Thousands of protesters joined a swelling effort Wednesday to stop construction of a telescope they have long tried to keep off a mountain considered sacred to some Native Hawaiians, blocking a road to Hawaii’s highest peak and prompting the arrest of a group of elderly demonstrators.

Hawaii County managing director Wil Okabe said about 2,000 people packed the base of Mauna Kea after the arrests, more than three times the number of protesters who showed up in previous days.

Police in riot gear temporarily lined the road to the top of the Big Island mountain, which is valued by astronomers for its consistently clear weather and minimal light pollution. It’s where the $1.4 billion US Thirty Meter Telescope, expected to be one of the world’s most advanced, is to be built.

Protest leader Kealoha Pisciotta told The Associated Press that police took away about 30 elders who were prepared to be arrested as they blocked the road. State spokesperson Dan Dennison said 33 people were arrested, given citations and released.

“They’re taking our kupuna,” Pisciotta said, sobbing, using the Hawaiian word for elders. Around her, people sang Hawaii Aloha, a Hawaiian song that’s common at events.

Some of the elders used canes and strollers to walk, while others were taken in wheelchairs to police vans. Those who could walk on their own were led away with their hands in zip ties.

One woman being arrested did a nose-to-nose greeting, called honi, with an officer before he walked her to a van, Pisciotta said. Another man chanted as an officer took him away.

Walter Ritte, one of the protesters arrested, said he was driven down the mountain, given a citation and released. He later returned to the base of Mauna Kea and said he wouldn’t block the road again on Wednesday.

“But tomorrow is another day and we’re free to do whatever we want tomorrow,” Ritte said.

Emergency proclamation in effect

Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed an emergency proclamation Wednesday giving law enforcement agencies the power to close off areas and restrict access on Mauna Kea.

The state hadn’t decided whether to remove protesters from the mountain, but that is one option the proclamation makes available, Ige said.

The governor said law enforcement has been patient and respectful toward protesters, but protesters are illegally occupying roads and highways.

An artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop the proposed building location on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. After years of legal delays, Hawaii’s Supreme Court cleared the way last year for construction of the project to begin. (TMT)

Officials said construction equipment was expected to be brought up Mauna Kea on the Big Island later Wednesday to start building the $1.4 billion US Thirty Meter Telescope, which is expected to be one of the world’s most advanced.

Authorities closed the road to the top of the mountain Monday to allow construction to begin, attracting hundreds of protesters who formed their own roadblocks.

The blockade forced astronomers to stop operating 13 existing telescopes on the mountain Tuesday. Dozens of researchers from around the globe won’t be able to gather data and study the sky atop Mauna Kea, one of the world’s best spots for astronomy, with clear weather nearly year-round and minimal light pollution.

Observations won’t resume until staffers have consistent access to the summit, which is needed to ensure their safety, said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, one of the existing telescopes.

“Our science time is precious, but in this case, our priority is just to make sure all of our staff is safe,” Dempsey said.

‘This is about our right to exist’

The protesters and other opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope say they are concerned construction will desecrate and damage the mountain.

Protesters said they told authorities Tuesday that they would allow telescope technicians to pass if they could drive one car to the summit each day for cultural and religious practices. No agreement was reached.

Kaho’okahi Kanuha, another protest leader, told reporters that efforts to stop the telescope were about protecting Hawaii’s Indigenous people.

“This is about our right to exist,” he said. “We fight and resist and we stand, or we disappear forever.”

Some say protesters fighting construction of the telescope are a ‘vocal minority,’ and that the project could provide educational opportunities for young Hawaiians. (Caleb Jones/The Associated Press)

Other Native Hawaiians say they don’t believe the project will desecrate Mauna Kea. Most of the cultural practices on the mountain take place away from the summit, said Annette Reyes, a Native Hawaiian from the Big Island.

“It’s going to be out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

Reyes said many others agree, but they’re reluctant to publicly support the telescope because of bullying from protesters, a group she calls a “vocal minority.” She says she’s been called a fake Hawaiian for supporting the project.

Reyes said Hawaii’s young people can’t afford to miss out on educational opportunities, citing telescope officials’ pledge to provide $1 million US every year to boost science, technology, engineering and math education.

The project has been delayed by years of legal battles and demonstrations. Last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that telescope officials had legally obtained a permit, clearing the way for construction to begin.

Telescope opponents last week filed another petition in court, saying the project must post a security bond equivalent to the construction contract cost before starting to build.

Doug Ing, an attorney for the Thirty Meter Telescope, said the latest lawsuit has no merit and is another delay tactic.

The company behind the project is made up of a group of universities in California and Canada, with partners from China, India and Japan.