Native Hawaiians Arrested During Protests Over Massive Telescope

Law enforcement officials on Wednesday arrested 33 protesters, many of them Native Hawaiian, who blocked a road to the summit of Mauna Kea in protest of the construction of a massive telescope.

The sweep started early morning and continued on until the afternoon until police agreed to temporarily vacate the area if protesters agreed to move cars that were blocking the road to the construction site.

The confrontation marked the third day of a standoff on Hawaii’s Big Island between authorities and opponents of the 18-story, $1.4 billion-dollar Thirty Meter Telescope. Hundreds of protesters gathered earlier this week below the mountain’s summit, with some holding a banner that read “Road closed due to desecration,” while others chained themselves to a cattle grate for hours to keep construction crews from reaching the project site.

In solidarity with the Mauna Kea protests, some Native Hawaiian activists demonstrated on the island of Oahu, causing traffic jams in Honolulu.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) declared an emergency proclamation later Wednesday, saying that the protesters were creating unsafe conditions.  The proclamation gives law enforcement the authority to close access to roads leading to the summit of Mauna Kea so that construction on the telescope can proceed.

Those arrested in Mauna Kea on Wednesday received citations for obstructing a government operation and were released by police, a spokesman for Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources told HuffPost.

Anita Hofschneider of Honolulu Civil Beat, an online news site, reported that authorities did not handcuff the arrested protesters, many of whom were elders, known as kupuna, and allowed each one time to address supporters before being escorted off the mountain in vans. 

The arrests are the latest in a decade-long legal fight over the controversial project.

Protesters, who call themselves “protectors” of the mountain, disrupted a groundbreaking back in 2014. And police arrested more than 30 opponents the following year after they attempted to stop construction. Later that year, the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated a construction permit, finding that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources violated due process when it approved the permit in 2011. Those behind the project were forced to apply for a new one.

Once complete, the TMT will be one of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world.  

Supporters say the observatory will unlock the mysteries of the cosmos, enabling astronomers to not only study objects in our Milky Way but peer some 13 billion lightyears away to galaxies that formed​ at the very beginning of time. Opponents argue the telescope will desecrate Mauna Kea, a towering dormant volcano that many Native Hawaiians consider sacred. 

Hawaii activist Walter Ritte told Hawaii News Now that blocking construction of TMT is “the most important” fight for the Hawaiian people right now. 

“We’re losing all of the things that we’re responsible for as Hawaiians,” he said while chained to the cattle grate. “We’re responsible for our oceans. We’re responsible for our land. We’re responsible for our future generations.”

“We must win this battle,” he added. 

An artist concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope at night.

One of the best astronomy sites on the planet, the summit is already home to 13 telescopes. Those behind TMT have chosen the Canary Islands in Spain as a backup location for the project. 

In a joint statement last week, Ige and the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory announced that construction of the long-stalled project would begin Monday and stressed that public safety was the top priority. The effort to restart construction comes one month after the state issued a “notice to proceed.”

Henry Yang, chair of the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory, said the organization remains “committed to being good stewards on the mountain and inclusive of the Hawaiian community.”

“Hawaii is a special place that has long pioneered and honored the art and science of astronomy and navigation,” he said. “We are deeply committed to integrating science and culture on Maunakea and in Hawaii, and to enriching educational opportunities and the local economy.”

TMT’s official partners include the California Institute of Technology, the Department of Science and Technology of India, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, National Research Council Canada and the University of California.

Carla Herreria contributed to this report.

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