Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

A bandaged journalist interviews a bloody man
who said he was struck by a policeman
in this August 1968 photo from Chicago.

Associated Press

Isle delegates optimistic

The nation isn't divided, as it was when
the Democrats gathered in Chicago in 1968

By Mike Yuen

Norman Taira and Momi Minn Lee remember the last time Chicago hosted the Democratic National Convention 28 years ago.

The city was a combat zone.

Heads were bloodied, even cracked. The acrid smell of tear gas was in the air.

Police escorted the Hawaii and other state delegations as demonstrators against the Vietnam War clashed with helmet-wearing and baton-wielding police in what a blue-ribbon commission later concluded was "a police riot."

"We were in the midst of it," says Taira, an alternate to the 1968 parley and a full delegate to this year's nominating convention in Chicago, which begins Monday.

As Democrats again gather in Chicago, the mood is much more positive, say Hawaii's delegates. The nation is not divided. Nor is the Democratic Party. There is no highly volatile issue like the war in Vietnam. There won't be a fight for the party's presidential nomination.

Chicago police charge through a crowd of demonstrators as they try to
clear the city's Grant Park onAug. 28, 1968, during the
Democratic National Convention.
Associated Press

Next week's convention also symbolizes the party's embracing of the protesters of the '60s who felt excluded and alienated from the Democratic Party and mainstream politics, says Amy Agbayani, 52, who'll start her tenure as Hawaii's Democratic national committeewoman following the convention.

In 1968, Agbayani was a graduate student in political science at the University of Hawaii and an anti-war protester who participated in the Bachman Hall sit-in.

"Now we're active as members and leaders in the party. Many are in office or in the bureaucracy. It's a maturation process," Agbayani says.

"There's more acceptance. We now know how to work the system."

Of Hawaii's 21 delegates, eight "superdelegates" and four alternates to next week's Democratic convention, only Taira and Lee attended the 1968 meeting in Chicago.

But for many in this year's delegation, the 1968 Democratic National Convention deeply touched their lives even though they weren't in Chicago back then.

Russell Okata, the executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association union, remembers that as a 24-year-old state personnel management trainee in 1968, he was more concerned about supporting his young family than the war in Vietnam.

"It was a war no one understood," he says.

When Okata was drafted a year earlier, he felt he had no choice but to report.

He had uncles who had served in Hawaii's famed 100th Battalion during World War II.

Dodging the draft was never an option because it would have brought shame on his family. As it turned out, Okata won a draft exemption because he was the father of a then-2-year-old daughter.

But 1968 and the Democratic convention that year helped to awaken his political awareness, Okata says.

He came to realize the significance of 1960s-style civil disobedience.

As a labor leader, Okata sees civil disobedience as an option in dealing with management just as students in the 1960s used it against institutions of authority.

Richard Port, now the state Democratic Party chairman, became politically active in 1968.

He was recruited to Democratic ranks by U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink and enlisted on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign. Port had long felt a connection to the Kennedys.

Inspired by President John F. Kennedy, Port joined the Peace Corps. He felt "cheated" when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

But by 1968, Port felt "redeemed" as Robert Kennedy - who was said to have more empathy for the poor than his slain brother - was expected to come into the Chicago nominating convention as a strong presidential contender.

When Robert Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles on the night he won the California primary, Port broke down and cried.

"I dropped out of politics. The pain was too great. I couldn't stand the pain of it all," Port recalls.

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