HILO — Eighty years ago, a peaceful protest took a tragic turn as police opened fire on an unarmed crowd of union workers and their supporters at the docks of Hilo Bay in 1938.
The day would become known as the “Hilo Massacre” or “Bloody Monday” after 50 protesters were hospitalized with wounds from live ammunition and bayonets.
But the sacrifices made that day by the more than 200 marchers, who were supporting strikers in Honolulu, would not be in vain as such acts of solidarity would build a better future for workers in the islands, speakers noted on Wednesday during the unveiling of a mural depicting the protest. And it’s a lesson representatives of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union hope will not be forgotten.
“I’m overwhelmed with appreciation as I stand here in the very spot where hundreds of union brothers and sisters walked through teargas and buckshot in solidarity,” said Wesley Furtado, ILWU’s Hawaii vice president, at the mural dedication at Hilo Harbor’s Pier 1.
“They walked to peacefully demonstrate their dedication to building a better way of life despite the obstacles that stood in their way. It is evident that the privileges and rights we enjoy as workers today are the result of the brave union men and women that came before us.”
State lawmakers and representatives of the state Department of Transportation, Gov. David Ige’s Office and Hawaii County attended the dedication, held on the massacre’s anniversary.
Dennis Onishi, Ige’s East Hawaii liaison, read a proclamation recognizing Aug. 1 as “Labor Memorial Day in Hilo.”
A moment of silence was observed at 10:15 a.m., the time of the shooting, which caused no deaths.
The mural, titled “Legacy of Solidarity,” joins other paintings showcasing Hawaii’s natural beauty in the pier, where cruise ship passengers pass through. But it’s the only one there to showcase the history of its people.
Made by artists Solomon Enos and Kai Kaulukukui, the painting shows people of different races holding a banner over their heads noting years of importance for the labor movement in the United States, including 1938, the year of the massacre.
Pointed toward them are three guns with bayonets, and in the corner is the ILWU’s motto — “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Also depicted is the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company vessel, S.S. Waialeale, the arrival of which the workers were protesting eight decades ago.
At the time, dock workers in Honolulu were on strike against the company. They wanted wages equal to dock workers on the West Coast and a union shop.
Harry Kamoku, who founded the Hilo Longshoremen’s Association, organized the protest as a show of multi-ethnic and multi-union solidarity. Furtado said the association was Hawaii’s first multi-ethnic and democratically-run labor organization.
“(Kamoku) became the main voice of racial unity and would often be heard saying, ‘We are all brothers under the skin,’” Furtado said. “Today, the ILWU still uses that slogan.”
While some might question whether the event should be called a massacre since no one died, state Sen. Lorraine Inouye said it “most certainly qualifies” because of the overwhelming use of force by the authorities and that the protesters, including women and children, were not interfering with the unloading of the ship.
“There was nearly one policeman to every three demonstrators, and the police were armed with an arsenal more than adequate to deal with a much larger and menacing assembly,” she said, while reading passages from a book titled “The Hilo Massacre.”
According to the book, the sheriff said he had told officers to switch from the larger buckshot to birdshot before opening fire, but not many of them heard the order.
There were no ambulances at the harbor so the victims had to take buses or personal cars to the hospital and doctor’s offices, Inouye said.
The mural joins a plaque located outside the terminal that also commemorates the protest.
Del Beasley, an ILWU member from Oahu who performed a song about the massacre, said he had worked at Hilo harbor early in his career but was unaware at the time of the plaque or events of that day in 1938.
But Beasley, whose son was diagnosed with cancer when he was a child, connected the importance of those events with benefits he enjoys.
“If this never happened, maybe no more care for my son who today is alive and well,” he said. “That is part of the big picture of what was done that day.”
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.