Lawmakers: Protest message unclear

  • An aerial view of protesters at Wednesday’s gathering at the Hawaii State Capitol. (AP photo/File)

HONOLULU — Months of frustration on the part of Native Hawaiian activists at Maunakea, Kahuku and Waimanalo coalesced in a passionate rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday for the opening day of the 2020 Legislature, but key lawmakers said they were unclear about the rally’s message.

Up to 1,000 people poured into the Capitol, but even a few of the activists were uncertain about what they were trying to accomplish.

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“There is a diversity in political perspective in the Hawaiian community,” said Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu, 47, of Liliha.

Hundreds of people joined in a song that Wong-Kalu wrote called “Ku Ha ‘aheo e Ku ‘u Hawaii ” — or “Stand Tall My Hawaii.” The song ends with the lyrics, “Until our dignity and independence is restored.”

Lawmakers and staff gathered at the Capitol railings to watch the start of the daylong demonstration, with some shooting cellphone video and photos.

But Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki both said they had not received any requests from the activists.

Saiki said neither he nor his staff were contacted by anyone associated with the rally.

“I haven’t received any communication from the organizers regarding what it is that they’re requesting from us, ” Saiki told reporters after the opening session while the rally was still going on. “So I … really don’t know who is organizing the rally or what their objectives are.”

However, Saiki said, “as you know, Native Hawaiian issues are complex and they’re really complicated and people have very different perspectives on how to handle all of them.”

Personally, Saiki said, he supports the TMT construction.

“Astronomy is an area where Hawaii plays an international role,” he said. “We are the leading venue for astronomy. Astronomy is an industry that we should be really proud of that it’s here, and we should do what it takes to facilitate the program.”

A one-sentence bill introduced last session that never got a hearing — House Bill 1067 — would prohibit any development on conservation land on Maunakea from 6,000 feet above sea level to the summit.

Wednesday’s rally, called Hawaii Rising, focused predominantly on opposition to the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope proposed for Hawaii island’s Maunakea. Organizers billed the event as “a new beginning.”

There were prayers, chants, hula, talks on “counterinsurgency tactics and Maunakea, ” protecting Hawaii’s natural resources, climate change and many speeches about protecting Maunakea — and especially protecting Native Hawaiian rights.

Many participants wore red and yellow scarfs, T-shirts and other attire that mark them as opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a project that sparked months of peaceful protests on Maunakea and fueled a statewide Hawaiian movement that many consider the revival of “Lahui, ” or the Hawaiian nation.

On July 17 the protests triggered the arrest of 39 TMT opponents, many of them elderly Hawaiians who describe themselves as “protectors ” of the mountain. So far the protests have blocked construction of the telescope — and the state has spent an estimated $15 million deploying police and law enforcement officials to cope with the protests.

Even though top Democratic leaders said they had not been approached by the rally’s organizers, state Rep. Gene Ward, (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley ), referred to the event in a speech on the House floor.

“All you have seen the upside down flag,” Ward told his colleagues at the start of the Legislative session. “The state of Hawaii is flying upside down. … Some of you have gone to the mauna, some of you have gone to Kahuku, some of you heard the voices of the Hawaiian community crying out. One of the things of 2019 has been the great awakening of the Hawaiian community.”

Waimanalo resident Joseph Espinda, 64, called the rally “the first time in Hawaiian history that people are coming together — Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian.”

“It’s baby steps like any great nation,” Espinda said. “We cannot run before we walk and we cannot walk before we crawl. It’s going to take time.”

Hema Watson, 15, a freshman at the Halau Ku Mana charter school, spoke at the rally and represented the next generation of activists.

“We need to rise up and act up and do what we need to do to act independently because we are independent,” Watson told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “We have to get out of the mindset that we are American. This is a new beginning.”

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Honolulu Attorney Sam King, 36, who is a Hawaiian TMT supporter, applauded Wednesday’s activism, but was concerned that it seemed to focus on opposition to TMT.

King showed up at the rally, curious whether the “event was about Native Hawaiian issues, or whether it’s about one specific group’s interpretation of the issues. It was the latter.”