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Day One On Mauna Kea: Calm Generally Prevailed At TMT Protest

Ryan Finnerty/HPR
Demonstrators line the roadway to protest construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

Demonstrators and law enforcement plan to be back at Mauna Kea Tuesday after the expected mass arrests of protesters seeking to stop the Thirty Meter Telescope construction did not materialize Monday.

About 300 to 500 demonstrators who call themselves kia'i or protectors of the mountain had gathered near the entrance to Mauna Kea Access Road by early morning. Kupuna or elders lined up across the road in chairs and wheelchairs, backed by young adults standing behind them, aiming to block any construction vehicles that might be driven to the summit.

Farther up the road, about seven others laid down and chained themselves to a cattle guard installed in the ground. 

Several dozen law enforcement officers from state and local agencies arrived at the access road about an hour after the state officially declared it closed at 7 a.m. A convoy of construction vehicles parked near the access road, but did not attempt to drive up the mountain.

There was none of the violence that officials had feared might erupt. 

Instead, the protest leaders and law enforcement officials held frequent conversations throughout the day, with both sides saying they wanted to maintain the peace in a volatile situation.

There were no arrests and no injuries, according to officials. The state said in a news release that the protesters who had bound themselves to the cattle guard were given the "option of unlocking themselves and leaving without being arrested." But at least one of the demonstrators described the group as having been arrested and then released. 

Hawaii officials continued to stress that safety is their top priority.

"To that end, a strong line of communication and respect between law enforcement and the protest leaders has been established. The state is committed to continuing that dialogue and respect," state officials said in the release.

Monday's protest was the latest in a series of demonstrations aimed at stopping the building of the telescope being developed by a collaboration of universities, nations and major funders. 

In 2015, demonstrators temporarily stopped construction crews on the mountain and police made arrests. Last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court cleared the way for the project to proceed and Gov. David Ige announced in June that construction would start up.

The decade-long effort to build what will be the 14th telescope on Mauna Kea has been much debated. Supporters say it will advance scientific knowledge and look deeper and more clearly into the universe than ever before. Opponents, many of them native Hawaiian, say the observatory will desecreate sacred ground and damage the environment.

Both protesters and state officials expect this latest confrontation will not be short-lived.

"Remember we have a plan, and we trust in it," one protest organizer, Kaho'okahi Kanuha, told demonstrators. "And it’s not an end-all-be-all today. I explained back there, we’re playing football [and] it’s just the first drive. Not even the first quarter. [We] got a long game ahead of us.”

Hawai'i Public Radio reporters Ryan Finnerty and Ku'uwehi Hiraishi, digital producer Casey Harlow and news editor Sandee Oshiro contributed to this report.

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