Elderly Native Hawaiians arrested in protest against telescope construction

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher and Caleb Jones, Associated Press

A group of elderly demonstrators have been arrested as thousands of protesters tried to stop construction of a telescope on a mountain considered sacred to some Native Hawaiians,

Hawaii county managing director Wil Okabe said about 2,000 people packed the base of the state’s highest peak Mauna Kea after the arrests, more than three times the number of protesters who had shown up in previous days.

Police in riot gear temporarily lined the road to the top of the Big Island mountain, which is valued by astronomers for its consistently clear weather and minimal light pollution and the site for the 1.4 billion dollars (£1.12 billion) Thirty Metre Telescope, expected to be one of the world’s most advanced.

Protest leader Kealoha Pisciotta told the Associated Press that police took away about 30 elders who were prepared to be arrested as they blocked the road.

“They’re taking our kupuna,” Pisciotta said, using the Hawaiian word for elders and sobbing. Around her, people sang “Hawaii Aloha,” a Hawaiian song that is common at events.

Some of the elders being arrested used canes and strollers to walk, while others were taken in wheelchairs to police vans. Those who could walk on their own were led away with their hands in zip ties.

State spokesman Dan Dennison said 33 people were arrested, given citations and released.

Walter Ritte, one of the protesters arrested, said he was driven down the mountain and later went back to the base of Mauna Kea.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement agencies the power to close off areas and restrict access on Mauna Kea.

Hawaii governor David Ige says the police have been respectful towards protesters (Audrey McAvoy/AP)

The state had not decided whether to remove protesters from the mountain but that is one option the proclamation makes available, Mr Ige said.

“We’ve been patient in trying to allow the protesters to express their feelings about the project,” Mr Ige said. “We are taking steps to assure the rights of those in the project to get the project moving.”

The governor said the police has been patient and respectful towards protesters. He said protesters are illegally occupying roads and highways.

Native Hawaiian protesters and other opponents of the telescope say they are concerned that construction will desecrate and damage the mountain.

The project has been delayed by years of legal battles and demonstrations. Last year, the Hawaii supreme court ruled that telescope officials had legally obtained a permit, clearing the way for construction to begin.

But protesters are still fighting at the mountain and in court.

Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a protest leader, told reporters that efforts to stop the telescope were about protecting Hawaii’s indigenous people.

“This is about our right to exist,” he said. “We fight and resist and we stand, or we disappear forever.”

But other Native Hawaiians say they do not believe the project will desecrate Mauna Kea. Most of the cultural practices on the mountain take place away from the summit, said Annette Reyes, a Native Hawaiian from the Big Island.

“It’s going to be out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

Authorities closed the road to the mountain Monday to allow construction to begin, attracting hundreds of protesters who formed their own roadblocks.

The blockade forced astronomers to stop operating 13 existing telescopes on the mountain on Tuesday. Dozens of researchers from around the world will not be able to gather data and study the sky.

Observations will not resume until staff have consistent access to the summit, which is needed to ensure their safety, said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, one of the existing telescopes