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Police remove protest organizer Kaleikoa Kaeo after an attempt to disrupt the delivery of a 4-meter telescope mirror to Haleakalā.

Bryan Berkowitz

Mirror delivered to giant solar telescope despite Native Hawaiian protest

PUKALANI, HAWAII—Trucks carrying the primary mirror for the world’s largest solar telescope advanced past a line of protesters in the early morning hours on Wednesday, delivering it to the top of Haleakalā, the 3055-meter summit of Maui. Just after 4 a.m. Hawaii time, several people were arrested in a peaceful demonstration that suddenly turned confrontational.

Several hours later, Thomas Rimmele, project director for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), said the caravan of trucks carrying the mirror had entered Haleakalā National Park and reached Science City, a summit site for a handful of academic and U.S. Air Force telescopes. The caravan had not encountered any more obstacles on its journey, he says.

The delivery of the 4-meter mirror marks an important milestone for the DKIST, which will be the largest solar telescope in the world when it opens in 2019. Unlike the Thirty Meter Telescope, a stalled telescope project atop Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island, the DKIST project has had an easier time moving ahead, despite some protests by Native Hawaiians opposed to the development of Haleakalā, which is considered sacred. “I hope everybody was safe,” Rimmele says. “It’s unfortunate that this sort of thing happens, but it’s just a fact of life that people have different opinions and different viewpoints.”

Roads leading to the mountain’s summit were closed starting at 10 p.m. Tuesday to accommodate a convoy of trucks carrying wide loads. Protesters had planned to gather outside the telescope’s construction baseyard in central Maui, but changed plans over the weekend when it became apparent that the mirror wasn’t there. About 100 protesters decided to make their stand here instead, in a grassy area at the intersection of Kula Highway and Haleakalā Highway, where the convoy would pass by on its way up the mountain.

Protesters chanted and sang in Hawaiian as they awaited the convoy, marching in crosswalks across the road. Organizer Kaleikoa Kaeo said he wanted the group’s peaceful opposition to stand in contrast to any show of force from police. “When in doubt, chill out,” he says. At the same time, he reminded protesters what was at stake. “If we cannot protect our sacred places, don’t even think you’re free,” he told them.

Maui police were present at the protest site throughout the evening, with more than 12 police cars and about 40 officers eventually on hand. A recorded message, played in both English and Hawaiian, asked demonstrators to move and warned them that they would be arrested if they did not clear the road.

Protesters link arms and lie down in front of a truck convoy en route to Haleakalā. 

Bryan Berkowitz

Around 2:30 a.m., after a late start, the mirror arrived, in a caravan of four heavy-load trucks and other vehicles. The four trucks carried the primary mirror, support structures, and an identical piece of glass known as a commissioning blank that is used for testing. Traveling slowly, it would take about 4 hours for the convoy to make the 65-kilometer trip to the summit—even without protests blocking the way.

Protesters chanted, sang, marched, and blocked the road with two bamboo altars on which they presented offerings of flowers and garlands in a traditional ceremony. Police stood by for about an hour, periodically coming forward to talk with protest organizers.

At 4 a.m., they moved in to clear the road. Protesters were lying down in the road with their arms linked. Police lifted them out of the way to allow the trucks to pass. Several men then rushed forward and threw themselves in front of and under the massive trucks. Police removed the men, along with several others, as protesters shouted, “auwe” (alas), and “shame.” Organizers say three men and two women were arrested. A fourth man, who was unconscious for unclear reasons but breathing, was taken to a hospital by ambulance a little before 4:30 a.m.

Construction on the DKIST began in 2012, after more than a decade of opposition by environmental and Native Hawaiian groups, who see the development of the summit as a desecration. Beyond the mountain’s spiritual and cultural significance, it has become a symbol in the movement for Native Hawaiian self-determination.

A protest in 2015 succeeded in blocking the delivery of telescope parts to the summit, forcing a convoy to turn back. Subsequent protests were broken up by Maui police, with dozens of protesters arrested.

Earlier in the evening, organizer Kahele Dukelow vowed to continue to oppose future construction and to ultimately bring existing telescopes down. “This struggle is going to go on for generations. It’s not going to stop with us,” she told protesters. “We will never accept it.”