The State of Aloha
What is it about that charming spit of golden sand tucked within the towering cinder cone of Pu’u Olai near the most southern point of the island that draws so many of the clothing challenged? And what is it about this beach that irritates and inflames generations of islanders?
We may never know. The conflict can be traced back to the early years of statehood. By the late ’60s jet planes regularly flew directly from the American West Coast to Honolulu, a city rising with condominiums and hotels. Sleepy leeward plantation towns were transforming into hot spots for tourism. But the jet planes brought more than middle class Americans ready to spend money at a pool bar. Hawaii had become an attractive destination for hippies.
To say they were not exactly welcomed by the island power structure and community is an understatement. The most common reaction to these newcomers was a toxic mixture of revulsion and disdain. They lived in far out places among the bushes and jungles. Islanders felt that most were on the dole and nearly all didn’t work at hotels or plantations.
For many, these hippies were seen as a burden on the island community. On top of this, they were associated with petty crime — vagrancy, marijuana and indecency. It was a total affront to the straight laced and generally conservative descendants of immigration plantation workers and missionaries.
Ask the first wave of hippies who remember these times, and most will tell you they were shunned by locals and brutalized by the police. And so it should be no surprise that in February 1969, the police got an anonymous tip about happenings at Pu’u Olai near Makena.
The police trekked out there and hiding on a ridge, they spied a bevy of naked sunbathers. Two frequent nude beach enthusiasts were singled out, arrested and prosecuted for indecent exposure.
The beachgoers were undeterred. In the summer of ’69, seven police officers went undercover and dressed up like fishermen. They hiked over the rocks to the little beach and, lo and behold, witnessed with their naked eyes nudity. They promptly arrested another seven sunbathers in their birthday suits.
The county prosecutor roared into action pressed charges, and they were convicted of indecent exposure and nuisance. A few went up to the Hawaii Supreme Court, which upheld the convictions — barely.
Two of the five justices dissented. These men were not hippies. Far from it. Bert Kobayashi, the first attorney general to Gov. John Burns, felt that the nuisance statute was unconstitutional. It was overbroad and allowed the authorities to go after anyone without guidance or limitation. “The fact that I believe the statute is unconstitutional,” he wrote, “does not mean that I sanction such activity as sunbathing in the nude on Hawaii’s public beaches.” Nonetheless, he did not believe the hippies should have been convicted.
The other dissenter was Bernard Levinson, a religious man from Ohio who came to the islands working for the War Department during World War II. For him a conviction required behavior that offended the general public’s sense of decency and morality. Naked sunbathers at an isolated beach didn’t cut it.
He wrote that “the only group of people who were likely to see the defendants were the fishermen who came to the beach to fish. Given the exclusive nature of the clientele frequenting this beach and the well-known general hardiness of spirit of men who enjoy the sport of fishing I do not see how one could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the moral sense of the community would be outraged by defendants’ acts of nude sunbathing.”
And so the barely upheld convictions did not deter the hippies from going bare. Police raids and prosecutions carried on throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s. Gradually, however, as the accolades of American counterculture became more accepted into the island community, an uneasy and informal peace settled over the nude beach.
It was an open secret that folks took their clothes off and hung out at the little beach in the shadow of Pu’u Olai in violation of the law. It’s such an open secret that nearly any guidebook will describe the semi-frequent drum circles and parties for the curious visitor. The old conflict with hippies and locals settled down.
Until now. The recent spike in COVID-19 infections on Maui and the rest of the state is linked to large social gatherings. The disturbing pictures of large beach gatherings across the state has angered officials. The mayor in Honolulu has threatened to outlaw shade tents, a common accouterments for large local gatherings.
But as frustrating as those gatherings may be, they have not come close to the outrage and ire arising from the unmasked and mirthful hippies dancing at a drum circle. Some things never die.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”