HILO, HAWAII — Hundreds of protestors flocked to Mau na Kea on Wednesday to block construction of the world’s largest optical telescope.
It’s the second time in the past few months that demonstrations have broken out on the dormant volcano.
Astronomers want to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) there because the cloudless air and dark skies offer one of the most pristine windows into the universe on Earth. From such a lofty perch, the observatory could reveal parts of the cosmos we’ve never glimpsed before.
But some native Hawaiians consider the summit sacred and a home to several deities.
As I marched alongside protestors who wound their way up the mountain, however, I learned their animosity stems from something much bigger than a giant telescope or sacred mountaintop.
The summit of Mauna Kea in Hilo, Hawaii, is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. Straight stretches like this are rare; the road is mostly steep and curvy, and made me nervous as I drove up the mountain.
When I got to the Visitor's Center at 9,000 feet, many people had already gathered with signs, flags, and horns. I couldn't get over how every photo I took was above the clouds.
Some protesters spent the night on the mountainside to ensure they beat construction vehicles there. Even in the summer, nighttime temperatures on the volcano can dip near freezing. The huts and tents did not look warm.
Their goal was to block this caravan of trucks headed to the summit. Hawaii gave approval to resume construction after the first wave of protests in April forced a two-month delay.
Police and officials from the Defence of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) quickly arrived on the scene. For the first hour or so, no one moved up the mountain. The protesters marched back and forth along one of the crossing signs by the Visitor's Center.
As the protesters marched, many sang old songs in Hawaiian. Many wore traditional Hawaiian clothing, including leis made of native flowers.
Many people blew through conch shell horns. The deep, resonate sound carried a long way down the mountain -- it was the first thing I heard as I neared the Visitor's Center with my rental car's windows rolled down.
One of the protestors blessed everyone on the mountain with holy water. Even police officers got a spritz.
Most protesters lined up in the middle the road. Others climbed up the shoulders on either side of the road for a better view.
Others sat and braided leis out of leaves. One person offered to show me how to do it. I started one, but didn't have time to finish it.
Children in the protest group presented leis to the police officers and DLNR staff. It's considered very rude not to accept a lei -- so they accepted.
A stillness swept over the crowd as this happened. One protester embraced the leied police officer. The kids followed her example.
But the police were there to do a job. An officer announced that protestors would have to move aside to let the trucks pass.
Emotions ran high in the crowd after the police made the announcement. People began singing louder and with more conviction.
One man defiantly stood atop a ladder -- right in the middle of the road. He waved an upside-down American flag in a complex act of defiance.
Hawaii has a complicated history with outsiders (or, 'haole' in Hawaiian). Natives have dealt with a steady stream of foreign meddling since the late 1700s. Although the United States annexed the territory in 1959, the state flag contains the Union Jack -- a remnant of association with the British empire.
But there's also the Hawaiian National Flag. The colours represent a nation that existed before British explorers arrived in the 1800s.
The protester on the ladder loudly declared TMT as yet another moment of foreign intrusion, where outsiders invade the native land and do as they please. (Most astronomers who work on Mauna Kea are not from Hawaii.)
Officers quickly crowded around the ladder, warning arrest if he didn't move to let construction vehicles pass. A few sympathizers managed to talk him down. Some protestors clapped. Others cried. I only know the basics of Hawaii's complicated past, but I found myself tearing up as the man climbed down and embraced a police officer.
Protesters formed blocking lines on the road, stepped back a few feet, then repeated the process, over and over. As a result, the caravan moved at a snail's pace.
Some protesters even sat down across the road. The caravan was moving so slowly, however, that they were never in immediate danger.
Protesters stood face-to-face with police and DLNR officers throughout the slow march. It was clear a lot of the state officials had a hard time keeping it together.
Many of the officers were native Hawaiians, and seemed to sympathize with the protesters' beliefs and cause. Giving orders to stand down looked difficult for the police.
Lino Kamakau, branch chief officer with DLNR Hawaii County, fought back tears as he told the protestors they had to step aside. 'From myself I apologise to you guys,' he said. 'I hope you guys understand what I gotta do.'
After a few hours of inching forwrd, the caravan reached the end of the paved path. Protestors blocked the steep gravel access road that winds toward summit.
The gravel road stretches eight miles toward the summit, and only four-wheel drive cars -- or those on two feet -- can make the journey.
The officers issued a final warning: anyone blocking the road would now be arrested. Protesters could continue if they stuck to the sides of the path and didn't obstruct any vehicles. 'I will not obstruct traffic, I will obstruct desecration,' one protester shouted in response.
But earlier that morning, some protesters had driven up the mountain. Shading my eyes, I spotted a few groups waiting several miles up for the caravan. Some of them dragged large rocks onto the gravel road to block the trucks.
Then it began to rain. Several protestors said it was 'the heavens weeping for what is happening on Mauna Kea today.' You could barely see anything ahead through the mist. About two miles up the gravel road, the rocks and rain forced DLNR officials to turn the construction caravan around.
The day was emotionally taxing for everyone. Police arrested 11 people during tense standoffs. 'You're standing on the wrong side of the line,' a protester shouted to the police. Tears flowed from both sides.
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