State Defends Destruction of Hawai‘i Flag on Pu‘u Huluhulu Structure

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During the state operation to remove an un-permitted structure on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property near Pu‘uhonua O Pu‘u Huluhulu on Mauna Kea on Sept. 6, 2019, a Hawai‘i State flag affixed to the building was destroyed.

Removal of structure and flags near Pu‘u Huluhulu on Mauna Kea, Sept. 6, 2019. PC: Eric1600 via Reddit

There were two flags on the structure; one on a flag pole on the roof of the structure and a second flag attached to plywood which blocked the only entrance to the structure.

Before bulldozing the un-permitted structure, law enforcement removed both flags. The first flag was attached by screws on all four corners to the plywood barricade. On top of each corner of the flag were boards attached with nails.

Multiple videos posted on social media show a deputy sheriff cutting one of the boards of the wooden structure with a saw. He began cutting the board at the lower right-hand corner of the flag. The officer then took the saw to the center of the State of Hawai‘i flag and sawed through its center vertically, cutting the flag in half.

Removal of structure and flag near Pu‘u Huluhulu on Mauna Kea, Sept. 6, 2019. VClip: NAʻAU News Now

The crowd erupted in vocalizations of their discontent.

Immediately following the operation, state officials held a press conference to address the demolition of the structure and the removal of the Hawaiian flags.


VIDEO: Gov. David Ige on deconstruction of illegal structure. VC: Hawaii News Now

During the Sept. 6 press conference Hawai‘i Transportation Deputy Director for Highways Ed Sniffen said that prior to removing the structure, law enforcement removed two flags that were located on the structure—one flag on a barricade over the only entrance and one on top of the roof on a flag pole.

Sniffen said officers used as much care as possible when removing the flags. He said the officers had no choice but to saw through the flag on the barricade and that they then cut the flagpole on the second flag. He said both flags were then returned to the protestors.

“There was no way to safely remove it other than to tear it and that is what happened in that case,” said Attorney General Claire Connors during a press conference on Sept. 13. “It was not purposeful; it was the only option that the placement of the flag allowed law enforcement.”


AG Connors said the state went to great lengths to remove the second flag on the structure’s roof with as much care as possible.

“It was on top of the structure and it required a state employee having to get into a piece of equipment, getting hoisted up and carefully sawing off the pole, so the flag could be respectfully removed,” AG Connors, explained. “There was no intent to desecrate a flag. The first flag, however, was in a position where there was no option but to cut through the flag in order to get into the facility, so they could do the proper safety checks.”

Three of the structure’s builders spoke out in a Hawaii News Now video. Ikaika Johnston and Mauloa Covington were arrested on the morning of the structure removal for obstructing a government operation.

AG Connors said they were on the site, near the structure and refused a lawful order to leave so the removal process could take place.

“To see them cut the flag, to see our state—the people who are supposed to protect us—desecrate our flag like that hurt,” Ikaika Johnston said. “I can’t even describe. It hurts you to the root.”


Covington said that the flag was attached to the plywood with nails and boards. He said officials could have pried the boards off with a crowbar and removed the flag intact.

Both Johnston and Covington are successors of DHHL beneficiaries.

Many across the state and on social media expressed concerns about what they saw, citing a lack of respect for the State of Hawai‘i flag.

In response, Gov. David Ige issued a written statement via social media:

“Let’s talk about respect for the flag of the State of Hawaiʻi. Our law enforcement officers serve proudly under the state flag, and they would never intentionally damage it. Last week, protesters used screws to attach the state flag to plywood and then nailed additional pieces of wood over the flag to block entry to an unauthorized structure on Mauna Kea. The screw heads were stripped to prevent removal of the flag with a screwdriver. As they do in their jobs every day, they decided to move quickly in a difficult situation, and in this case, a state flag was damaged in the process.

“Protester tactics, such as putting the flag across an entrance then claiming officers didn’t respect it, and crying ‘assault’ and ‘attack’ as they are peacefully doing their jobs were designed to interfere unfairly with law enforcement activities and produce an unnecessary reaction.

“I am working very hard to resolve the issues on Mauna Kea while ensuring the safety of all. Law enforcement actions have been and will continue to be focused on safety and security.”

Gov. Ige hashtagged #GovSetsItStraightMaunakea at the end of his post.

Hawai’i State flag flown on Mauna Kea Access Road, July 23, 2019. PC: Crystal Richard


State officials held a second press conference to further address concerns over the flag and to address the threats and what the state called cyberbullying during the Thirty Meter Telescope protests.

Hawai‘i Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said the deputy sheriff who cut the flag with a saw was the target of the $5,000 reward posted on social media.

He said while public officials accept a certain amount of criticism, it was shameful to see someone be targeted when “day in and day out, he puts his life on the line as a law enforcement officer and a public servant.”

“Law enforcement personnel were tasked with clearing and securing an un-permitted structure while providing for everyone’s safety in a dynamic and unstable situation,” said Director Espinda. “No employee should be targeted for doing their job. In this instance, protestors securely affixed 2-by-4s with nails through a flag that was screwed into plywood barricade into to the only door to the structure. The screws were stripped so that the flag could not be removed without damage.”

Director Espinda said for the safety of everyone, law enforcement did what it had to do to clear the structure.

“They were left with no other option but to remove the flag despite the purposefully destructive way it was intentionally attached to the barricaded door,” said Espinda. “I stand by my law enforcement officers. This is an orchestrated controversy.”

Director Espinda said the law enforcement officers on the ground have shown nothing but respect for the people gathered at the site. He said this kind of threatening action against law enforcement is unacceptable and should not be normalized.

Following the state’s Sept. 13 press conference, Mauna Protector and protest leader Andre Perez spoke with the media and shared his reaction to the insinuation that the Hawaiian flag was deliberately placed in a way that would require its destruction in the removal process.

“I think that’s pure speculation,” said Perez. “Hawaiians put up Hawaiian flags every day. There are Hawaiian flags everywhere right now because of this movement. The flag was put up as a symbol of pride and a symbol of nationhood. They used a power tool to cut through the plywood. Why did they choose to cut through the plywood over the flag?”

He said there were other places they could have cut, other than the very center of the flag.

“In my opinion, they deliberately chose to cut through the flag,” stated Perez. “They could have cut 3 feet to the right of the flag and still entered the building.”

A Hawaiian flag flies upside down as a sign of distress on July 14, 2019. PC: Crystal Richard

While the state says the flag was placed in a way to force its destruction, many in the community, like Perez, feel there were other options, given they planned to destroy the building anyway.

Some have argued that the way the flag was placed on the door in the first place was disrespectful to the flag—others on social media said two wrongs don’t make a right.


Under the 2013 Hawaii Revised Statutes TITLE 1. GENERAL PROVISIONS 5. Emblems and Symbols
5-19 Description of the Hawaiian flag: When the Hawaiian flag is in such condition of repair that it is no longer a suitable emblem for displaying, it shall be totally destroyed, preferably by burning, and that privately; or this shall be done by some other method in keeping with the spirit of respect and reverence that all owe the emblem that represents the Aloha State of Hawaii. [L 1990, c 215, pt of §2]

In addition to HI REV Stat §5-19 (2013), the Hawai‘i State flag is protected under 4 US Code §8 Respect for flag: “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.

And under section j: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.

OHA Chair Colette Machado; Trustee Dan Ahuna, chair of the OHA Boardʻs Ad Hoc Committee on Maunakea; and OHA Interim Chief Executive Officer Sylvia Hussey issued a statement on Sept. 6, 2019, addressed the destruction of the flag.

The statement read, “the wholly unnecessary sawing of a Hawaiian flag, is deeply troubling, and further adds to the trauma of the Native Hawaiian people and could have escalated an already tense situation.”

OHA also denounced what they described as “selective enforcement” in recent days, comments made after the removal of the unpermitted structure more than a week ago.

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