They had big hair and the police thought they were thugs and criminals. But they were smart and some of them were going to university. They emerged out of street gangs but had protective Pacific Island parents and went to church.

They were brown and lived in the inner city, in places where mostly white people live now in renovated villas.

Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and Kingsland were all once home to Polynesian immigrant families.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s a new generation of kids were growing up in these suburbs and were growing aware, Pacific Island children born in New Zealand to immigrant parents.

Initially, they were not too aware of racism. They were urged by their parents to fit in, get a good education and not make a fuss.

As they got older, they became all too aware. "Coconuts," other kids would say. Or people would yell "boonga" from car windows. Or "nigger".

As the 60s gave way to the 70s, white concern was rising about the number of Pacific Island immigrants coming to New Zealand. Even though plenty of Europeans were overstaying, Pacific Islanders were the ones targeted.

But revolution was in the air. Protest was growing around the world about the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. Jimi Hendrix erupted on to the scene and the kids all grew Afros. Knowledge of the Black Panther movement in America reached the streets of Ponsonby.

So the teenagers got together and formed their own movement to fight back. They were the Polynesian Panthers and they left quite a legacy. These kids fought with their brains, not weapons. Their platform was education, they set up homework centres and food programmes and took the elderly on outings. They demonstrated against poor housing and injustice.

Now aged in their 50s, the Panthers have released a book detailing stories of the protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, pride. The book is articulate and passionate. It travels through the ugliness of the dawn raids of the 70s to the violence of the Springbok tour protests in the 80s.

Panthers were there at Bastion Point and at Waitangi too, alongside Maori nationalist movements such as Nga Tamatoa.

Former Panthers will tell you a lot has changed over the past 35 years. But some will tell you not enough has changed.

On Ponsonby Rd on a sunny winter's day people drink lattes at the cafes squeezed in between designer clothes stores.

It is a different era and a different look to that of Will 'Ilolahia's youth. Not a lavalava in sight.

'Ilolahia sits in the board room at Niu FM in Brown St where he now works. The New Zealand-born Tongan looks mildly horrified when I say it must be strange walking past the rich white people who inhabit Ponsonby Rd these days.

But, yes, it is a bit weird, he admits. Flyers were distributed inviting the "new" Ponsonby people to the book launch party.

'Ilolahia had hoped the new residents would come along and mix with the old, learn about the history and about who used to live in the houses.

Few turned up. It was disappointing, he says. It makes you wonder how much has changed.

"I think it summed it up quite well when I bumped into a new Ponsonby person who was working next door to the venue and he had the mis-impression it was a Black Power convention. There's still that concept that we're thugs."

'Ilolahia was in his late teens when he and the late Fred Schmidt co-founded the Polynesian Panthers in 1972, their dream to make life better for Pacific people. In the end, the movement's ideals attracted 500 members and there were several chapters in prisons.

'Ilolahia recalls his first encounter with racism. It was in Britain where he was sent to school by his parents as a 10-year-old. He had a mate called George Washington who was from Trinidad.

While 'Ilolahia was romanticised by the British as "the South Sea Islander with the ukelele", George was called a nigger and picked on.

"That stuck to me a bit and when I came back to school here at Mt Albert Grammar I realised that I was George Washington. I started to see and feel the same things that happened to George were happening to me."

He became part of a group of youths who called themselves the Nigs. People were blatantly and openly racist. Yet 'Ilolahia is surprisingly tolerant. I say it was a shameful era and he replies yes - "but I think you know at that stage we were all going through a melting pot thing and I think also it was a global thing.

"We were fortunate that people like ourselves and the Black Panthers in America and the Brown Berets [Mexican Americans] stood up. It was a time of reawakening, freedom of speech was coming through."

'Ilolahia was inspirational, says another former Panther, Fred Atiga, now a policeman and the father of All Black Ben Atiga.

Quite a few children of Panthers have gone on to have distinguished careers - hip-hop artists Che Fu and Scribe among them.

Atiga remembers going along to Panther meetings and hearing 'Ilolahia speak. Gangs were not the future, he used to tell the young ones.

The Panthers had a chairman and secretary and various ministries - defence, information, culture and Panther youth among them.

They defined a panther as an animal which did not attack but when attacked would annihilate the aggressor. It was a philosophy they adopted but instead of using violence, they used strategy.

For example, during the dawn raids of the mid-70s, when alleged Pacific Island overstayers were rounded up by the police in the middle of the night, the Panthers found out where the politicians lived and staged their own dawn raids. They credit the tactic with helping stop the raids.

The Panthers' platform was about basic human rights: "To show that Polynesian children should make use of the education system available and become capable citizens," they wrote.

"To promote Polynesian culture among both Polynesians and Europeans in order to obtain better understanding," and "Decent housing fit for human occupation".

And also "To prevent racism, of all forms, in New Zealand. Encouragement of awareness of each other's cultures."

'Ilolahia and others went out into the community, into the pubs, to distribute leaflets and educate.

They were looked on suspiciously at first, later they would get a reputation as do-gooders.

Helping them was former Prime Minister, David Lange. A legal aid booklet written by Lange is telling about the times, when Pacific Islanders were stopped by police often simply for being brown.

"If questioned by a policeman, Do Not go with him!," it begins. "Only go if arrested." And "go quietly - otherwise they might add more charges."

The movement impacted on Panthers' lives in many ways, most of them good. In the book 'Ilolahia questions, was it all worth it?

When I ask him what he meant, he suddenly struggles. The past is raw again. "It wasn't easy being a Panther," he says quietly.

Fighting for what you believe in takes its toll. 'Ilolahia, for example, was in the Patu Squad during the Springbok Tour. They were the protesters who clashed with and confronted the police. 'Ilolahia was among those charged for inciting riots. Bishop Desmond Tutu was a defence witness and they were found not guilty.

But the trial hung over them for two years and afterwards 'Ilolahia left for Tonga for a while, not proud to be a New Zealander.

Another South African helped him reclaim his pride. When Nelson Mandela came here in 1996 he wanted to meet the Patu Squad.

When the protests took place Mandela had already spent long years in solitary confinement.

He said he overheard Afrikaans wardens talk about how people on the other side of the world were putting their lives on the line for him. It lifted his spirits. "Nelson Mandela revitalised my feeling of being proud to be a New Zealander," says 'Ilolahia.

Another Panther is Tigi Ness. Ness had big hair once, very big hair. It was so big he got kicked out of school.

He has not cut it since. The dreadlocks go down his back, down his legs. He has a white plaited beard and wears a knitted vest in Rastafarian colours; red, green, yellow, blue.

This is Che Fu's dad. Che was named after Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary and Che's mum, who is Maori, was also a Panther.

Tigi Ness is also a musician, described as the father of reggae in New Zealand, and once jailed for protesting against apartheid.

Ness sits in his lounge, it's immaculately tidy like him, and talks of the defining moments which led him down the Panther path.

He was born in the 1950s to parents not long arrived from Niue and grew up in Ponsonby.

His father died when he was 6 and his mum, who could not speak English, raised him and his two sisters protectively and religiously.

He was a brainy kid, good at English, dux at both primary and intermediate school.

Racism hit him when he went to Mt Albert Grammar where he was among the first influx of Polynesian boys at the then boys' high school.

The incident which really sticks in his mind is a rugby competition. Ness' team of Pacific Island students won the competition but the trophy, an old rugby ball which was precious to all the kids, was given to a team which did not win, a team of white students.

"Me and the boys, we were really upset but we sort of just took it on the chin and said, 'well, that's the way it is in the white world, no matter how good you are'."

Ness looked at things differently from then on. Later he was expelled. The headmaster told him "Ness, your hair's too big." Ness pointed out the surfie boys had long hair and that his hair was part of his cultural identity.

But the headmaster one day delivered an ultimatum. As Ness walked out, crying, he saw 'Ilolahia was there, and Tim Shadbolt, and other university students who had heard about the hair. "Racist school, racist school," they shouted. "I said 'thanks bros,' but my mum's going to kill me."

He thinks it broke his mum's heart but he refused to go back. A year later he joined the Panthers because he had been told of the good work they were doing, cutting lawns, helping the old people.

He was appointed Minister of Culture and the first thing he did was set up a library.

Later, in the Patu Squad, it was scary as hell. But the only regret he has is that the tour happened at all.

"For the people of New Zealand to do that, you know, it was almost civil war, barbed wire and police batons, for a country to come to that there's a lot of deep, hidden things that keep us separated.

"We go so far, we enjoy the sun together, we love the beaches and the barbies together, but scratch away at the surface a little, like the Springbok tour and apartheid and Maori and things like that, it comes out ugly."

We have come a long way though, says Ness.

"I believe we've got a lot to show the rest of the world about how to live together in peace and harmony. I'm sure we've got differences but we can live with them."

Lusi Atiga thinks we have come a long way too. She is Fred's wife and Ben's mum and a former Panther who helped at the homework centre in Ponsonby. She went to university with dreams of being a social worker but went into vocational guidance, inspiring many Pacific and Maori people over the years.

"And I think that's what the Panthers did to our group because when I think about it all of us and our line of work, we're all in 'helping people' jobs."

She remembers the fun times, sneaking out to go to meetings, telling her parents she was going to a youth meeting at the church. It was the only way a young Pacific Island girl could get out. She shouts with laughter.

"If I hadn't joined the Panthers I wouldn't have become aware and I probably wouldn't have done those things and those jobs, I'd have been the quiet Pacific Island person in the corner, that sort of 'yes sir'.

"I definitely think the Panthers helped us to lay the ground for our kind of awareness of Pasifika, of our people, socially where we stand."

Polynesian Panthers, Reed Publishing, $34.99