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Hawaii: Hundreds of protesters block controversial telescope

Officials from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and construction workers for the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), wound up making their way back down the summit just after noon Wednesday. They cited concerns for public safety because the road was blocked by boulders, ScienceInsider reports.

The withdrawal came after several hours of clashes with Native Hawaiian protesters who blockaded the road. That resulted in the arrests of 11 men and women, and this included several protest organizers.

Caroline Witherspoon, a spokeswoman for TMT, confirmed that construction workers had turned away, The New Zealand Herald reports. She noted that company officials would release a statement later on Wednesday.

Protester Kainoa Stafford said he watched as DLNR authorities put plastic handcuffs on protesters several times up the mountain and then put them into vans “pretty much anytime someone wouldn’t comply or listen to their order.”

Eleven protesters wound up being arrested for blocking the road after officials warned the crowds to move, BuzzFeed News reports.

Hawaii Governor David Ige issued a statement Wednesday and said he was “disappointed” with the actions taken by the protesters. He added that construction was on hold until further notice.

Many Hawaiians believe Mauna Kea is a sacred place, and opposition to the massive telescope has been building. Some say they feel the land has been mistreated since the 1960s, when astronomers first started using this area.

Representatives for the telescope told BuzzFeed News that they were hoping to inspect the telescope and install a fence around the construction zone Wednesday. Construction crews arrived around 7:30 a.m. and protesters managed to stall them for over an hour. When police warned people that they would be arrested if they didn’t move, the crowd dispersed peacefully with no arrests.

However, when construction crews drove another 50 yards further, they were blocked by another group of protesters who said they planned to hold their ground.

One person had been arrested around 8:40 a.m., Hawaii County police confirmed.

Then protesters dispersed again and allowed TMT’s vehicles to proceed almost 100 yards, before another group would block the convoy.

The DLNR arrested at least 10 people around 11:30 a.m. Hawaii County police and the DLNR both operate onsite because they share responsibility for different areas on the volcano.

When the protesters began to realize that they wouldn’t be allowed to stand on the road, some people began pushing rocks from the side of the road to block the vehicles, BuzzFeed News reports.

Having managed to turn the construction crews away on Wednesday, the protesters say they plan to hang tough, CBC News World reports.

“Mauna Kea is the place of our origin,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, one group that is protesting the telescope. “It is considered the temple of the most supreme being for Hawaiian people.”

“It is also the burial ground for our most sacred ancestors. Our people are not standing down,” she said.

For Native Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte, who was also on Mauna Kea, the protest was supposed to be peaceful, but the use of force by police escalated the situation, ScienceInsider reports. The confrontation was considerably less civil than the protests in which 31 people were arrested in April.

“It was traumatic,” he says. “There was lots of yelling and screaming and tears.” Seeing the officers and construction vehicles turned away felt like vindication, he noted.

“Nobody reached the top of the mountain, so it was a victory for us,” he says. “It was absolutely great.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in August regarding the permit process that allowed the nonprofit Thirty-Meter Telescope International Observatory LLC to build and operate the telescope. CBC News reports, noting there are already 13 other telescopes on Mauna Kea’s summit.

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