Images created by young Māori artists in response to the land protection at Ihumātao. Left: Jamie Rolleston. Right: Māori Mermaid.

How art and technology mobilised an army of support for Ihumātao

One thing that has set the fight for Ihumātao apart is the confidence with which multi-media digital communication has been deployed to spread the message far and wide. Peter McKenzie looks at the new tools of the revolution.

The message was sparse. “Tomorrow, midday, Wellington Cenotaph, there is a rally against the confiscation of land in Ihumātao in Auckland. They need feet on the ground. Calling on everybody. Can I count on you and a few friends?” It pinged out at 9pm on Tuesday July 23. Given the late notice, expectations were low.

But word spread quickly. Half an hour before the protest was scheduled to begin, a crowd of 200 had gathered. It was an odd group. Large contingents of Māori youth had turned out and were mixing with woke white law students who had walked over the road from Victoria University’s Pipitea campus. Hardline activists darted in and out of the crowd; one goth, face powdered white, dank black hair slicked back, face covered by a Mad Max-esque respirator, was filming the event.

A speaker grabbed a megaphone and jumped in front of the Cenotaph, telling the group – swelling with hundreds more protestors – to close their eyes and feel Papatūānuku beneath their feet. And then, slowly but surely, the group began to move out onto the crucial intersection at the end of Lambton Quay. A string of tino rangatiratanga flags were draped across one side of the intersection, an enormous banner screaming “Fletcher, Return the Whenua” closed down another. A beaten up sedan was parked in the middle of the road. A smoke bomb on top pumped out riotous orange smoke.

The crowd eventually moved up onto Parliament’s forecourt, ready for a rally and passionate speeches. It didn’t matter. The initial protest is what ground the Wellington CBD to a halt, seized the attention of the news media and demanded the focus of ministers peering out of the Beehive’s windows. It was an unqualified success: screaming the issue of Ihumātao into the ear of government decision-makers, compelling a response. And it had all been organised in the previous 15 hours.

“On Tuesday there was a buzzing and humming in my circles that Pania [Newton] had put out the wero or tono for everyone to get up there,” recalled Tamatha Paul (Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Awa), president of the Victoria University Students Association and a co-organiser of the Wellington protest. “There was a Zoom call that night with SOUL Solidarity Pōneke. Everyone was just like, okay, we need to have an immediate rapid response action. And from then it was literally just sharing the call far and wide.

“I think that really shows the networking power of young people.”

Since the Wellington protest, the Ihumātao dispute, which centres around Fletcher’s proposal to convert land which is sacred to local mana whenua and rich with archeological sites into a major housing development, has dominated the political conversation. That dominance compelled the prime minister to intervene last Friday and halt all plans to build for now. In many ways that success (although fragile by all accounts) can be attributed to that radical networking power of young people, and the countless creative ways in which it has manifested.

That network, travelling along the digital pathways of Facebook Messenger and Zoom videoconferencing, is what allowed SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape, the group leading the Ihumātao occupation) to send out instructions for people to start taking action nationwide. It is what allowed the Wellington hub to rapidly establish an organising structure and plan out logistics. Most crucially, it is what alerted the 400-odd Wellingtonians who seized the CBD that Wednesday afternoon.

The Auckland-based organisers of SOUL have been relying heavily on that digital-first approach to organising and communication ever since they committed to fighting the rezoning and subsequent development at Ihumātao four years ago, largely thanks to one of the six core member Qiane Matata-Sipu, who has a background in journalism, photography and communications. When the eviction notices came last Tuesday to clear out the protectors that have been occupying the land since 2016, Pania Newton, the forcefully charismatic face of SOUL, issued a plea for help via social media on Wednesday. The black and white video, posted to Instagram and Facebook, was sharp and gripping – SOUL’s posts racked up a combined 83,000 views. Each has been shared countless times. It was Ihumātao’s first viral moment. It wouldn’t be the last.

The next day, a new video began making the rounds online, this one showing a procession of young students swathed in grey and black school uniforms, shuffling down the road to Ihumātao and singing as they went. It hit 130,000 combined views on SOUL’s main social media accounts.

SOUL began issuing a stream of new video and photographic content, each one matching a different mood or embodying a different style: on Thursday it was a slickly filmed ‘open letter’ to Jacinda Ardern featuring Huia and Pareamio, “children of Ihumātao”, singing to and pleading with the prime minister to take action. On Friday it was a skillfully designed poster announcing ‘Redemption Songs’, a concert featuring artists like Stan Walker and Ladi6; on Sunday it was blurry, dark handheld footage of a yellow-vested police officer strumming a guitar and leading the crowd in a waiata. Cumulatively, the content attracted hundreds of thousands of views. As each one rocketed across the web it attracted thousands of sympathetic eyes and hundreds of pledges to travel to the whenua.

SOUL weren’t the only ones publishing content either. Te Mahara Swanson-Hall and Puawai Hudson, two young Māori students at Victoria University, were some of the ‘protectors’ (the Ihumātao movement prefers the term to ‘protestors’) filming around Ihumātao. Within days of arriving, Swanson-Hall had posted a “slam poetry piece, dedicated to the kaitiaki who are standing on the whenua with us tonight,” featuring billowing flags and mobile footage of impromptu haka. It reached thousands of her friends and family. “I think it’s cool that we have the tools to use, like videography, photography or audio, just to bring those messages to life,” said Swanson-Hall, her voice muffled as the wind sweeping Ihumātao buffeted her phone.

Swanson-Hall and Hudson quickly followed up with more content, like a video of Hudson at various points around the whenua – at one point between two motionless police officers, another in front of a barricaded road – trying to dispel rumours and confusion about the Ihumātao movement, or an early morning photo posted to Swanson-Hall’s Instagram story of people bundled up in thick coats and editing videos on laptops resting on the grass.

Swanson-Hall and Hudson’s amateur videography was matched by more professional efforts, like that of Anonymouz, whose high-definition video celebrating the Ihumātao movement – featuring sassy kuia and overhead drone shots – exploded to the tune of 161,000 views.

Everything they posted was viewed more and more, as Facebook’s algorithm fed content to the ravenous maw of the public’s interest.

In other words, it’s a mode of communication which has been radically successful – pushing Ihumātao to the forefront of the national conversation and drawing hundreds of determined converts to join those on the whenua.

Swanson-Hall lauded the authenticity it allows for. “It’s a way of putting our own messages out into the world,” she said. More importantly, it allows for the movement to effectively control their message and amplify the peaceful ethos of the movement. “What we’ve been trying to do is put out content which showcases why people are actually here, versus what some media are telling people, but also having the right message that we’re here out of protection for the whenua. We’re not here to protest, we’re here to protect. The message we’re putting out is mana-enhancing. We know the police are just doing their job. We don’t want things escalating on the whenua.”

Of course, the use of art and media to communicate a message is not new to Māori protest movements. Tamatha Paul, the co-organiser of the Wellington rally, is at pains to emphasise the heritage from which this creative outburst springs. “Similar to what we would have seen during Takaparawhā Bastion Point, or you know, any one of those occupations when there were heaps of Māori artists there, like Robyn Kahukiwa or Tame Iti. I think [Māori] always express their frustration through art, whether it was painting, poetry or even film, like Merata Mita.”

This image by artist Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho has been used widely on a number of different platforms to illustrate the struggle at Ihumātao.

But the accessibility of modern technology, the speed of social media, and most crucially, the digital fluency of a new generation of Māori leaders who grew up in an online world, has supercharged that traditional approach. “Everyone is trying to use creative content. It’s quick response, it appeals to emotion, it uses imagery, sound … It shows why it’s so effective. One, it’s accessible. Anyone can use iMovie or MovieMaker or whatever. Two, you don’t need any kind of a license to do it, any kind of a payment to put it online and make it go viral. Three, it’s quick response. On any issue you can immediately respond.”

The creative outpouring online has had a self-fulfilling quality to it. By showcasing the Ihumātao occupation at its best, it’s attracted high-profile names in mainstream popular culture, people like Stan Walker and Ladi6, to the cause, culminating in repeated impromptu concerts which in turn help raise Ihumātao’s profile even further.

It’s a powerful combination of digital-first approaches: rapid-response online communication and organising, a relentless flow of compelling social media content and a keen appreciation of ‘virality’. By using all three, SOUL and the Ihumātao movement have been able to seize the moment and drive the national conversation. Much has been made of the idea that the Ihumātao dispute has Māori on both sides, and that those who support Fletchers have tended to be kaumātua, while those who have led the occupation have tended to be rangatahi. Although not stricly true, this digital-first protest approach is how the generational divide manifests. Indeed, it’s starting to rub some kaumātua the wrong way.

That said, this is an approach grounded in the hard yards of traditional organising and outreach which SOUL has done before this national moment. A hīkoi in March in particular engaged young activists like Tamatha Paul. “I think for a lot of people, especially for young people from kuras and high schools, being involved in that first initial action was really pivotal. There was an atmosphere that was inviting and challenging and I think that was a key part of [spreading SOUL’s message]. Speaking from my perspective, getting involved in that first rally was core to seeing that this was a movement led by young people within a hapu, but was also inclusive of other people getting involved.”

Pania Newton has been especially active, travelling across the country to advocate on the issue, appearing at amateur TED events, speaking to the Human Rights Commission, attending every community hui she could. In doing so she built up a strong network of connections with New Zealand’s activist class. Two of the protest organisers at the Wellington rally described how their involvement with the Ihumātao movement was a direct response to Newton’s impassioned speeches at the activist-oriented Ōtaki Summer Camp. “Our lives were changed.” Without this existing activist network to amplify it, SOUL and the Ihumātao issue could never have caught fire in the way it has.

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The effectiveness of SOUL’s digital-first, virality-oriented, rapid-response millennial organising approach is also rooted in the history of this issue. New Zealand has countless land disputes concerning the modern development of land which was initially confiscated by the Crown from Māori, see for example Shelly Bay.

But none have quite the same power and resonance as Ihumātao. Since it was unjustly confiscated by the government in the aftermath of the Crown’s invasion of the Waikato in 1863, subsequent generations have seen the injustice of Ihumātao’s confiscation compounded – its fertile soil was farmed by white settlers, its waters were poisoned by the local sewage-treatment facility, and 600-year old kōiwi were exhumed from the land during the construction of the nearby airport. As the Waitangi Tribunal reported in its Manukau Report, “The policies that led to the land wars and confiscations are the primary source of grievance, although they occurred last century. It is the continuation of similar policies into recent times that has prevented past wounds from healing.”

Fletcher’s proposal to convert the land into a major housing development is just the latest transgression against Māori in this long history. It is this authentic and prolonged injustice which SOUL’s digital-first communication and organising approach has channeled, attracting the outpouring of grief and sympathy which powered it to prominence.

A prolonged history of suffering attracted a network of traditional and committed activists who organised and communicated in a generationally-unique and digitally-oriented manner: this is the potent political mix which allowed Ihumātao to grip the attention of the nation. And while the particular history of Ihumātao is unique, the rest of that potent mix is not. This is the future of New Zealand political activism.


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