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Protesters prep for possible confrontation with state as Dec. 26 deadline looms

Although the Maunakea Access Road is reopen to the public, protest leaders are preparing for a possible confrontation with the state next week.

Gov. David Ige announced Thursday that the road was reopened to the public after representatives of the Thirty Meter Telescope project told the state that they are not prepared to begin construction in the immediate future.

However, the state also told the gathered protesters — who call themselves kia‘i, or protectors of Maunakea, which they consider sacred — that they have until Dec. 26 to clear the road, or else face consequences.

What those consequences are is unclear.

Protest leader Kahookahi Kanuha said he and other kia‘i were only officially informed about the road’s reopening after Ige’s announcement. There was no dialogue between the state and the protesters about the new state of affairs, Kanuha said.

After Ige’s announcement, the protesters were advised of the Dec. 26 deadline by Lino Kamakau, branch chief of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement. Based on Kamakau’s statement, Kanuha said he thinks the state is prepared to clear the road by force, potentially using anti-personnel weaponry such as tear gas or a long-range acoustic device.

“As far as we understand it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll try to clear the road on the 26th,” said protest leader Andre Perez. “It could be that if we’re not off the road by the 26th, then they’ll come to clear us off at a later time.”

Kanuha said using force to clear protesters the day after Christmas seemed like such poor optics that it should be unimaginable the state would ever attempt it, but added he would have thought similar things about the arrest of more than 30 kupuna, or elders, in July.

Kanuha said he expects DOCARE officers to check in daily to apprise the protesters of any changes in the situation, based on what Kamakau said. Otherwise, he said, there has not been any consistent communication with the state.

Shortly after Ige’s announcement, state crews began removing concrete barricades from the sides of Daniel K. Inouye Highway around the access road, as well as the temporary traffic light.

Kanuha said he was informed that all the barricades will be removed within the next several weeks.

“When they put up those barricades (in July), they said it was to protect our safety,” Kanuha said. “So, is our safety not important anymore? It’s either that they don’t care about our safety, or that the barricades were never there for our safety, but to help TMT.”

With fewer barricades and no law enforcement officers — Ige called back state officers Thursday, while the increased county police enforcement ended Friday afternoon — Kanuha said volunteer kia‘i are managing traffic at the access road’s entrance.

For now, traveling up Maunakea is simple: A Tribune-Herald reporter on Friday was able to pass the main encampment and head up the access road with no delay, thanks to volunteers directing traffic.

In order to accommodate the resumed traffic up the access road, the main kupuna tent on the road was moved slightly to the east. The tent still takes up both lanes of the road, but there is now an open stretch of gravel on the west side of the road wide enough to allow a vehicle to circumnavigate the tent. A medic who asked to remain anonymous said about 20-30 vehicles had ascended the mountain before midday Friday.

A roped-off area in front of the tent currently encloses where the kia‘i conduct their daily protocols on the road.

“I don’t think they’ll let us do this after the 26th,” Kanuha said.

Based on his understanding of the state’s position, the access road needs to be completely unobstructed by the deadline.

Kanuha said the kupuna will consider the possibility of moving the tents to the side of the road, leaving both lanes unobstructed, but also remaining in a position to respond immediately to possible efforts by the state to move TMT equipment up the mountain.

But while Kanuha said moving the tents might be an option, Perez said he does not think it will satisfy the state for long. The state might accept moving the tents off the road even after the 26th, but he expects the state to try to remove the tents completely, sooner rather than later.

“Moving the tents would only be a temporary option,” Perez said.

The fate of the pu‘uhonua across the highway also is uncertain. Kanuha said Kamakau made no clear statements about the camp at the base of Pu‘uhuluhulu, but Ali‘i Sir Alika Desha, chancellor of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, said the pu‘uhonua must stay as long as the kupuna remain on the access road.

“As far as we’re concerned, the Royal Order has blessed this ground in perpetuity,” Desha said.

Desha said he spoke with William Aila, director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, about the Royal Order’s position and his intention to keep the pu‘uhonua standing. Aila listened, at least, Desha said.

“(The Royal Order) has been involved in all the discussions since the beginning,” Desha said. “For the most part, they’ve listened to us. … But they’re not listening to the root of the problem. They’re saying that our problem is with TMT, but it’s about desecration. It could be any company up there. It could be Microsoft.”

If the state attempts to remove the pu‘uhonua, Desha said he will inform the state’s officers that they will be violating a sacred place of safety.

“If they keep coming, we’ll yield to the superior force,” Desha said. “But under protest.”

Some tents around the pu‘uhonua and access road were in various states of disassembly Friday, but Kanuha explained that was only a precaution in the face of high winds predicted for the next several days.

Kanuha said he thinks the deadline and the reopening of the road is nothing more than a tactic from the state to remove the protesters and allow TMT construction to proceed.

“The state has tried to frame it through the media that we’ve been the ones stopping traffic here, but Ige admitted yesterday it was the state that closed the road,” Kanuha said. “The only people we’ve turned away here were with TMT. Astronomers, officers, tourists, we’ve allowed all of them up. Any of them who were turned away were stopped by the DOCARE officers, not us.”

Cindy McMillan, communications director for Ige’s office, said the state will not disclose any operational details regarding the Dec. 26 deadline.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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