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Hawaii Hate Crime Case Turns on Term With Deep History

In a case believed to be the first where the U.S. has prosecuted Native Hawaiians for hate crimes, a federal judge sentenced two men to yearslong prison terms for a hate crime that exposes the state's complicated relationship between Natives and whites, the Associated Press reports. U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright said during a Thursday sentencing hearing that the two defendants previously convicted by a jury, Kaulana Alo-Kaonohi and Levi Aki Jr., wouldn't have brutally beat a man if he weren't white. The 2014 beating left the victim with a concussion, two broken ribs and head trauma. Seabright said 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.


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. Attorneys for Aki and Alo-Kaonohi say it wasn’t the victim's race that provoked them, but his entitled and disrespectful attitude. Tensions began over a dilapidated, oceanfront home the victim was remodeling in Kahakuloa, a small village at the end of a valley on Maui. The victim's wife said the attackers called her husband "haole," a Hawaiian word with meanings that include foreigner and white person, but that is 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.” 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. “Acting haole” means “acting out of entitlement, and like you own the place,” she said. After the assault, Aki told police the victim was a “rich Haole guy,” a “dumb haole,” and a “typical haole thinking he owning everything ... trying to change things up in Kahakuloa,” prosecutors said. Both men were prosecuted in state court for the assault. Alo-Kaonohi pleaded no contest to felony assault and was sentenced to probation, while Aki pleaded no contest to terroristic threatening and was sentenced to probation and nearly 200 days in jail. For the federal hate crime, prosecutors asked for a sentence of about nine years for Alo-Kaonohi and six and a half years for Aki.

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