It’s been a year since prominent Hawaii-born surfer Emery Kauanui was beaten to death outside his mother’s apartment in La Jolla, Calif. It was the brutal conclusion to an altercation in a nearby bar earlier that evening, and left surfers everywhere in shock. Now that the murder trial is drawing near, the incident is making headlines again, as prosecutors hope to charge the five men who attacked Kauanui — members of a local group that called themselves the “Bird Rock Bandits” — under tougher gang violence laws.
Kauanui moved from Hawaii to La Jolla with his mother in 1992. His death has brought some past brushes with the law to light, and he certainly got some punches in on that fateful night. But for the most part the story of his death has been framed as one in which he was the victim of increasing territoriality and simmering hostilities in the surfer community at large.
This morning, though, I heard a curious take on the case on NPR’s hip Bryant Park Project. It was an interview with Terry Rodgers, a reporter who has been covering the story for the San Diego Union Tribune. And while I suppose he may have simply felt obligated to reflect both sides of a case that has largely emphasized the motivations of Kauanui’s assailants, I couldn’t help but get the feeling he wasn’t all that impartial.
Rodgers made it a point to say that it was just Kauanui who was thrown out of the bar, when most accounts note that both Kauanui and Eric House, one of the defendants, were ejected. And when House and his friends later turned up at Kauanui’s mother’s place?
“[Kauanui] could’ve just stayed in the condominium and said, ‘No, I don’t want to fight,’ but he went out to engage the people who wanted to beat him up,” Rodgers says.
Rodgers describes the affluent town of La Jolla as “the Beverly Hills of San Diego.” He doesn’t spend a second talking about the background of Kauanui’s attackers, but he spends an inordinate amount of time on Kauanui’s past. He begins by noting that Kauanui had a “more complicated life than originally thought,” including jail time for assault and a DUI arrest. But when he moves on to describing how the killing reflects surfer culture, he goes even further.
“There’s sort of a dirty underbelly to beach culture. It comes from this sort of Hawaiian strain of… you hear a lot about ‘Aloha,’ right? Well, this is sort of the opposite of that, a kind of Hawaiian machismo sort of strain in beach culture that is kind of there,” Rodgers explains.
The interviewer rightfully asks for clarification. “So when you say this is a Hawaiian strain,” she asks, “does that illustrate some kind of ethnic tension in La Jolla?”
“No, no,” Rodgers says. But goes even further.
“Emery was Hawaiian, his father was Hawaiian,” he explains. “He lived in Kauai for some time, and he was mentored by older surfers in Kauai, including Titus Kinimaka, who has sort of a machismo history there of protecting territory there in Kauai and sort of being kind of a rough and tumble character.”
Is it just me, or is It too awkward a stretch to invoke “Hawaiian machismo” and Kauanui’s past associates in a story about how Kauanui was beaten to death? Surely the “Bird Rock Bandits” did their fair share of strutting and shoving. And when Rodgers goes on to lament this “horrible embarrassment,” and the damage the case is doing to the image of the California surfing scene, I’m not sure what was more upsetting: the fact that Kauanui was killed in La Jolla… or the fact that he was in La Jolla in the first place.
- Listen: Surfer Murder Provokes Cali Soul-Searching (NPR)
- Surf wars: a killing that made waves (The Independent)