New Zealand to make dawn raids apology, but the Polynesian Panthers want more than words – ABC News

Posted: July 31, 2021 at 9:39 am

You are lying asleep in your bedin the home you own. It should be the most comfortable placebut, before the sun is up, police are knocking on your door and you will have to convince them you deserve to stay.

They're shining a torch into your face, holding back a German shepherd "frothing at the mouth".

It's 1974 and this is a dawn raid.If you can't prove who you are, you will likely be locked up and eventually deported.

New Zealand has achieved cult status as a progressive haven at the bottom of the world, but talk to Pacific Islander people and many will tell you about the 1970s and the "state-sanctioned racism" that ripped them from their homes.

The immense shame of the dawn raids lingers on both sides of politics and on the Pacific families that woke to that knock at the door.

Tomorrow, the New Zealand government will apologisebut, for onegroup of social justice revolutionaries, saying sorry is just the beginning.

Fifty years ago, a group of teenagers came together in Auckland for the inaugural meeting of the Polynesian Panthers.

The date was June 16, 1971 and the first generation of New Zealand-born Pacific people had decided to organise.

Supplied: John Miller

They were reading Bobby Seale, listening to Bob Dylan's "songs of protest"andwatching asthe Black Panthers forced the United States to reckon with its racist history.

Melani Anae was at that first meeting of the Polynesian Panthers. To become a member, she had to read Seize the Time the story of the Black Panther Party.

"When I read that book, I couldn't get over how much it mirrored what we as Pacific communitieswere living through," she said.

"Problems with housing, problems with education and problems with adjusting to a new life. And we really resonated with that and so we were totally in solidarity with the Black Panthers."

Now an associate professor of pacific studies at the University of Auckland, Dr Anae said she didn't realise it at the timebut becoming a Panther as a teenager would define her life.

"The Panthers were the first of the first. The first New Zealand-born Pacific generation," she said.

"We had no role models. Our parents who came to New Zealand were very respectful of authority. They wanted to be good citizens, but us New Zealand-borns knew something was wrong.

"So, as 17-year-olds we took it upon ourselves to form the Panthers to fight that racial injustice."

Maori people are indigenous to New Zealand, while people from island nations such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji immigrated to the country.

Both Maori and Pacific people facedisadvantages and discrimination, but the Polynesian Panthers stand for the Pacific community.

Supplied: Stuff Limited

After World War II, the New Zealand government called for people from the Pacific Islands to come and fill the labour shortages, to do "the jobs ordinary New Zealanders didn't want to do".

"They invited us, so we came in droves," Dr Anae said.

"My parents came because they wanted a better life, but when the economic recession hit in the early 1970s the immigration policy suddenly changed and they didn't want us anymore."

Archives New Zealand:Gregory Riethmaier Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand Licence

Dr Anae said Pacific people then became the "scapegoats for successive governments, both Labor and National".

The political messagesfocussed"on the immigration of these brown people from the islands and that they were taking ordinary New Zealanders' jobs, and that they were criminalsand rapists and murderers", she said.

The government of the day was cracking down on "overstayers" people who were living in New Zealand illegally after their visas or work permits had expired.

Butimmigration officials were only targeting overstayers from Pacific island nations,when the bulk of people who were living in the country illegally were from Europe and North America. And the police enforcing the immigration warrants were terrorising Pacific communities.

Supplied: John Miller

The Panthers fought back. At a higher level, they fought against the narrative the government and media of the time had spunabout them. And at a grassroots level, they fought to genuinely improve the lives of those in their community.

"The crucible years, I believe, were 1971 to 1974,was when the Panthers were the strongest and fiercest, in terms of our membership, which had reached 500 people. That's when we put our community survival programs in place," Dr Anae said.

"We had homework centres, we had food co-ops, we had the PIG patrol the Police Investigation Group which stopped the police from harassing our communities just for being who we were."

Supplied: John Miller

The Panthers assigned portfolios to their members.

There were ministers for finance, cultural affairs and information. There was also a Tenants Aide Brigade.The Panthers' platform has always been "educate to liberate" and as Pacific people became targets for random police checks, the group made sure everyone knew their rights.

Supplied: John Miller

One of the lasting legacies of the 1970s-era Panthers is the group's contributionto legal aid in New Zealand.

A prominent lawyer helped produce the Polynesian Panthers' legal aid booklet, which was widely distributed among Auckland's Pacific community.

It was a revolution. For people who had been targeted by police to learn not just that they had legal rights, but specifically what they were, was powerful.

The lawyer who penned the legal advice wasDavid Lange. It would be another decade, but Lange became the 32nd prime minister of New Zealand.

People soon learned thatif a police officer didn't have his badge or hat on, he was not in full uniform and technically he could not make an arrest.

The "PIG Patrol" would be there to watch police, keeping an eye on their tactics and whether or not their uniform met standards as they tried to pull young Pacific Islander people off the street.

The Panthers were getting smarterand stronger. They were making a difference in their communities, but theywere agitating too.They came together to push back against racist policies and sometimes that got physical.

The Polynesian Panthers had a military wing. There were clashes with police and landlords, and a determination to be a force on the ground. Members of this faction were prepared to break the law and several of them did, serving time for rioting, illegal assembly and fighting police.

Founding memberWill Ilolahia has been quoted as saying: "Thething about the Panther it never attacks.

"But if it's attacked itself and it's caught in a situation that calls for self-defence, it will respond."

The most insidious of actions by the police, Dr Anae says, were the raids the New Zealand government will now apologise for.

"In 1974 to 1976 there was the horrendous state-sanctioned racism called the dawn raids," she said.

"The dawn raids targeted Pacific families. The theory was these families were likely to have overstayed visas and so police targeted them in the street, knocked on their doors in the early hours of the morning."

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the apology, Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito Sio stood beside her at the press conference.

"We were dawn raided," he said.

"The memories are of my father being helpless.We bought the home about two years prior to that and to have somebody knocking at the door in the early hours of the morning, with a flashlight in your face, disrespecting the owner of the home, with an Alsatian dog frothing at the mouth wanting to come in.

"It's quite traumatising."

For some Pacific families, their loved ones were picked up off the street and sent away without notice. For others, they were raided in the night and never told another soul.

It's only now that the government has announced it will apologise for the practice that the community has really started to open up.

Supplied: John Miller

Christine Nurminen was born in 1975 to Tongan parents who had come to Auckland to work.

Her childhood memories are underwritten by the fear her family lived through every day.She remembers being confused about her parents' anxiety and why they were always worried about dogs.

"We would be like 'why are we driving the long way around? Or why are these people on the property? Or why is everyone so anxious about the dogs?'" Ms Nurminen said.

"There was this constant language around the dogs. 'Don't let the girls play outside with the dogs, we've got to be worried about the dogs' but I knew we didn't own dogs and I was petrified."

Ms Nurminen said it was only as an adult that she came to learn about the dawn raids and how police used dogs to find anyone who might be hiding in the property.

"Every Tongan person I know always talks about the dogs," she said.

Her family had a strategy.

"All the women lived in one part of the house and all the men lived in one part of the house and they'd just take turns watching the door and watching for police," Ms Nurminen said.

"The thinking was, if we're going to be raided, at least the women feel safe together and there's no random male [police officer] coming through where they're sleeping."

Supplied: John Miller

Polynesian Panther member and Samoan New Zealander Alec Toleafoaremembers being targeted on the street the "blanket random checking on all people who were brown".

"We were required to carry proof we were entitled to be here lawfully," he said.

"In my case, and my siblings', we're only 13, 14, 15 at that time. We're all New Zealand-born, we've never travelled anywhere, why would we have a passport? I would be hoping like hell Iwould not be stopped and questioned because I had no evidence I was here legally.

"So when we saw police we knew there was a high likelihood we would not be going home that day."

MrToleafoa said it was the "brutal arm" of the police that pulled him towards the Panthers.

"[We would be] just walking along the street and then a patrol car pulls up, asks us a certain set of questions," he said.

"As soon as we reply we find ourselves in restraints and thrown in the car, taken away from our neighbourhood and given the beat down and then dropped back as if nothing had happened.

"That happened to me."

Ms Nurminen will be at the apology with her parents and her daughter.

She wants the next generation to know about the dawn raids, but "also that the story goes on" that the next chapter can be one where thisdark detailof New Zealand's history is spoken about openly and with a commitment "it won't ever happen again".

"It's an evening when we will hear some really hard truths, but she will be fortunate to hear that truth in a setting where we have the Prime Minister," she said.

Minister Sio agreed, saying the apology was about acknowledging the past for the sake of the future.

"I do not want my nieces and nephews to be shackled by that pain and to be angry about it. I need them to move forward and look to the future as peoples of Aotearoa," he said.

Supplied: John Miller

There is hope that the"intergenerational secrets" many Pacific families have kept for 50 years can start to be told and that as those painful memories are prised open, they are released. That these families can reckon with their stories.

"Now they understand, and will understand as time goes on as the apology and its significance unfolds, that itwas not their fault," Mr Toleafoasaid.

"They were encouraged by the government, and employers and the churches to stay beyond their permits the government turned a blind eye until the recession, then that nerve, that racist thread that runs through New Zealand history emerged and then all the dreams we had turned into nightmares."

Supplied: John Miller

Polynesian Panther members often say "once a Panther, always a Panther" and after 50 years they still have the same message: "Educate to liberate."

The Panthers pushed for the national apology and they want it to come with lessons about racism in New Zealand schools, scholarships for Pacific students and a commitment to truth-telling about what happened on their streets and in their homes in the 1970s.

"The expectation for us is that every person who goes to school, learns these stories and perhaps in the learning even just the hearing of these stories they might understand diversity.They might understand how better to relate to difference to cultural difference," Mr Toleafoa said.

"And perhaps with that understanding [they'll] be able to form better opinions than the ones that have been responsible for things like the dawn raids.

"We're hoping that this is going to, not just enhance, but transform race relations in New Zealand."

Other groups are pushing for different things. Some want reparations or compensation, others want amnesty for those who are still living in New Zealand illegally.

The Polynesian Panthers have fought for the rights of Pacific people for 50 years and the apology helps cement their legacy. They have had young people ask to join, but this is now a closed group.

They came together in a time and place that needed brave people to take big risks and, as the story of the Panthers is told and retold, it will become a legend that inspires the next generation.

"In my family, I'm still seen as that 'radical person'," Dr Anae said.

"We took that risk on, though, because we knew we had to change the world."

Special thanks to photographer John Miller, who has documentedNew Zealand's social justice movements for 50 years and gave the ABC access to his archive for this story.

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New Zealand to make dawn raids apology, but the Polynesian Panthers want more than words - ABC News

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