Black Lives Matter March For Solidarity in Auckland on June 1, 2020 (Photo: Jihee Junn)
Black Lives Matter March For Solidarity in Auckland on June 1, 2020 (Photo: Jihee Junn)

OPINIONĀteaJune 4, 2020

The whakapapa of police violence

Black Lives Matter March For Solidarity in Auckland on June 1, 2020 (Photo: Jihee Junn)
Black Lives Matter March For Solidarity in Auckland on June 1, 2020 (Photo: Jihee Junn)

From 1846 onwards, various militia came together to form the New Zealand Armed Constabulary Force, to ‘combat Māori hostiles and to keep civil order’. In 1885 they changed uniforms and became the New Zealand Police. We’re still feeling the effects of that whakapapa today, writes Emilie Rākete. 

America is burning, burning like Rome. And like the peoples of the Mediterranean watching smoke on the horizon, I can’t say I’m sad to see it burn. George Floyd, pinned down by American cops and choked to death in the street for us to watch on camera. George’s murder wasn’t what started the fire. Like one of those nightmare coal towns you see on Discovery TV at 2am, the fire has been raging underground for centuries, jumping from hidden seam to hidden seam, screaming out fury and pain in the dark. A country founded on slavery, colonisation and genocide never stands forever. The foundations turn to ash, the whole thing starts to reek of a funeral pyre. Like ancient Rome, the blood and fire on which America sustained itself are choking it to death. In the streets. While we all watch.

I’m not happy to see America engulfed in civil conflict. The immensity of the horror we’re seeing unfold – Black people gunned down in protest blocs, children gagging on tear gas – is too much to take at face value. It would be too easy, it would absolve us of too much, to declare America beyond comprehension and leave it there.

We have a methodology for relating to the unknowable: in te ao Māori, we call it whakapapa. Whakapapa is the work of fitting every thing in the world into a historical framework, determining its genealogy and therefore its connection to every other thing in the world. The whakapapa of George Floyd descends from his ancestors. The whakapapa of smoke descends from fire. The whakapapa of a photojournalist’s obliterated eyeball descends from a policeman’s 40mm rubber-coated crowd control bullet. Whakapapa is a science of regression. Whakapapa is a psychological journey backwards in time, crawling into the grave, entering into midnight zones ruled over by the dead.

10,000 people marched in Tāmaki Makaurau to remember George Floyd. Through the science of whakapapa, they also marched to fight for George. What those cops did to him isn’t inexplicable, impossible, or unthinkable. Aotearoa isn’t a world apart from America. New Zealand has lived its history, has committed its crimes, this country has lit its own fires. My ancestors were caught in the flames, burned up at Ruapekapeka in 1846, victims of the Armed Constabulary Force’s campaign to pacify Hone Heke’s war of national liberation. I went to Ruapekapeka, saw the defensive trenches dug to resist cannonfire. The tunnels ran deep underground, further than I could see. If a young toa, fighting to defend his home from the constabulary, was hit by a rocket and set alight, how far down the tunnel could he have crawled? Howling? Something caught fire down there, just like it did in America. Strands of brown hair and sheets of brown skin peeled off in those tunnels and never stopped burning. Aotearoa is on fire, too, and I can smell the smoke.

Protesters hold up their fists as flames rise behind them in front of the Third Police Precinct on May 28, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Photo by Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

When the Armed Constabulary Force finished their repeated wars against Māori insurgencies, they changed uniforms in 1885 and became the New Zealand Police. This is the contradiction in the bedrock of our country, the coalfire we only recognise during exceptional bursts of subterranean violence. The war on our streets, the war overwhelmingly waged by the police against the Māori proletariat, is far from a metaphor. The Land Wars never ended, we just started calling them the War on Crime. As the extremes of our society have worsened, as New Zealand has travelled further than anyone ever thought possible in the simultaneous directions of accumulation and dispossession, the war has only become more bloody.

In the 1980s Māori became the primary victims of police violence once again. The rate at which the state holds Māori as prisoners has become utterly disproportionate. Māori are today almost eight times more likely than Pākehā to be the victims of police violence. Māori and Pacific people make up two-thirds of those shot and killed by police. Now we see the police remembering their identity as the Armed Constabulary Force and pushing to pick up the guns they put down in 1885. The Armed Response Teams, armed patrols of police officers armed with assault rifles, would see the end of an unarmed police force in New Zealand and a return to the military occupation of Māori communities.

Aime Cesaire, in his Discourse on Colonialism, argues that “a civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.” As a nation we still, despite tokenistic bicultural gestures at the highest level of the state, cannot look at our foundations. We’re too arrogant to acknowledge we live on a mound of carbonised corpses, human charcoal laid down by two centuries of subjugation. Three decades after Moana Jackson’s He Whaipaanga Hou found systemic and irredeemable racism at every level of our criminal justice system, nothing has gotten better for us. Police racism against Māori is more brutal, more violent, more common. The bad old days are now.

People Against Prisons Aotearoa started the Arms Down Campaign to fight back against the Armed Response Teams. We are gathering our communities’ stories about police violence. We have a tool that puts you directly in touch with the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for allowing the return of armed policing.

The outcome if Armed Response Teams are put back on the streets is a foregone conclusion. The New Zealand Police engage in racist discrimination against Māori. The police discriminate with their fists. The police discriminate with their tasers. If we close our eyes to it, the police will discriminate with firearms, and Māori blood will soak into the stolen soil of this country. America is being incinerated by a whakapapa of genocide and slavery that those in power lacked the courage to confront. Aotearoa faces the same decision today. The colonial horror of the Armed Constabularies is part of our whakapapa. We can act now to prevent the racist police terror we know is to come, or we can allow the blood to continue pooling around our feet.

When enough of this fuel trickles into the underground fires lit by colonisation, you and me and all of us will be burned alive. And I won’t be sad to know we burned.

Emilie Rākete is one of the founders of People Against Prisons Aotearoa and Arms Down NZ

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