The State of Aloha

Less than a month after statehood, Pan American World Airways began its jetliner service from the Mainland to Honolulu. The regular route to the islands cut costs and travel time for Mainlanders. Visitors flooded the young state.

The service coincided with the construction of hotels, resorts, restaurants and other developments. After the hotels came more houses. Then more commercial properties.

It has never stopped. Never. The story of our state is a story of development. And with that development there has always been opposition. But how do we look at this opposition?

We usually view the opposition as a collection of groups who want to stop a particular project. Opponents to subdivisions in the Kalama Valley on Oahu in the early 1970s are unrelated to the groups that later opposed the expansion to the Kahului Airport runway. The rash of protesters to Nukolii — a resort development on Kauai — had nothing to do with resistance in the 1990s to the construction of the H-3 freeway.

Everything was unrelated. And the projects won out. Houses at Kalama Valley went up. And while the runway was not lengthened, Kahului Airport was expanded (and still is expanding). Kauai has resorts. And the H-3 is humming with traffic. The protests are a footnote to each project.

Then came the Thirty Meter Telescope. At first glance, TMT protests didn’t seem all that different from the oppositions of projects past.

On one side you had the two Davids. There was the state government headed by Gov. David Ige, and the University of Hawaii headed by President David Lassner. They stood by the developer — an international organization devoted to the construction and maintenance of a massive telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

This project, like many before it, is lawful. Every administrative channel was used. Every environmental impact statement made. Every “i” was dotted and “t” crossed. Besides, many reasoned, this was science.

Not so for the opposition. Protesters gathered at the mountaintop. Native Hawaiians rechristened themselves as protectors, not protesters. They literally blocked the road to the summit to halt the construction.

The government faces a dilemma. If we follow the letter of the law, then construction must get started. The time for objections has passed. But that hasn’t happened.

We are still in a quagmire that has yet to be resolved. A small, dedicated group of protectors remain near the summit. Why is that? Many people are confused by the opposition to the telescope. That’s because if we look at the protectors through the traditional project-by-project lens, it makes little sense.

This is not a hotel or a playground for wealthy vacationers. This is science. This is a telescope that can advance our understanding of the heavens and the universe. Planning for it took careful consideration of the sacred sites around the mountain. Why oppose this one?

In the midst of this discussion another protest erupted on Oahu. It’s not about a telescope. Waimanalo has been slated for a makeover. The City and County of Honolulu was all set to begin a construction project that would provide more than 400 parking stalls, playing fields and other facilities.

The people of Waimanalo, however, weren’t having it. They found it as an encroachment on their neighborhood. It was a disturbing sign that this park would bring even more people to their corner of the island. Many worry that this would eventually force them out.

And so they opposed this project. It was yet another insensitive intrusion by an uncaring government more accommodating to tourists and wealthy residents than working-class, indigenous people in places like Waimanalo.

Protesters gathered at the park to halt the construction last month. Thirty were arrested. They looked an awful lot like the protectors of Mauna Kea. And just like Mauna Kea, the city has temporarily halted construction.

The fact that these protests are happening at the same time allows us to move away from the project-by-project view and see a broader movement unfolding. The problem is not a telescope or a park.

The protectors no longer become a group of people who are anti-science and the Waimanalo protesters are more than hopeless resisters of inevitable gentrification. This is a highly stylized objection to the way things are being done and have always been done in Hawaii. It is a direct challenge to our economic engine, the laws that protect that engine, and the leaders who must follow those laws.

And now that the government is blinking in the face of this movement, perhaps there is a chance that maybe — just maybe — we are ready to do it differently. Perhaps it is finally the time to fundamentally alter the way we do business in the islands, the way we fawn over developers, and the way we pass and enforce the law.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”