Maui Hate Crime Case Highlights Hawaii’s Racial Complexity End-shutdown

HONOLULU– In a case that reflects Hawaii’s nuanced and complicated relationship with race, two Native Hawaiian men are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday on federal hate crime charges for the brutal beating of a white man who tried to move to their remote fishing town. traditional.

A jury convicted Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi and Levi Aki Jr. in November and found they were motivated by Christopher Kunzelman’s career when they punched, kicked and used a shovel to beat him in 2014. Their injuries included a concussion, two ribs broken and head trauma.

Local attorneys believe this is the first time the United States has prosecuted Native Hawaiians for hate crimes. The unique case highlights the struggles between Native Hawaiians who insist that their culture not be erased, and people who move to Hawaii without knowing or considering its history and racial dynamics.

The tensions started over a dilapidated waterfront home in Kahakuloa, a small town along a narrow road with hairpin turns and sweeping ocean views at the end of a valley on Maui, an island known for its luxury resorts.

Growing up in the village, Alo-Kaonohi “hunted, fished, farmed, lived off the land,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright. “To earn a little money, he would sell coconuts, mangoes, flowers, 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 out of sight 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 people,” Lori Kunzelman told The Associated Press, describing how her husband planned to fix up the house himself.

He was starting to do that when the attack happened, he said.

“Obviously it was a hate crime from the beginning,” he said. “All the time they’re saying things like, ‘You have the wrong skin color. No ‘haole’ is going to live in our neighborhood.’”

“Haole,” a Hawaiian word with meanings that include foreigner and white person, is central to the case. It’s a word often misinterpreted by people who don’t understand the history of the American colonization of Hawaii and the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 by a group of American businessmen, said Judy Rohrer, author of a book titled “Haoles in Hawai’i “.

White people who move to Hawaii are not used to being racially identified and “are not used to thinking about whiteness,” said 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 are multi-ethnic, according to U.S. Census figures. Native Hawaiians account for about 20% of the population.

But it’s more than racial, Rohrer said, explaining how the word Hawaiian has become part of Hawaiian pidgin, the Creole language of the islands, to describe behavior or attitudes that are out of step with the local culture.

“Act haole” means “act by right, and as if you own the place,” he said.

On video taken from cameras in Kunzelman’s vehicle parked below the house, only a racial expression can be heard, defense attorneys said. Aki is heard saying, “You’re a haole, huh.”

Kunzelman testified that what is not heard on the video is the men calling him “haole” in a derogatory way.

After the assault, Aki referred to Kunzelman to the police as a “rich Haole boy”, a “dumb haole”, and a “typical haole who thinks he owns everything…trying to turn things around in Kahakuloa”, prosecutors said.

Tiare Lawrence, an advocate for the Native Hawaiian community on Maui, said she doesn’t condone the attack but is deeply familiar with the tensions surrounding the case.

“The threat of outsider entry … brings a lot of sadness to Hawaiians who work so hard to preserve the little piece of paradise we have left,” he said. As an example, he cited efforts to revitalize the Hawaiian language after it was banned from schools following the ouster.

Lawyers for Aki and Alo-Kaonohi say it was not Kunzelman’s race that provoked them, but his overbearing and disrespectful attitude.

Kunzelman came to town saying he wanted to help residents improve their homes and increase property values, without considering that higher property values ​​lead to higher property taxes in a state with the highest cost of living. defense attorneys said. But the turning point came when Kunzelman cut the locks on the village gates, they said.

Kunzelman testified that he did it because the residents locked him in and out. He proved that he wanted to provide the town with better locks and distribute keys to the residents.

In a letter to the judge, Aki said he does not see himself as a racist: “Not only because I am almost half Caucasian, but also because I have people I love and care about who are white.”

Both men were arraigned in state court for the assault. Alo-Kaonohi no contested the assault charge and was sentenced to probation, while Aki no contested the terrorist threats and was sentenced to probation and nearly 200 days in jail.

Alo-Kaonohi was also sentenced to one year in prison for an assault at a Maui bar shortly after Kunzelman’s attack.

For the federal hate crime, prosecutors are seeking a sentence of about nine years for Alo-Kaonohi and six and a half years for Aki.

Lori Kunzelman acknowledged not being aware of the Hawaiian story and said she has since found out.

“But attacking an individual white male doesn’t change history or make things better or justify anyone’s actions,” he said.

The Kunzelmans still own the Kahakuloa home, but split their time between Arizona and Puerto Rico.

“We couldn’t even sell it to anybody because it’s not safe,” Lori Kunzelman said. “It’s not safe because of the animosity out there.”

In an attempt to convey the animosity, prosecutors during the trial portrayed residents of the village saying things like “this is a Hawaiian village” and “the only thing coming from outside is electricity.”

But several non-Hawaiians who live or have lived peacefully in the town told the AP they never had any problems.

“I am 82 years old. I’ve lived here for 50 years,” said Bruce Turnbull, a retired white teacher who lives near Alo-Kaonohi’s family. “You and not tell them to live up to you and your values.”


AP Researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.

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