Posted on March 5, 2023

Two Native Hawaiians Get Prison in a Crime That Exposed the State’s Racial Complexity

Associated Press, March 3, 2023

Two Native Hawaiian men wouldn’t have brutally beaten a man if he weren’t white, a U.S. judge said Thursday in sentencing them to yearslong prison terms for a hate crime in a case that reflects Hawaii’s nuanced and complicated relationship with race.

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

Local lawyers believe this is the first time the U.S. has prosecuted Native Hawaiians for hate crimes. The unique case highlights the struggles between Native Hawaiians who are adamant about not having their culture erased and people who move to Hawaii without knowing or considering its history and racial dynamics.

Alluding to the uniqueness of the case, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright said the attack is different from other hate crimes, such as going to an African American church and shooting or targeting a nightclub full of people from a certain ethnic group or sexual orientation.


Seabright said Thursday he understands the argument that Alo-Kaonohi isn’t racist, but, “You were a racist on that day.” He sentenced Alo-Kaonohi to six and a half years in prison.

He later sentenced Aki to four years and two months in prison.

Tensions began over a dilapidated, oceanfront home in Kahakuloa, a small village off a narrow road with hairpin turns and sweeping ocean views at the end of a valley on Maui, an island known for luxurious resorts.


Kunzelman and his wife purchased the house sight-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 {snip}


“It was obviously a hate crime from the very beginning,” she said. “The whole time they’re saying things like, ‘You have the wrong skin color. No ‘haole’ is ever 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 misunderstood by people who don’t comprehend Hawaii’s history of U.S. colonization and the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom 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 unaccustomed to being identified racially 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 multiple ethnicities, 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 Hawaiian word has become part of Hawaii Pidgin, the creole language of the islands, to describe behavior or attitudes not in sync with local culture.


After the assault, Aki referred to Kunzelman to police as a “rich Haole guy,” a “dumb haole,” and a “typical haole thinking he owning everything … trying to change things up in Kahakuloa,” prosecutors said.


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

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


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