuna, such as protest leader Billy Freitas, skeptical of the deal.
“For now, we will absolutely take the mayor at his good word,” Wong-Wilson. “We support that he is willing to do this when the governor was not.”
Kim said the agreement came about after Gov. David Ige announced he would pull all state law enforcement personnel from the mountain last week, reopening the access road to the public. That announcement, Kim said, shifted all responsibility for managing the clearing of the access road back to the county.
Because TMT officials announced last week that they were not prepared to begin construction in the foreseeable future, Kim said it made sense to take the opportunity to de-escalate the standoff for the sake of conversation between the state, county, TMT and demonstrators.
“This was an opportunity I wish we had a long time ago,” Kim said.
“They have never offered to stand down before,” Wong-Wilson said, explaining that there have been previous conversations with the county and state that failed to bring about any compromise. “They’ve always demanded, please get off the road.”
The truce stands until the end of February at least, although Kim’s offer included a suggestion that he will seek to extend the period if necessary. However, Wong-Wilson said the protesters will always be “mere footsteps away” from returning to the access road.
“Our position has not changed one iota,” Wong-Wilson said, adding that any infraction of the terms of the agreement will lead to the protesters once again occupying the access road.
Kim said any effort to circumvent the terms of the agreement would be “self-defeating” and does not think either side will operate in bad faith.
TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said the TMT leadership remains unprepared to begin construction for the foreseeable future and will be monitoring the situation as it moves forward. Kim said TMT officials were not opposed to the agreement when he discussed it with them before Thursday.
“I’m so grateful — although the word seems shallow for what I’m feeling — to the leaders of the kia‘i for being willing to talk to me,” Kim said.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.