Eddie Rothman vs. Monsanto!
Three years ago I traveled to Oahu to write a story for Playboy on Eddie Rothman’s fight against biotech giant Monstanto. Writing about Da Hui yesterday made me remember that time fondly. It is a very long read but it is Sunday, in America. What else are you going to do until the Golden State Warriors tip off against the Cleveland Cavaliers?
(First printed in Playboy. July 2013)
Fast Eddie Rothman is standing on the front deck of his perfectly tropical Oahu house, blocking the perfectly temperate 75-degree sun, waiting for me. His hands, gnarled and scarred with the memories of many teeth, are balled up into tight fists and he drums the deck’s railing.
His fists have drummed often. There was the time they drummed the teeth out of the big Australian surfer’s mouth. There was the time they slapped the vice president of a major surf brand 11 times for bald-faced lying. There was the time they bashed the head of a pervert jacking off in the tropical bushes near the bike path. Or, wait—those weren’t his hands proper, those were his hands gripping a piece of rebar. There was the time they landed repeatedly on the sunburned cheek of a man who had partnered with a local podiatrist to smuggle pain pills by strapping them to children. This man threatened to blow up Rothman’s house with a grenade and bounced his secretary’s head off a rock wall. Rothman gave him a drumming so solid that the man spent a week in the hospital, because like the Australian surfers, surf-brand vice presidents and perverts before him, he had it fucking coming.
Oahu, the most mythical island in the Hawaiian chain, is not commonly associated with bloody beatings and broken teeth. It has, rather, been etched into the subconscious as an island paradise since the turn of the 20th century, when wealthy families, inspired by pastel-hued postcards, steamed across the sea on coconut-scented winds and basked in its flawless climate. GIs followed on their way to World War II’s Pacific Theater, gaped at hula girls, got lei’d under a tropical moon and thought, Thank you, Uncle Sam. And their sons became surfers and went in search of their fathers’ dreams. They found them on Oahu’s North Shore, where the waves were massive and perfect if you had the courage and skill to ride them. They were joined by men with names such as Da Bull, Butch and Duke, and they too etched Oahu into the subconscious. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, surf-ploitation films about exotic Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline became the rage, and the Beach Boys crooned about riding the wild surf.
But the decades between then and now have been marked by immense struggles for the men who were born into this paradise or who arrived and never left. Men like Eddie Rothman. Today I walk down a dead-end road not five miles north of Waimea Bay, where he is waiting for me. I turn left and push my way into his million-dollar beach compound. Rumors and whispers about his penchant for violence haunt the North Shore. Brave surfers speak of him in hushed tones, afraid they might turn around and see him standing there and then see the darkness of a knockout.
On paper Rothman is simply a successful surf promoter and co-founder of the surf brand Da Hui, which makes boardshorts, surf apparel and, more recently, MMA fighting gear. But the past, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, is when Rothman’s specter was born dark. He is the elder statesman of Hui O He’e Nalu, or Hawaiian Club of Wave Riders, which he formed nearly 40 years ago along with local surfers Kawika Stant Sr., Squiddy Sanchez, Terry Ahue and Bryan Amona. The mission of the club (from which the surf brand later took its name) was to advocate for Hawaiian surfers on the professional circuit and to help bring a sort of sanity to the winter surf season, which had grown increasingly chaotic due to an influx of foreign surfers who had watched the films, listened to the Beach Boys and decided the North Shore was theirs. But it was not theirs. And Da Hui taught them this by knocking the teeth out of their mouths. During the winter of 1977, visiting surfers’ blood ran both freely and cold, and Rothman became the embodiment of fear.
Hawaii was never, in truth, a pastel-postcard island paradise. Its name most likely comes from the ancient Maori word Hawaiki, meaning “heaven” and “hell.” Early inhabitants practiced a harsh form of governance that included human sacrifice by crushing the victim’s bones. Captain Cook and the first European contact brought disease that wiped out half the population. Inter-island war followed inter-island war until wealthy American agricultural interests convinced President William McKinley to annex Hawaii, subjugating the locals and immigrant laborers under a feudal-like system. Eventually there were enough locals and immigrants in the U.S. territory to demand statehood, which was granted in 1959. And then the surfers came, beginning a new sort of annexation until Fast Eddie Rothman shoved his gnarled and scarred fists down their throats.
Stories of the “black shorts,” as the members of Da Hui were called after their austere beach uniform, beating down disrespectful foreign surfers are still told today. But the club has mellowed in recent years, hosting beach cleanups and preaching the gospel of water safety for surfers and swimmers alike. And it has been some time since Rothman’s been in the local papers for illegal activity: In 1987 he was indicted on racketeering and drug distribution charges, which were dismissed because of prosecutorial misconduct. He had been in and out of jail before and has been in and out since, but his relationship with “legality” is, again, only ever whispered about. Few are brave enough to ask directly what it is that he does. There are outrageous, whispered rumors that he’s in the Hawaiian mafia, that he’s a drug dealer, that he’s a murderer for hire. But no one really knows, because when Rothman takes care of business his way, it quickly and quietly goes from rumor to whisper to legend. No one questions the legend.
And he is waiting for me because I broke the rules. I wrote a book about the North Shore that included him and his specter, which was a severe breech, on my part, of North Shore whisper etiquette. (Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell is being published by Harper Collins in December.) He got a copy of the unfinished manuscript from Scott Caan, who plays today’s version of Danno on the remake of Hawaii Five-0, and Rothman ordered me to his house.
He watches me approach from his wraparound deck, and the reality of the man matches the whispers, even though he is 65 and only five-foot-six if generous, five-foot-five if honest. He is roping muscle. His arms, usually bare, are perpetually flexed. His expression rarely changes. His pug nose has been broken more than once. His gray hair is shaved to a fine stubble. The neck that holds that head up is as thick as a tree. He is a testament to the power of attitude and intention. He has bested more men than he can count, and it looks as if I will be counted among the multitude.
Rothman looks at me and takes me by surprise. Instead of a left hook he drops this bomb: “If you want to tell a fucking important story, then tell this one: Monsanto. Those fuckers are here. They have all these experimental farms right over the hill and are poisoning the land and poisoning the people. Write that shit.” While my eyes had been trained on the pounding surf and the surfers and the fighters, by Rothman’s reckoning I’d had my head in the sand. He is asking me to turn 180 degrees and look squarely toward the island, to those verdant hills, to where Monsanto has alighted like so many interlopers before.
Monsanto is, of course, the multinational agricultural biotechnology company based in St. Louis—some 5,000 miles from the North Shore. It is the staggeringly profitable company that once manufactured PCBs and Agent Orange but for the past 20 years has been making genetically modified seeds that grow herbicide-resistant crops such as soybeans, corn and sugar beets. In Hawaii, Monsanto, along with Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer Hi-Bred, Dow AgroSciences and BASF, is growing some 7,000 acres of crops, including soybeans and corn. These crops are not intended for human consumption per se; rather they are seed crops that will be shipped to farmers worldwide to plant in their fields to sell on the open market. Much of it ends up as feed for livestock in countries around the world. While international farmers have become dependent on Monsanto’s incredibly effective Roundup Ready seed and Roundup herbicide, Rothman is part of a growing group of Hawaiians who see this as yet another encroachment on their beloved land.
His take on them is quite simple: “They are greedy fucks. They don’t care about anything but making money, and they are doing it all right here on Oahu and all over the islands—threatening farmers, closing the local people down, closing farmers’ markets. You know, if some of their GMO seed blows on someone’s land, then they own it. They are controlling our politicians too. Laws to label food as GMO have come into our Congress, but they get shut down. They are taking over the land, just like in the past.”
And his rant continues as he lists past wrongs on Hawaii—the early explorers bringing diseases to the islands, the Mormons bringing Mormonism, the sugar barons overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy and enslaving the people, foreign surfers coming and stealing the waves, the methamphetamine epidemic now engulfing the islands. He eventually brings it back to Monsanto. “And now they are fucking with our food. They are fucking with the very root of who we are as people. It’s the worst thing they could be doing. Greedy fucking fucks. For what? For money? Money does strange things to people. Fuck them.”
I’d never heard him talk about anything with such passion other than Hawaiian wave sovereignty, the notion that these are their waves, to be surfed their way. With Monsanto, as with everything, Rothman goes with his gut.
“They got all these research farms right over the hill from my house,” says Rothman. “We’re having a March Against Monsanto in Hale’iwa tomorrow.” He grinds me with his eyes and it is completely expected that I will show up.
The next day I drive up the volcanic range that bisects the island and toward the protest march in Hale’iwa. I pass the silly Dole Plantation tourist trap where the fruit company grows pineapple only for show. After a century of dominance on the islands, pineapples are now grown cheaper and more efficiently in Costa Rica. I drive past land that used to be sugarcane as far as the eye can see. But sugarcane is produced cheaper and more efficiently in Brazil these days. Pineapple and sugarcane fields, now deserted, are the ghosts of agribusinesses that once ruled virtually every part of Hawaiian life. The barons used the islands as personal piggy banks, caring little for the ecosystem or the local population. And just as I drop down the other volcanic side, the North Shore splayed before me, I see a street sign that reads Adopt a highway, Litter control next two miles: Monsanto Company.
Monsanto was drawn to Hawaii for some of the same reasons that attracted the pineapple and sugar interests, namely its nutritious volcanic soil and its perfect, perpetually 75-degree weather. The islands are like a giant greenhouse. On the mainland most crops have one growing season, maybe two. In Hawaii they can have up to four, which suits Monsanto’s purposes. More harvest cycles mean more seeds, and large tracts of land have been opened on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Molokai to meet the seed demands of the world’s farmers. These demands have made the seed industry Hawaii’s largest agricultural sector. Worth more than $240 million, it is responsible for a third of Hawaii’s agricultural income. While valuable to Hawaii’s fragile, tourism-heavy economy, the income does little to settle the apprehensions of men like Eddie Rothman.
And Rothman is not alone, not by far. When I exit the main road toward Hale’iwa, hundreds of protesters have already grouped together near the 7-Eleven at the south end of town, or the “bottom” as it is called. It’s a motley bunch: moms pushing strollers, old people with canes, chunky white transplants in awful denim shorts, surfers, Japanese tourists, dreadlocked hippies banging on ukuleles, girls in bikinis, tough mokes. Moke is Hawaiian slang for an aggressive “braddah” who wears “da rubba slippas” and punches haoles. Haole is Hawaiian slang for “white man.” Everyone has a sign with some variation on the demand that Monsanto leave Hawaii. Pit bulls roam freely. A man wearing a V for Vendetta mask tells a man with a head as big as a Fiat, “Look at those clouds, brah. I hope they don’t chemtrail us.” It is a widely held belief here that Monsanto dumps heavy metals into the clouds in order to control the weather. As expected, Monsanto denies the protesters’ claims, of chemtrailing and otherwise.
Across the parking lot a giant pickup truck draped in Hawaiian flags is surrounded by men wearing red Da Hui T-shirts. There is Kala Alexander, a surfer and actor who became famous as the unlikely star of a series of YouTube videos featuring the beatdowns he gave surfers who showed disrespect in the waves. Those videos are a relic of his past. Alexander’s most recent activist star turn is as a concerned citizen speaking out against the encroachments of the biotech companies in a documentary about GMOs and Hawaii.
Rothman stands with the protesters, arms folded across his chest like a sentinel, and lets the others do the talking. As I approach, he says, “You gotta meet the guys who started the march,” and walks me over to two men busily directing the proceedings. “These are the real people. These are the ones changing shit.”
One of them is Dustin Barca, a professional surfer and also an MMA fighter from Kauai. He is handsome, with severely cauliflowered ears. “Five years ago I started studying, reading, watching the movies about GMOs,” he says. “I wanted to get my facts straight before acting. I learned how damaging they are to the people and to the land. It is poison. And so now I want to build awareness. I want to educate the local people on what is happening. I’m not interested in saving the world. I’m interested in saving my island.”
Rarely is a word spoken here today that isn’t rooted in fierce localism. Walter Ritte, standing next to Barca, nods his head in approval. Ritte, older and slight with a full gray beard, is from Molokai and is a legend among Hawaiian activists. His involvement in the GMO debate is tied to the University of Hawaii’s genetic experiments with taro, a traditional Hawaiian root. “Taro is a family member for Hawaiians,” he told me. “It is our firstborn. If they’re going to mess with our firstborn then they’re going to mess with us. This whole GMO issue is so complicated, and I like to make it simple. Basically GMOs package us, they own us. And I would like to tell them—the companies—if you hurt our culture and you hurt our land, you’re in for trouble.”
In days past, Da Hui would have brought the trouble immediately and violently on the interlopers, but today its members have signs and slogans and bullhorns. They are joined in solidarity with farmers and other citizens, joined not by surfing but by living in and loving Hawaii. The march begins, and the energized crowd chants, “Thanks for visiting. Now go home like the rest of the tourists!” People fill the Kamehameha Highway, smiling, chanting and trading horror stories about the evils of GMOs and “Mon-Satan.” I hear many stories about a Monsanto property on Oahu called the Kunia research farm. People say fish DNA is put into strawberries there and 70 different kinds of chemicals are used on the crops. They say Monsanto is destroying Hawaii’s native species by making Frankencrops that cross-pollinate with everything. They say the farm is killing all the bees and changing the weather, and that it isn’t from here. They say the farm does not belong here.
There was a time when Rothman was the interloper, the unknown quantity on the North Shore. Although many people assume he is Hawaiian, he was born Jewish in Philadelphia. “I don’t know nothing about Jew stuff, but once this lady on the North Shore made me some Jew food and it was good,” he tells me. He has said that his mother physically abused him as a boy. Eventually she left, and his father moved to Long Beach, California with him. “My father would fucking beat the shit out of me because I was little, and that made him mad.” Eventually Eddie’d had enough. When he was 14 years old he stole enough money out of his father’s wallet for a one-way ticket to Honolulu. He had surfed in California and had seen the surf-ploitation films featuring Hawaii, with its perfect giant waves, palm trees, white sand and easy smiles.
He landed in Honolulu knowing no one. He knew only that something felt almost right. He stayed in Honolulu for a few years, flying to southern California to pick up marijuana and bring it back to Hawaii. He briefly went to school in Long Beach. “I went to school a couple of times, but the school told me if I didn’t show up, they would pass me.” He eventually moved permanently to the North Shore. It had everything he needed: surf, sun, a market for his marijuana. And as a 16-year-old he would get by selling it and stealing cars.
One bright day he was in the bushes at the Sunset, one of the North Shore’s famous wave breaks, breaking into cars, when he ran into a pack of Hawaiian locals who were doing the same thing. How did they come to accept this unlikely outsider? “I don’t talk good,” says Rothman. “I have bad speech like them, so it was easy, and everything went from there. I sounded like them, and they just accepted that I was like them.” He was tenacious, so they flew him around the islands to crack heads for such offenses as not paying debts within an appropriate time. When I suggest that the tough Hawaiians had adopted him, he bristles. “They didn’t adopt shit. I proved myself every fucking day. I proved myself with these.” Again, he holds up a fist. A scarred, tooth-nicked fist. On the North Shore, not speaking well goes only so far.
Of all the enemies Rothman has faced over the years, Monsanto is by far the biggest and most elusive. Bloomberg reports that the company did $5.47 billion in revenue in this year’s second quarter alone. It, along with the other seed companies, owns or leases 25,000 acres on the islands.
Before arriving in Hawaii, Monsanto had perfected its craft. Company scientists were among the first to genetically modify a plant cell in their laboratories, and they knew they had struck gold. Traditional seeds cannot be patented, since they occur naturally. Genetically modified seed, on the other hand, can be, as ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. The company realized it could make a higher-yielding, more-rugged product through science, and it could better monetize that product by applying patent law. And Monsanto protects these patents fiercely, suing any farmer who dares replant instead of purchasing. The company argues that it has spent billions of dollars perfecting these seeds and it only makes sense to recoup investment costs. The Supreme Court agrees. In May, the Court ruled that farmers are not allowed to replant Monsanto seed but must repurchase yearly. To many farmers, Roundup’s near silver-bullet-like effectiveness is worth the cost. Still, Rothman takes issue with this, seeing it as a form of extortion. Just as offensive to him is how close Monsanto is to his home. How it looms in his backyard. “That farm is fucking evil,” he adds to the chorus, near the end of the march.
“That farm” is the Kunia research farm, which sits just opposite the volcanic mountain range from the North Shore, halfway up a small, shack-lined road. It is unassuming from the outside. A man wearing a Jurassic Park-looking uniform lets me in through the gate, and I am introduced to two scientist-farmers who take me on a tour of the property. The farm is virtually all corn and soybean, and as we drive for hours they point out the sustainability of the operation: the terraces, the drip irrigation. They show me an area that has been donated to small-scale local farmers who grow produce there, some of it organic, to sell at farmers’ markets. It’s not a nightmare factory out of The X Files. It is the picture of American ingenuity, but American ingenuity is not the Hawaiian dream.
When I raise the protesters’ concerns about cross-pollination destroying native species, Monsanto representatives point out that corn doesn’t cross-pollinate with anything on the islands and has no relatives here, so there’s no danger. Even if crosspollination isn’t a worry, pesticide runoff still plagues Hawaii. Oahu has its pineapple and sugarcane ghosts. Researchers from Stanford, the University of California and the University of Hawaii have reported on pesticides in the groundwater and fragile reefs damaged by pesticide runoff after decades of largely unregulated rule by big agricultural interests on the island.
But that’s not Monsanto’s past here in Hawaii, and the company claims to be dedicated to custodianship of the land. The company tells me it pulls up and recycles truckloads of plastic from old pineapple fields. But in many Hawaiian eyes—in Rothman’s eyes—there is no difference between the past and the present, which directly affects Hawaiian protesters’ feelings regarding science. Hawaiians were told in the past that the pesticides used on pineapples were good and that DDT spraying to control mosquitoes was good. They, even more than the mainland America population, are loath to believe the science is sound. Critics such as Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist for Consumer Reports, help feed the perception that GMOs are poison. He says, “We now have allergy problems from genetic modification, or adverse effects on bone marrow, liver, kidney and reproductive systems. There have been animal studies, but they need to be followed up on. There is just no control.”
GMO proponents scoff at the lack of scientific rigor on the other side. After I leave the farm I speak with Alison Van Eenennaam, a specialist in animal genomics and biotechnology in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis. She says, “As a scientist, I don’t just get to have a bad feeling about something. There have been 15 years of research, more than 400 scientific studies, and we’ve eaten more than 3 trillion meals. The jury is absolutely in. The overwhelming bulk of the data says there is nothing biologically different in genetically modified food. We eat it. We digest it. It breaks down. It turns into us. In fact, it is a criminal injustice for us not to feed the world with these products, especially in countries where people are dying of starvation instead of obesity. It is morally bankrupt.”
But if there’s anything Rothman doesn’t lack, it is moral outrage. He’s outraged at a company that has essentially patented nature for profit. He’s outraged at technology that has given rise to Roundupresistant weeds that have forced farmers across the country to revert to using more toxic chemicals to protect their crops. Rothman’s distrust is a portion of America’s writ large. For a citizen, the first step toward truth often begins with “just getting to have a bad feeling about something.” And Rothman’s bad feeling is about yet another threat to his vision of the Hawaiian dream. It is about defending his version of the pastel-postcard Miltonian paradise. Oahu is still an island in the middle of the ocean. It still has coconut-scented winds and waves so big and ideal that none have ever been found bigger or better. And he wants to keep it pure. And this dream, even if never true, dies hard.
Rothman is smoldering when I go back to his house after visiting the farm. The sun is well into its downward slide, painting the firmament with soft oranges and fiery pinks. His shoulders, as big as hills, slump. He seems exhausted. We stand quietly for a minute, watching the ocean. It’s hard not to think this is essentially about Monsanto interlopers coming in and rewriting the rules of the island. Like the foreign surfers before them and Captain Cook before them. And it’s hard not to see that Rothman doesn’t know exactly what to do.
As if to comfort himself, he recounts a moral victory in his past, over an enemy he could physically best. “See that right there?” he says, pointing to a spot on the beach. I nod. “Years ago there were some little girls playing on the sand, and this big guy came and, you know, showed them his…you know…his thing.” He gestures at his crotch. “So I went over to his house. He was a big guy, and he was in there cleaning his gun, so I got scared. But I knocked on the door and he answered, and then he made a move. I’ve always been a little guy, and so I just go on instinct and—pow—I hit him in the mouth. He knocked out but woke back up when he hit the ground and started moaning. His wife came running to the door, and they called the cops because I broke his jaw. But when the cops came they couldn’t say nothing because the guy would have to say why I cracked him. He was a lieutenant in the Army or some shit. Fucking creep. But that’s the last time he showed himself to any kids.” He lowers his head and rubs his eyes.
“Why don’t you just crack them?” I ask, referring to Monsanto. This is exactly how Rothman drove the surf world into a panicked fear, by knocking enough people out that no surfer ever steps out of line. He turns toward me, and his expression that rarely changes turns into a mask of helpless bewilderment. “I can’t,” he says. “There is no them. I mean, they are everywhere. If I go and slap someone, they just gonna throw me in jail, and I don’t even know who they are. They hide behind their corporation.” He looks back out at the Pacific. The sun is even lower now, and the orange is softer, the pink more fiery. He sighs deeply, carrying the weight of his own legend and facing a new foe that is far baser than any he has faced before. He wants to act, but how? He sighs again and growls, “Let’s go.”
We drive together in silence down his dead-end road, out to the main Kamehameha Highway, then quickly turn into a gorgeous piece of unspoiled North Shore greenery. The land is terraced where we are standing, and I can see half-dug rows almost ready for planting. A large yellow tractor sits idle. The volcanic range rises in the near distance and is crowned with a strange sort of pine that I have seen only in Hawaii. “This is my farm,” he says as we start moving toward the patch of reddish dirt that is his organic farm.
Eddie Rothman the specter has become Eddie Rothman the farmer, just on the opposite side of the range from where Monsanto’s Kunia research farm sits. He tells me he spends long days moving giant rocks by hand, because if he used the tractors they would “fuck up all the water hoses we have.” He tends to taro crops and digs holes for water-purification systems by hand as well. “I’ve seen them do it this way in Samoa. They use their hands and their feet like this.…” He climbs down into an unfinished hole and starts to claw at the earth. He digs his own wells, installs solar panels and feeds his chickens and ducks.
Rothman becomes more animated and less exhausted as we wander around his farm—this plot of land is a Hawaii he can control, where no outsiders threaten the balance he’s struggling to regain. He tells me he worries about Monsanto’s chemical drift but is doing everything in his power to limit his farm’s exposure to the company’s tactics. He says the farmwork is good for his body, and the food, once it really starts growing, will be good too. As we walk, it becomes clear that farming is the way he has chosen to physically go to war against Monsanto, by taking back the land, acre by acre. It’s a tactic shared by other, more experienced farmers in Hawaii, who are lobbying the largest landowners to shift their proportion of GMO leases toward more natural and organic farmland. They want land tainted by pesticide use to be cleaned and repurposed as incubators and education centers for organic farming. They want to be given a fighting chance to sustain their island their way. The chances that a few organic farmers in the middle of the ocean will evict a billion-dollar multinational corporation are slim. But Rothman will have none of that.
Hawaii has been decimated by foreign disease, subjugated by foreign agricultural interests, annexed by foreign nations. It is a series of defeats. Rothman, though, has a victory to his name. Because of Da Hui, and because of him, visiting surfers’ blood still runs cold. He wrestled and punched the North Shore back from the clutches of foreign surf interests, and he is dead set on doing the same for the land. He has played slim odds in the defense of a dream before and won.
He also has the land on his side. The locals talk about the curse of Pele, the legend that anything taken from the Hawaiian Islands will bring bad luck to the taker. By that reckoning, Monsanto is exporting a bête noire as its seeds get planted around the world. Whether because of a curse or the passing of time, the sugarcane and pineapple barons have come and gone. Captain Cook is dead. The interlopers in Hawaii have gotten their due. Eddie Rothman is doing what he can, by protest and by pitchfork, to hurry it along. Before we get into his truck and head back down the hill, he kicks at a volcanic rock and then gives my shoulder a hard pat. It hurts.