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Article: Mauna Kea Telescope Protest

Photo: Marie Eriel Hobro

ON JULY 17, police in riot gear arrested at least 33 Native Hawaiian elders, or kupuna, for peacefully blocking construction of a massive telescope on sacred land on the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea. The arrests came after the kupuna — some of whom use canes or wheelchairs — were blocking the road to the summit. Shortly after the arrests, Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed an emergency order to give law enforcement more authority to remove activists on Mauna Kea, close roads, and ensure delivery of materials to the construction site.

According to a state spokesperson, the activists were released right away and charged with “obstruction of government operations.” Up to 2,000 Native Hawaiians and activists remain camped at the base of Mauna Kea, where they have been for over a week, to prevent the $1.4 billion construction project known as the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, from getting underway. More broadly, they are protesting a history of American colonialism that goes back more than a century and the increasingly militarized police force on the island.

The emergency declaration has limited public access to the mountain, but as the protectors gain supporters from outside the state — including statements from presidential candidates and solidarity protests in several states — they say they’re in it for the long haul.The Native Hawaiian community has been fighting the construction of the telescope in courts and on the ground for about a decade, since plans to build on Mauna Kea were first announced in 2009.

On July 10, Ige announced construction would begin the week of July 15, following a four-year delay. The conflict has now reached a tipping point, and the indigenous resistance is drawing comparisons to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation’s fight against the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota two years ago.“What I keep hearing is, ‘It’s just a telescope, it’s not a pipeline’ — no,” said former Hawaii State Rep. Kaniela Ing. “This is an 18-story massive structure that has a footprint of at least six football fields in a county that only allows 6-story buildings. And it’s in a conservation district. So even if — sacredness aside — if you care about the environment at all, this is a really dangerous precedent and our Mauna has already seen oil spills from past telescopes.”

THE NATIVE HAWAIIAN Legal Corporation, or NHLC, is suing the governor over the emergency proclamation. They say that Ige’s intent was to enable the construction of the TMT, which has prevented Hawaiians from exercising protected speech rights, including the right to pray at sacred gathering sites.

On July 10, the ACLU of Hawaii issued a letter asking the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, or DLNR, and Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement not to deploy a recently purchased military-oriented weapon, known as a sound cannon, against the TMT protesters.

The Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation says that Hawaiians are being prevented from exercising protected speech rights, including the right to pray at sacred gathering sites.

Though it’s sometimes portrayed as a “communications” device, the long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, is a weapon that has been used by law enforcement to force compliance at protests by causing immense pain and physical damage, including permanent hearing damage.

“Regardless of whether DLNR actually uses LRAD at Mauna Kea, many people very likely will be too afraid to exercise their rights to assemble and protest at all, lest they suffer the same kinds of harms that past LRAD victims have suffered,” the ACLU of Hawaii wrote. “Worse, this chilling effect deters not only protesters, but also journalists, observers, and other bystanders, further showing the indiscriminate, overbroad influence of LRAD.”

Ing, too, pointed out how the state’s actions were limiting the right to protest. “The irony is these kapuna were arrested for not following these American laws by taking space in the road,” the former state representative said. “Then the governor goes ahead and gives himself the authority to skirt basic free speech protections and use excessive force.”

“What the kupuna were charged with was obstructing government operations but this isn’t a government operation — this is a private project,” he continued. “And it’s like, is our government really that controlled by private interests that it doesn’t even recognize the difference itself anymore?”

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