Protesters ousted from Coco Palms site

By AUDREY McAVOY, The Associated Press

HONOLULU — State sheriffs on Thursday removed protesters from the ruins of a Kauai hotel where they have been squatting since last year in an attempt to block redevelopment of land where Hawaiian chiefs once lived and where Elvis Presley’s character got married in the movie “Blue Hawaii.”

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety said in a statement Thursday that state sheriffs arrested 23-year-old Mahealani Hanie-Grace for trespassing at Coco Palms on Kauai.

The protest began when two men arrived claiming they owned the property because they descend from King Kaumualii, the last ruler of Kauai. They’ve been joined by dozens of others.

Police have cited protesters for trespassing. A judge last month issued an order to evict them.

The public safety department said 25 deputy sheriffs participated in the raid.

The protest is the latest example of Native Hawaiian activists taking a stand on cultural issues and sacred places. Protesters in recent years blocked a road leading to the summit of Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s highest peak, to stop the construction of one of the world’s largest telescopes. That case is currently before the courts.

Keala Lopez, who has been teaching Hawaiian to those gathered at the property, said people occupying the site are protecting the land and the natural resource. She said they won’t give up now, they’ll just have to adapt.

“I don’t think it will diminish our fire. It’s inspiring for the community to see us continue. We’ve been receiving so much support and aloha, so that I only feel stronger when situations happen,” she said.

The people occupying the Coco Palms site have been growing taro, a traditional Hawaiian staple, and other crops, she said. The effort is more about having a place to live and sleep, she said.

“It’s a cultural calling to preserve and protect this place,” she said.

Coco Palms has been shut since 1992, when Hurricane Iniki heavily damaged the property.

Demolition began in 2016, with the goal of reopening in mid-2018. The clash has caused delays, so the developers hope to start construction soon after the protesters leave.

The renovated hotel will have 350 rooms, including 22 master suites and about 50 junior suites. Hyatt will manage the hotel once it’s reopened.

Hawaiian chiefs were born and lived on the property hundreds of years ago. Royalty favored the area for its plentiful water, which made it ideal for irrigating fields for the starchy vegetable taro, a staple crop.

Coco Palms opened as a resort in 1953. Eight years later, it served as the backdrop for scenes in a Hollywood romantic comedy featuring Presley.