The Maui hate crime case sheds light on Hawaii’s racial complexities

HONOLULU (AP) — In a case reflecting Hawaii’s nuanced and complicated relationship with race, two native Hawaiian men are scheduled to face federal hate crime charges Thursday in the brutal caning of a white man who attempted to enter their remote, traditional area to draw fishing village.

A jury convicted Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi and Levi Aki Jr. in November when they realized they were motivated by Christopher Kunzelman’s race as they punched, kicked and shoveled him in 2014. His injuries included a concussion, two broken ribs, and head trauma.

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

Tensions began around a run-down oceanfront home in Kahakuloa, a small village off a narrow road with hairpin bends and expansive ocean views at the end of a valley on Maui, an island known for luxurious resorts.

Alo-Kaonohi grew up in the village and “hunted, fished, farmed, lived off the land,” he wrote in a letter to US District Judge J. Michael Seabright. “To make some money, I sold roadside coconuts, mangoes, flowers and bananas to tourists who were passing through to see the beautiful scenery of Kahakuloa.”

Kunzelman and his wife bought the house invisibly for $175,000 because she wanted to leave Scottsdale, Arizona to live near the ocean after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“We loved Maui; we loved the people,” Lori Kunzelman told The Associated Press, describing how her husband planned to repair the house himself.

He started doing it when the attack happened, she said.

“It was obviously a hate crime from the start,” she said. “All the time they say things like, ‘Your skin color is wrong. No ‘Haole’ will ever live in our neighborhood.”

“Haole,” a Hawaiian word with meanings spanning foreigners and whites, is at the heart of the case. It’s a word often misunderstood by people who don’t understand Hawaii’s history of U.S. colonization and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by a group of American businessmen in 1893, 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 “unaccustomed to thinking about white people,” 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 come to Hawaii and all of a sudden we’re not in the majority, and it makes us uncomfortable.”

Of Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents, according to the US Census, about 38% are Asian, 26% are White, 2% are Black, and many people are multiracial. Native Hawaiians make up about 20% of the population.

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

“Acting haole” means “acting with entitlement and like you own the place,” she said.

In video captured by cameras on Kunzelman’s vehicle, which is parked under the house, only one racist remark can be heard, defense attorneys said. Aki can be heard saying, “You’re a haole, eh.”

Künzelmann testified What is not heard in the video are the men derogatory calling him “haole”.

After the attack, Aki labeled Kunzelman to police as a “rich Haole guy,” a “dumb Haole,” and a “typical Haole who thinks he owns everything…trying to change things in Kahakuloa,” prosecutors said .

Tiare Lawrence, a Maui Native Hawaiian attorney, said she does not condone the attack but is intimately familiar with the tensions permeating the case.

“The threat of outsiders coming in … brings a lot of sadness to Hawaiians who are trying so hard to hold on to the little piece of paradise that is left to us,” she said. As an example, she cited efforts to revive the Hawaiian language after it was banned in schools after the coup.

Aki and Alo-Kaonohi’s lawyers say it wasn’t Kunzelman’s race that provoked them, but his justified and disrespectful attitude.

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

Kunzelman testified that he did so because local residents locked him in and out. He testified that he wanted to provide the village with better locks and distribute keys to the residents.

In a letter to the judge, Aki said he doesn’t see himself as a racist: “Not only because I’m almost half Caucasian, but also because I have people I love who are white.”

Both men were charged with assault in state court. Alo-Kaonohi pleaded no appeal for assault and was sentenced to probation, while Aki pleaded no appeal for terrorist threat and was sentenced to probation and nearly 200 days in prison.

Alo-Kaonohi was also sentenced to a year in prison for an attack on 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 admitted to being unaware of Hawaiian history and said she has since learned about it.

“But attacking a single white man doesn’t change history, or make things better, or justify actions by anyone,” she said.

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

“We couldn’t sell it to anyone because it’s not safe,” Lori Kunzelman said. “It’s not safe because of the hostility that’s there.”

During the trial, to convey the animosity, prosecutors pictured villagers saying things like, “This is a Hawaiian village” and “the only thing that comes from the outside is electricity.”

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

“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. “I learned in Hawaii to come from the outside in, that it’s a good thing to live by the people around me and not tell them to live by you and your values.”


AP researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report. The Maui hate crime case sheds light on Hawaii’s racial complexities

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