When protesters descended upon Mauna Kea in July, the group succeeded in blocking equipment from being delivered to the planned site of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Police tried to disband the blockade, but the arrests of 38 kiai weren’t enough to stop their effort. Vastly outnumbered, they decided against the use of force.
Honolulu has been watching and learning from the events on the Big Island. Leaders on Oahu, faced with their own protests to local projects, have decided to tamp down opposition immediately and arrest protesters before they can get momentum by shutting down development.
“The response has been quicker,” said state House Speaker Scott Saiki. “I’m sure that Oahu law enforcement learned from the Mauna Kea experience that you need to address the situation early on.”
Last month, Honolulu police handcuffed 28 mostly Native Hawaiian protesters at Waimanalo Bay Beach Park. Residents oppose the construction of a ball field where they believe iwi are buried. And opponents don’t want the trees at the park, also called Sherwood Forest, to be bulldozed for a sports center and parking lot.
Late Thursday night, HPD started arresting protesters who blocked a road in an attempt to stop the delivery of wind turbine parts headed for Kahuku. Officers ultimately arrested 55 opponents of the proposed Na Pua Makani wind farm.
Residents worry the 568-foot turbines will cause noise pollution, flickering shadows and loss of property values. While a direct link between wind turbines and health problems has not been confirmed by numerous scientific studies, residents are concerned about reports of nausea, dizziness, sleep disturbances and other issues in communities with turbines.
The number of arrests at those two protests is more than twice the total arrested on Mauna Kea. Opponents continue to protest the Waimanalo and Kahuku projects, but they haven’t been able to physically stall development.
“One big difference is the crowds are smaller on Oahu,” Saiki said. “Smaller crowds are easier to manage. The other factor is on Oahu, there are more police officers.”
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard acknowledged Friday that the department is making a conscious effort to avoid a Mauna Kea-like holdup.
“In all the situations, police have been very proactive,” she said. “Obviously the majority of the time, there’s peaceful protest. But people make a choice. Anytime they block access or there’s problems with public safety, there’s potential for arrest.”
On Thursday, there were 237 officers on Oahu roadways during the 12-hour operation to move four pieces of a wind turbine between Kalaeloa and Kahuku. Keeping protesters at bay for the estimated six weeks it’s going to take to finish material deliveries will be a challenge.
“This is an ongoing situation, and every day we’re going to be reevaluating what resources we need on the road,” Ballard said.
“We have the flexibility for the short term to continue doing this. If it continues for a month or whatever, it could impact community services, not 911 or emergency services. That will always be a priority. Calls for service will be answered, but community service may be cut.”
Ballard said the AES Corp., which is developing the Kahuku wind farm, hired police officers to work “special duty” as security. AES did not directly respond to questions from Civil Beat asking how many special duty officers they hired and at what cost.
The question of how aggressive authorities should be in pushing through projects such as the TMT and the Kahuku wind farm goes back to the fundamental schism in these debates.
On one side are individuals who believe that residents, especially Native Hawaiians, should have veto power over development proposals in their communities. Others feel that when an entity has followed legal procedures and obtained all permits, it must be allowed to move forward, however unpopular it may be among certain groups.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell has made clear he is in the latter group.
“The city is not trying to stop the protests,” said Alexander Zannes, an administration spokesman. “The protesters have a right to protest, and businesses have rights to proceed with legally permitted activity.”
“We just ask that both sides act peacefully, do not deny the rights of others, do not jeopardize the safety and welfare of others, and that each side show respect and aloha for each other.”
From the perspective of opponents, the procedures that lead to the approval of unpopular projects are often flawed, according to Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who has called for the halting of the work at Waimanalo and Kahuku.
“There is a breaking point within the communities who say: We’ve followed the processes and shared our concerns, and they haven’t been addressed,” said Tsuneyoshi, who is Native Hawaiian.
Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said the police response to the Kahuku protest seemed disproportionate, and she wishes the police department would focus on “real criminals.”
“Our communities are crying for help and more police officers,” she said in a statement. “But if the Mayor makes a phone call about Sherwood Forest or a wealthy mainland company CEO is concerned about his wind farm then there is a rapid police response and Native Hawaiians are arrested. Something is very wrong with this picture.”
The executive branch of government is put in a difficult position when protesters demand a project be stopped, said state Sen. Karl Rhoads.
“What are they supposed to do?” he asked. “You can’t just say 50 people can stop a project that they don’t like.”
Rhoads, who supports the TMT, said sometimes force is necessary to move a development forward.
“I don’t believe there’s a compromise in sight and if we’re going to build it, we’re going to have to enforce the court order,” he said.
“There may be some force involved if people are going to chain themselves to the cattle guard. If people want to be martyrs, it’s going to be hard to keep them from being martyrs.”
Residents aren’t just “protesting for the sake of protesting,” said Konia Freitas, the director of the University of Hawaii’s Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. In Kahuku, there are legitimate concerns about how big and how close the turbines will be to schools and homes, she said.
“People are recognizing that Hawaii needs to be protected, and it’s not available to the highest bidder or whoever has the most money to continue to fight court cases until they secure their permits,” she said. “People are tired of it. We’ve passed the tipping point.”