By Will Falk
I went up to Mauna Kea’s summit a few days ago to pule (to pray) with some of the protectors on a ridge inside the Thirty Meter Telescope’s (TMT) proposed construction site. When we reached the site, we were confronted by half a dozen large men in orange vests and hard hats brandishing cameras, audio recorders, and notebooks.
The boss told us we were trespassing on an active construction site and subject to arrest. I looked around and saw nothing but a handful of back-hoes, the open sky at 14,000 feet above sea level, and a sublime, obsidian-colored cinder field stretching to the clouds. Of course, as I’m writing this, construction on Mauna Kea has been suspended for more than two months.
Kaho’okahi Kanuha explained that we were simply here to say some prayers. The boss told us again we were subject to arrest, mumbled into a hand-held radio, signaled to his men, and began recording us with a camera. The six men took up positions surrounding us as we held hands and faced the sky with Kaho’okahi leading some chants. Some of the men folded large arms across their chests glaring at us, others recorded us on camera, and one circled us nervously. I’ve been in a few fist fights in my life – needless, pointless expressions of a toxic masculinity – and I felt like these men were revving themselves up for some sort of scrap.
It was impossible for me to pray like this. Kaho’okahi seemed completely unnerved and when I asked him about it, he said this happens every time he comes to pray. I remember my experiences in Mass when I was younger. I imagine a priest at the altar leading his parish in the prayers that, for Catholics, turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – all while strong men in hard hats patrol the pews and record the liturgy.
This, of course, would never happen. So, I ask: When Kanaka Maoli pray on a mountain exceedingly more beautiful than any basilica or cathedral I’ve ever been in, why are they being harassed like this?
I spent the first six essays in this Protecting Mauna Kea series trying to answer this question. The answers I came up with are validated after spending the last two weeks up here. The TMT project is based on the dominant culture’s sense of entitlement, historical amnesia, and pornification of Hawaiian culture. What could resemble a porn shoot more closely than men with cameras intruding on and recording acts of intimacy?
I think I’ve demonstrated that the TMT project is enabled by a problematic worldview and should not be allowed to proceed. After Governor David Ige’s announcement last week that he would support and enforce the TMT’s construction, the Mauna Kea protectors want the world to know we never expected the State to help us. We must stop the TMT project and we must do it ourselves. The question becomes: “How do we do it?”
The occupation on Mauna Kea is an expression that the protection of Mauna Kea is the people’s responsibility. We cannot trust the government to stop the TMT. We cannot trust the police. We cannot trust the courts. We have to do it ourselves. In other words, nothing has changed since the occupation began over two months ago. In many ways, the occupation on Mauna Kea reflects all of our environmental and social justice movements around the world.
The truth is – on the whole – environmental and social justice movements around the world have been getting their asses kicked. If they weren’t, 200 species a day wouldn’t be going extinct around the world. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be losing indigenous languages at a rate relatively faster than species. If they weren’t, 95% of North America’s old growth forests wouldn’t have been clear cut. If they weren’t, every mother around the world wouldn’t have dioxin – a known carcinogen – in her breast milk. And, why are they getting our asses kicked? One reason is we’ve trusted those in power to do the right thing for far too long. The good news is – while construction on the Mountain is suspended – we have the opportunity to avoid mistakes other movements have made.
A couple days ago in a freezing cold, clinging mist, the Mauna Kea protectors called a 5:30 AM meeting in the now-famous crosswalk on the Mauna Kea Access Road to talk strategy in light of Governor Ige’s recent announcement. Some protectors lamented the announcement and were understandably scared about what was coming next. Others maintained that the TMT project was illegal anyway, and the courts would never let it proceed. Still others cited Kingdom of Hawai’i precedents and referred to the recent war crime charges filed with the Canadian government, to assure us the TMT was dead in the water. Finally. the boldest proudly proclaimed – with a hint of the false bravado that often accompanies anxious realizations – construction equipment would have to roll over their dead bodies to get to the construction site.
I stood silently in the circle listening. I am not Hawaiian and have no place arguing with those whose land I presently occupy. My mind was filling with memories of my experiences as a public defender. I recalled the cop in Kenosha, WI where I worked who put a gun to the temple of young Michael Bell’s head and murdered him as his mother and sister watched on for the crime of possibly breaking his bail conditions. I recalled that the cop was promoted and still on the force in Kenosha.
My stomach began churning as I felt that old feeling of helplessness sitting in a wooden chair in a courtroom next to another client being sentenced to prison while there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. There was no brilliant legal argument I could make, no impassioned plea the judge would listen to. The judge had power and armed men at his command, and I did not. It was as simple as that.
My heart was tugged back to Turtle Island, the so-called North American continent where the arrival of Europeans has meant the total extermination of dozens of aboriginal peoples. I think of the Taino who were annihilated within a few decades after Columbus’ contact with them. I can almost hear Tecumseh’s voice calling out from now-dead villages in present-day Ohio and Indiana asking what happened to the Pequods, the Narragansetts, and the Pocanokets. These peoples were wiped out by European colonizers while most of Tecumseh’s people, the Shawnee, were removed at gunpoint from their homelands in the Ohio valley hundreds of miles away to Oklahoma.
Some of the protectors here tease me, calling me “America’s ambassador to Hawai’i.” Listening to some of the protectors insist that the courts, the police, and the government would never let the TMT project happen, I wanted to explain that I understand the dominant culture we’re fighting against. I wanted to say I benefit from this culture. I was raised within in. I’ve lived amongst the type of people who run those courts, sit in their government, and become the police. I know what they are capable of and that many of them are sociopaths with no regard for the well-being of those who oppose them.
I didn’t say this, though, because I knew these feelings brought me too close to acting like the White Savior come to save aboriginal peoples from their ignorance. The truth is Kanaka Maoli understand very well – much better than I – the genocidal tendencies of the dominant culture occupying their lands. They do not need my reminder. I write about this now, only to narrate my relief when Kaho’okahi said, “I understand everyone’s concerns, but the way we’re going to win this struggle is pule plus action.”
Pule plus action. I agree with Kaho’okahi. Protecting Mauna Kea requires a strong spirituality, requires prayers, but it also means real, physical actions in the real, physical world. We need prayers, yes, just like we need those battling the TMT project in the courts, just like we need those signing petitions against the TMT project, just like we need those donating to the Mauna Kea protectors’ bail fund. But, at the end of the day, the surest way to stop the TMT project is to physically, actually stop the TMT project. This is what the encampment on Mauna Kea has always been about. The protectors are determined to place their bodies in between Mauna Kea’s summit and the construction equipment escorted by the police that will soon come to build the telescope.
I hope with all my heart that the courts will make the right decision and prohibit the TMT’s construction. I hope with all my heart that when the police receive their orders to pacify resistance on the Mountain that they will turn in their resignation papers. But, I’m not holding my breath. History has shown over and over again that the courts and the police will not help us.
Hope is not going to keep the destruction off Mauna Kea. It is much more likely that hope will bind us to ineffective strategies like trusting the government and hugging the police when they come to arrest us.
The Mauna Kea protectors insist on observing kapu aloha – a practice of love and respect – on the Mountain. I will not question this practice, but I will point out that our opponents do not observe kapu aloha. I fear that the more effective we become at stopping their project, the more violently they will respond.
I do not write this from a place of despair. I write this to give a clear-eyed vision of the effort it’s going to take. If we’re going to keep the TMT project from completion, we are going to have to do it ourselves. We’re going to have to show up in numbers large enough to overwhelm the police. We’re going to have to produce a mass of humanity thick enough to clog the Mauna Kea Access Road – and we may have to do it day in and day out for weeks. It will take a tremendous amount of bravery, shrewd strategic thinking, and a deep commitment from all of us. Or, in Kaho’okahi’s words, it’s going to take pule plus action. This is nothing new, though, and I believe we will win.