Incident at Waitangi – on sinking boats…
An old post pulled from my facebook page, that I wrote back in February. It was a letter to the police commissioner, but really – to ‘New Zealanders’ in general. Tried to get it published in a number of newspapers, but sadly (if unsurprisingly) no takers. I imagine that, similar to LudditeJourno‘s experience recounted here, the news editors had attitudes akin to this one, from a Dominion Post Editor:
“I’m not terribly interested in the Parihaka festival – unless there is a hard news angle from it i.e. riot/police raids etc.”
Replace Parihaka with Waitangi and you get the picture…
To the Police Commissioner
It may seem unusual to address the head of the police in such a public forum. However I have grown tired of institutional processes and complaints procedures that are conducted behind closed doors where the best response one can hope for is a slap on the wrist, and an insistence that responsibility for poor behaviour lies “with a few bad apples”. The incident I wish to bring before the commissioner is not, I believe, solely at the feet of bad apples, but is indicative of the state of ‘race’ relations in Aotearoa/New Zealand generally, an indictment on the level of deeply ingrained racism and despicable attitudes toward Māori in the police force as a whole, and within Pākehā culture generally.
It is fitting that the incident I raise occurred on Waitangi Day 2011. Each year on this day the media descend on Waitangi in hopes of snagging the ‘big’ story, the mammoth event or outrage that has become tasty kai for ingrained mainstream attitudes toward Māori and toward any acknowledgement of Waitangi Day itself. Well sometimes, the devil is in the details – or as grassroots band Trinity Roots would have it ‘It’s the little things, that really matter’. On Waitangi afternoon I sat on the foreshore with two close friends, all of us Māori of various descent, discussing our experiences of the last 24 hours. Just uphill from us were four Pākehā policemen standing watch over the roundabout that leads to the Waitangi camping grounds and festivities. They watched over cars, chatted to tourists and provided part of a very intimidating police presence at Waitangi that was justified no doubt by an understanding of the ‘restlessness of the natives’ on such days; but completely out of kilter with the peaceful and festive atmosphere that predominated on the day. It may be the lack of major incident that inspired the frustration that appeared to underpin the actions of the police in the experience I wish to share.
As we sat talking, a Pākehā woman was walking toward the water with her children, carrying between them a large inflatable motorised dinghy. One of the children was struggling to carry their part of the weight, and the lovely Māori man Charlie we had with us stepped forward to offer her his assistance. She gratefully accepted. As he lent in to pick up the now abandoned handle of the boat, one of the policeman came racing over to the group and called out “OI! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING? WHO’S BOAT IS THAT?”. Precisely at the moment my friend stepped in. The meaning of his uncalled for intention was obvious to all of us. It was a surreal moment that parallels similar incidents many are already so familiar with – pre-1960s segregated Southern USA, where a white man felt no qualms in referring to their black counterparts as “boy” in a similarly derogatory manner. Really, the word “boy” was the only epiphet missing from this policeman’s verbal assault – and make no mistake such racist espousals are always experienced by their target as an assault. The mother carrying the boat muttered something at the policeman and the group ushered the boat to the water. Walking back towards us Charlie glanced up at the policemen who had by now regrouped and were laughing as they looked down at him from their place uphill. It was a familiar sensation to him; the goading, the attempted provocation at some action from him that would justify them exercising the full extent of the power available to them as police officers. An abuse of that power. The glance he gave in and of itself was a risk. To his credit he refused to engage in such a game and walked back toward us. My female friend, his partner Tash – a registered medical doctor, called out as he approached “hey you! Brown boy! What the hell do you think your doing touching that boat”. Realising her tactic I joined in “Yeah you Mowree, we know your type, you’re stealers all of you”. We all ended up in fits of laughter, much to the frustration of the policemen present – I presume there is no enforceable law against laughing, and thus their ability to exert power in the situation was taken from them. In response one of the policeman came over to stand very close to us, with his back to us facing the road, in what we assumed was an attempt to provoke some lashing out at him that would then justify some police action. But we were not about to be drawn into their cat and mouse game and left, laughing still as we went. He returned to his fellow policeman immediately.
In recalling the incident later in the day, in reliving the enormous pain of it, Charlie shared with us that had he been 10 years younger, more prone to such provocation and less resourced to resist such abusive and bullying behaviour, he would have responded as they had wished. He would have become as the police, and many ‘New Zealanders’ wish him to be – one of the ‘haters and wreckers’ of Waitangi. But he is, as many of my people are, too honourable to be drawn in to such a stereotype.
One final comment – A Pākehā woman who appeared to be a friend of the mother-with-the-boat looked very pointedly at Charlie as he returned to us and thanked him loudly for his assistance. I imagine that she saw and realised what had just occurred. I don’t know if it shocked her, it certainly did not shock us, but I appreciated her attempt to offer my friend some solace, some acknowledgement. I don’t imagine she will ever look at the police in quite the same way again. For us it only confirmed what we already know through a lifetime of such small experiences to be true – that in post-colonial Aotearoa the public the police are charged with serving, does not encompass all.
It is not an extraordinary story; similar incidences would form part of the life experience of many Māori. It is not the shocking incident of Māori outrage that so many wish to see presented in their so called impartial mainstream media. It is a small story, and it comes to you from Waitangi on Waitangi Day, 2011.