HONOLULU (AP) — In a case reflecting Hawaii’s nuanced and complicated relationship with race, two native Hawaiian men will be convicted Thursday of a federal hate crime in brutally beating a white man who attempted to move into their remote, traditional Fishing village.
A jury convicted Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi and Levi Aki Jr. in November and found they were motivated by Christopher Kunzelman’s race when they punched, kicked and used a shovel to punch him in 2014. His injuries included a concussion, two broken ribs and head trauma.
Local lawyers believe this is the first time the US has prosecuted Native Hawaiians for hate crimes. The unique case highlights the struggle between Native Hawaiians who are adamant about not having their culture erased and people who move to Hawaii without knowing or thinking about its history and racial dynamics.
Tensions began around a dilapidated oceanfront home in Kahakuloa, a small village along a narrow road with hairpin bends and expansive ocean views at the end of a valley on Maui, an island known for its luxury resorts.
Growing up in the village, Alo-Kaonohi would “hunt, fish, farm, live off the land,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright. “To make some money, I sold coconuts, mangoes, flowers and bananas on the side of the road to tourists who came by to see the beautiful scenery of Kahakuloa.”
Kunzelman and his wife bought the house unseen for $175,000 because she wanted to leave Scottsdale, Arizona, to live near the ocean after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“We loved Maui; we loved the people,” Lori Kunzelman told The Associated Press, describing how her husband planned to fix up the house himself.
He started doing that when the attack happened, she said.
“It was clearly a hate crime from the start,” she said. “They say things like, ‘You’re the wrong skin color all the time. No ‘haole’ will ever live in our neighborhood.’”
“Haole,” a Hawaiian word with meanings that include foreigner and white person, is at the center of the case. It’s a word often misunderstood by people who don’t understand the history of the American colonization of Hawaii and the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom by a group of American businessmen, said Judy Rohrer, author of a book called “Haoles in Hawaii.”
White people who move to Hawaii aren’t used to being racially identified and are “not used to thinking about whiteness,” says Rohrer, who grew up white in Hawaii and is now a professor at Eastern Washington University. “We’re used to being in the majority and then we get to Hawaii and all of a sudden we’re not in the majority, and that makes us uncomfortable.”
Of Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents, about 38% are Asian, 26% are White, 2% are Black, and many people belong to multiple ethnicities, according to U.S. census records. Native Hawaiians account for about 20% of the population.
But it’s more than racial, Rohrer said, explaining how the Hawaiian word has become part of Hawaii Pidgin, the islands’ Creole language, to describe behaviors or attitudes that are inconsistent with the local culture.
“Acting haole” means “acting out of right, and as if you own the place,” she said.
In video recorded by cameras on Kunzelman’s vehicle parked under the house, only one racist utterance can be heard, the defense attorneys said. Aki is heard saying, “You’re a haole, aren’t you.”
Kunzelman testified that what is not audible in the video is the men derogatorily calling him “haole.”
After the attack, Aki called Kunzelman to police a “rich Haole guy,” a “stupid haole,” and a “typical haole who thinks he owns everything… trying to change things in Kahakuloa,” prosecutors said.
Tiare Lawrence, an advocate for the native Hawaiian community on Maui, said she does not condone the attack but is very familiar with the tensions permeating the case.
“The threat of outsiders coming in … brings a lot of grief to Hawaiians who try so hard to hold on to the little piece of paradise we have left,” she said. As an example, she cited efforts to revive the Hawaiian language after it was banned in schools in the aftermath of the overthrow.
Lawyers for Aki and Alo-Kaonohi say it was not Kunzelman’s race that provoked them, but his lawful and disrespectful attitude.
Kunzelman came to the village and said he wanted to help residents improve their homes and increase property values, not considering that higher property values come with higher property taxes in a state with the highest cost of living, the lawyers said. the defense. But the tipping point came when Kunzelman cut the locks on the village gates, they said.
Kunzelman testified that he did this because residents locked him in and out. He testified that he wanted to provide the village with better locks and distribute keys to residents.
In a letter to the judge, Aki said he doesn’t see himself as a racist: “Not just because I’m almost half white, but also because I have people I love and care about who are white.”
Both men were charged in state court for assault. Alo-Kaonohi pleaded no fight against felony and was sentenced to probation while Aki pleaded no fight for terrorist threat and was sentenced to probation and nearly 200 days in prison.
Alo-Kaonohi was also sentenced to one year in prison for attacking a Maui bar shortly after the Kunzelman attack.
For the federal hate crime, prosecutors are asking for a sentence of about nine years for Alo-Kaonohi and six and a half years for Aki.
Lori Kunzelman acknowledged she was unaware of Hawaiian history and said she has been hearing about it ever since.
“But attacking an individual white person doesn’t change history, improve anything, or justify actions by anyone,” she said.
The Kunzelmans still own the house in Kahakuloa, but divide their time between Arizona and Puerto Rico.
“We couldn’t even sell it to anyone because it’s not safe,” said Lori Kunzelman. “It’s not safe because of the hostility out there.”
At trial, in an attempt to convey the hostility, prosecutors depicted villagers saying things like, “this is a Hawaiian village” and “the only thing that comes from outside is electricity.”
But several non-Hawaiians who live or have lived peacefully in the village told the AP they’ve never had any issues.
“I am 82 years old. I’ve lived here for 50 years,” said Bruce Turnbull, a white retired teacher who lives near Alo-Kaonohi’s family. you and don’t tell them to live by you and your values.”
AP Investigator Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.