‘Hawaiian machismo’ cited in surfer murder

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.

8 Responses

  1. NEENZ says:


    The whole situation is unfortunate and sad, but the comments and speculations of Terry Rodgers are irresponsible and heartbreaking.

  2. Rox says:

    Glad you covered this Ryan. I read about it in the NYTimes too and found that coverage was placing blame on the assailants. I have known surfers from California in the old days (30 yrs ago) who had experienced rough treatment at the hands of Hawaiian locals, and I as a young naive surfer was warned off the waves. But I saw the same rough treatment in CA, where I have been physically pushed off my board by other surfers of the blonde sub-species.

    So yes, there is an underbelly to surfing that can bring out the worst in people.

    But no, I am not inclined to blame Kauanui for his death. We women are used to that blame the victim thing, and it just doesn’t go down. Even assuming hot-headedness or bravado on Kauanui’s part, there’s no excuse for a gang beating, And to me, this was gang behavior.

  3. Rox says:

    There is another article in the NY Times you may be interested in.

    “Although little about localism or surf territorialism is new, the public was mostly unaware of how violent the battles fought between locals and outsiders over popular breaks have sometimes become. That was before YouTube, where the keywords “North Shore beat down” summons up videos of bloody skirmishes between surfers like Mr. Alexander and putative interlopers; before films like the indie documentary “Bra Boys,” released in April, noted the resemblance between certain surf clubs and street gangs; before the well-publicized San Diego murder trial of one such alleged surf gang; before the band The Offspring wrote a song about the perils of crossing locals from the North Shore club called Da Hui; and before the club referred to in the song gave rise to a cult clothing line.”

    And here is the previous article I mentioned.

  4. Charlie says:

    I listened to the interview and I was offended by Terry Rodgers’ comment about Hawaiian machismo. I’d like to make it clear that I am neither Hawaiian or a surfer.

    I think it was hypocritical of him to state that he doesn’t want La Jolla stereotyped as a violent surfer town while he stereotyped a culture he apparently knows very little about.

  5. ali says:

    Four assailants. One victim. Hello? Hawaiian machismo? I don’t think so.

    Seems like Terry Rodgers’ irresponsible journalism is making it even worse for La Jolla and the surfing community. There is a huge difference between simply reporting Emery Kauanui’s past and Terry Rodgers’ speculation about Emery’s motivation and isle ties.

  6. Jonnie says:

    …lots of local (San Diego) coverage here: http://is.gd/li7 …just search on Kauanui.

    The audio interview was pretty good. I thought Rodgers seemed almost happy to find dirt on Emery Kauanui and then played down the violent nature of the Bird Rock Bandits – and there was no discussion of why the Police were seemingly passive in what seemed like a history of violence related or tied to the Bird Rock Bandits. There is or was quite a bit of criticism of the Police here when the story first broke last year.

    Then again Rodgers seemed happy to point out this was not the Aloha he thought he knew. The Hawaiian Machismo comment was funny too – all guys (young) will behave that way in the right circumstances. I’m not saying it’s okay, but it’s the same reason I avoided situations and places as a teen also for fear of altercation.

    So far it looks like the king pin of the the Bird Rock Bandits is Seth Cravens. His jail registration listed him as Pacific Islander, and I think one of the other guys that called himself a member of the Bird Rock Bandits is also (Pacific Islander). And I don’t know if anyone surfed other than Kauanui – that would be interesting to know.

    I would think that maybe the fact Kauanui was on a magazine cover, had notoriety and the girls liked him probably was a thorn in the side of The Bird Rock Bandits who didn’t have much going on; while that might be unfair on my part because they were just out of High School. The Bird Rock Bandits may have been simply jealous of Kauanui and were emotionally immature, and followed Cravens into a really bad scene.

    Allegedly Cravens punched a kid as a minor so hard that the victim suffered permanent hearing loss.

    And Kauanui’s Mom had the condo in La Jolla (not Emery), and while all the guys went to school together at La Jolla High, I got the impression they lived in neighboring Pacific Beach or right on the border. None of them lived in any of the $15,000,000 hillside or ocean front homes as far as I know. So it’s not like these were bored little rich kids gone bad; more like young men who were staying close to home because claiming linkage to La Jolla was all they had going for them; with exception of Kauanui and his surfing.

    Of course we will never get to see what Kauanui could have become. And Cravens will probably only become more violent in prison.

    The whole thing is just a waste all the way around. I feel really bad for all of their families.

  7. anonymous says:

    Surfers are among the most infantilized people on the planet. This is nothing new…

    Hawaiian culture is all about machismo and a bizarre persecution complex that places any and all blame for anything on the “haole” (or white) person (intended as a derogatory term, and used to refer to white people).

  8. james says:

    Well, it’s tough to have a legitimate discussion about “hawaiian machismo” when the comments section is moderated to exclude any dissenting viewpoints.

    But anyway, the ultimate point is this: if the tables were turned and the “haole” were killed by four native thugs, there wouldn’t even be an investigation. It would fall under the cateogory of “drowning” or “accidental death” or somesuch. Dark underbelly, indeed.

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