LIHUE — Two members of the Kauai County Council have joined a growing list of elected officials from across the state, urging Gov. David Ige to rescind an emergency declaration he issued last week giving law enforcement more power to remove Native Hawaiian rights activists protesting the construction of a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea.
Councilmembers Felicia Cowden and Mason Chock are among more than a dozen public officials who signed an open letter Monday calling on the governor to “restore the ability of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and their supporters to access their sacred space.”
Ige issued an emergency proclamation Wednesday in response to peaceful demonstrations blocking the road to the state’s highest peak, where construction is set to begin on the Thirty Meter Telescope, whose future site lies on land considered sacred in traditional Hawaiian culture.
A provision in Ige’s proclamation deployed National Guard troops to the mountain, and hours after the order was issued, 33 kupuna were arrested during a sit-in on the Mauna Kea Access Road, where police in riot gear faced off against a crowd of about 2,000 people.
“As elected officials, we recognize our shared kuleana to uplift the Hawaiian community and to protect the public trust,” the statement signed by Cowden, Chock and 11 other politicians, including Hawaii and Maui County councilmembers and several state legislators.
In the open letter, the elected officials say Ige’s order is based on a misinterpretation of state statutes and “violates the spirit of the law, which was intended to provide relief for communities suffering from damage wrought by natural disasters or widespread threats to public safety, neither of which describe the current state of affairs upon the mauna.”
In the emergency proclamation Ige said expanding law enforcement authority on Mauna Kea was necessary, “in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people, ensure the execution of the law, and suppress or prevent lawless violence, riot, the forcible obstruction of the execution of the laws.”
Prior to Ige’s order, no reports of physical altercations between protesters and police, bystanders or construction crews had emerged. Five days later, violence has yet to erupt on the mountain. Ige said Friday he has no plan to withdraw the order.
“It was not a necessary decision,” Chock said Monday afternoon, describing Ige’s emergency proclamation. “It agitates, and it shows that we are not willing to come to a discussion or even a negotiation.”
Chock said he signed onto the statement after receiving it late last week in an email from state Rep. Amy Perruso.
In an email to TGI, Perruso wrote that she and Maui County Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Rep. Tina Wildberger discussed issuing a joint statement regarding the emergency declaration last week.
She said it was emailed to all state senators and representatives, as well as the city and county councilmembers for each county. Perruso said they asked elected officials to let them know by Monday morning whether they wanted to sign the statement.
“I read it. I agreed with it,” Chock said. “So it was no problem for me.”
According to Chock, Ige’s attempts to resolve the conflict fail to account for the cultural significance of the site and ignore the demands of the citizens he was elected to serve. Instead, Chock said, the situation should first be approached with reverence and respect.
“We should be listening to the people,” Chock said. “That voice is not recognized in the end.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a proponent of science,” he continued. “But you can’t buy a healthy future.”
Cowden said Monday that her decision to sign her name to the statement was based on her years-long involvement in the dispute, dating back to 2015, when she spent several days on Mauna Kea with people protesting the proposed telescope.
Cowden said she has spent hundreds of hours researching the matter and speaking with the people involved and stressed the point that the protests are not a recent development.
“This is an ongoing story that didn’t start right now,” Cowden said.
“In 2007, they were told that there was an anticipated deep resistance, and they ignored it,” she said, citing an independent study of the risks involved with mounting the TMT on the sacred Hawaiian lands.
“Should TMT decide to pursue a Mauna Kea site, it will inherit the anger, fear, and great mistrust generated through previous telescope planning and siting failures and an accumulated disbelief that any additional projects, especially a physically imposing one like the TMT, can be done properly,” the study concluded 12 years ago.
Cowden also feels the governor’s response to the peaceful protests has been disproportionately aggressive.
“Lava flow is an emergency. A flood is an emergency,” she said objecting to what she feels has been a disproportionately aggressive response to the peaceful protests.
Cowden plans to draft a resolution, hoping that the council will approve and forward to Ige a statement decrying his decision to have the protesters arrested.
“It’s our hope that all the counties will ask the government not to use paramilitary force against our own people,” she said.