The Hilo Massacre on Aug. 1, 1938 marked a turning point in Hawaii's labor movement, however, few of the state's 1.4 million residents even know it took place.
Dr. William Puette of the University of Hawaii – West Oahu, who chronicled the event in his 1988 book, The Hilo Massacre: Hawaii's Bloody Monday, said the event helped sway public opinion to the plight of organized labor.
"When that shooting took place, a lot of people felt this should never have happened," said Puette, who leads the University's Center for Labor Education and Research. "I think the union became much more sympathetic in the eyes of the general public and the community as a result of this."
Although no one died in the massacre, at least 50 protesters were shot by police and national guardsmen as they marched to Hilo Harbor in a show of solidarity with striking ILWU dock workers in Honolulu. The strike against the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co. had already stretched for several weeks, and the company was anxious to stand firm against union demands for better pay.
"A small army of about 60 officers armed to the teeth ended up throwing tear gas at them and then hosing them," said Puette.
Still, the crowd of over 200 people did not disperse, and instead, began sitting down on the pavement.
Through his research, Puette discovered that protest organizer Harry Lehua Kamoku had instructed the crowd on the practice of passive resistance.
"They coached each other about what would happen if you were hit by a billy club," said Puette. "Not to respond in kind (and) just to fall down. A lot of people think that those kinds of tactics were developed for the civil rights movement in the United States, but actually we see it at the Hilo Massacre in 1938."
Hawaii Island Sheriff Henry K. Martin eventually gave the order for officers to fire upon the peaceful gathering. Puette says the shooting began after hooligans hired by the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co. threatened to clear the crowd on their own, a common practice during the labor struggles of the 1930's.
"Employers would hire their own little armies to break-up any kind of labor disputes and strikes, so it was real common that there was a lot of shooting," said Puette.