The ongoing protests against the construction of an 18-story telescope atop Mauna Kea, Hawaiʻi’s highest peak, reached a crescendo Wednesday (July 17) when police arrested elders, using wheelchairs and canes, as they blocked the mountain’s base, reports The Associated Press. There were an estimated 2,000 people speaking out against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which would be 12 times stronger than the Hubble Space Telescope and was scheduled for the start of construction on Monday (July 15).  

The elders, known as kūpuna, volunteered to be the first arrested; they formed a line blocking the road, Dan Dennison, a spokesperson for Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, told The AP. Kealoha Pisciotta, a protest leader, said that dozens of elders were ready to make the sacrifice to save Mauna Kea, which is sacred to native Hawaiians.

From public agency Office of Hawaiian Affairs:

Mauna Kea is a deeply sacred place that is revered in Hawaiian traditions. It’s regarded as a shrine for worship, as a home to the gods and as the piko of Hawaiʻi Island.

Mauna Kea is also a critical part of the ceded lands trust that the State of Hawaiʻi must protect and preserve for future generations, pursuant to its kuleana as a trustee.

Despite four state audits and generations of Native Hawaiians expressing concern about the threats to Mauna Kea, the state and the University of Hawaiʻi have continuously neglected their legal duties to adequately manage the mountain. Instead, they have prioritized astronomical development at the expense of properly caring for Mauna Kea’s natural and cultural resources.

“This mountain represents more than just their building that they want to build,” longtime activist Walter Ritte said in a video interview livestreamed by Hawaii News Now, via Twitter on Monday. “This mountain represents the last thing they want to take that we will not give them.” Ritte was one of eight people who chained themselves to a grate in the access road at the mountain’s base to block construction.

In the wake of the elders’ arrests, the East Asian Observatory “made the joint decision to withdraw all personnel from their telescope facilities at the summit to guarantee the safety of their staff,” CNN reports. Meanwhile, Hawaii News Now reports that more than 100 students, faculty and staff at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa called for the resignation of president David Lassner due to his support of the TMT.