Activists Samah Seger and Chris Huriwai – together, the Aotearoa Liberation League – are gaining attention for their hard-hitting social media videos on a range of social justice issues. They tell Don Rowe what drives them.
The planet is in a pretty bad spot. The Yangtze River is drying up and wildfires tore across much of Europe this summer. Meanwhile the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine has severely delayed climate change action and, in many countries, prompted a rush back towards fossil fuels. Here in Aotearoa we may not have the same issues with fuel, but we still have to deal with regular “100-year” storms, stubborn wealth inequality and the ongoing effects of colonisation on many of our most vulnerable populations.
These problems, argue a new and rapidly growing animal justice project, don’t exist in isolation – and nor do their solutions. The Aotearoa Liberation League (ALL) was founded by Chris Huriwai and Samah Seger in July last year to campaign for veganism, social justice, non-violence and decolonisation in Aotearoa. Their content – slick, shareable and social media friendly – has since exploded in popularity, with more than 50,000 followers across Instagram and TikTok, as well as millions of views and likes.
With no background in media production, ALL have learned on the job, gearing their mahi towards a predominately online and politically active audience. But it’s not always a comfortable watch. From racism, to inequality, misogyny and raupatu, ALL shines a light on some of aspects of Aotearoa that many would prefer to ignore. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth, an ALL TikTok criticising the tone-policing of colonised peoples was viewed almost two million times with a broadly positive reception. Other videos criticising the carceral state have been less well received.
View this post on Instagram
Huriwai, the face of last year’s exposé on the dairy industry Milked, says there is a growing appetite in Aotearoa for a conversation about who we are, and not just who we imagine ourselves to be.
“Throughout all my work I’ve learned that people are crying out for accessible, high quality information that’s easy to understand,” Huriwai says. “Brand NZ has constructed a great reputation in regards to the products we produce and the luxury experiences we offer, so peeling back those layers to show the whole picture is confronting. But more and more people are wanting an honest, self-aware reshaping of ourselves.”
Homeschooled in rural Otaua, Huriwai went vegetarian at 13, motivated by the time he spent with animals, in the bush, and at his awa Mangatawa. A job with Māori health organisation Te Hau Ora O Ngāpuhi exposed Huriwai to the full spectrum of interrelated issues facing iwi Māori and he began to feel that addressing things in isolation created incomplete solutions.
They were things like poverty and substance abuse, but also health issues like obesity, which he realised could be addressed in part with a strategy of replacing animal products with healthy plant-based options.
“But of course enabling those behavioural changes is another thing, especially given the culture our country has built around our primary exports, which I started seeing as a barrier for our people to adopt healthier habits.”
For Seger, who went vegan during her time at law school, developing an understanding of the relationship between humans and animals meant exploring forces like media hegemony and political theories like Marxism.
“In the process I learnt that animal oppression comes from the same dominating ideas that subjugate the majority of humanity and our ecosystems,” she says.
Growing up in a politically conscious family in Iraq, Seger was encouraged to think critically about the world at large, and to empathise with the oppressed.
“I understood, from a young age, that there were powerful interests who could get away with destroying entire countries. Coming to live here and seeing the portrayal of the invasion of Iraq and of the Middle East more generally gave me the opportunity to experience how the media shapes public perception in a way that maintains current power structures. All of this has made it easier for me to accept and understand how other massive injustices could exist.”
These injustices, say Seger, are inextricable from one another. The goal of ALL is to connect the dots and create a united front in opposition to the forces of capitalism and colonisation. And it all starts with the liberation of the natural world.
“Whether it’s the domination of animals, workers, women, queer folks, indigenous people or our natural world – the various oppressive systems are just different sides of the master’s house, holding each other up,” Seger says. “One of the main teachings in this house is that humans are separate and above nature and other animals. This view has reduced our land and other animals to resources to be chopped up and consumed.
“Animal agriculture has always been a big part of the colonial story – from the theft and destruction of Māori land, to the diseases it brought along. Today this industry controls most of our land, it influences our public health, freshwater and climate policies, and it receives billions in subsidies for cleaning up their pollution, controlling diseases and researching technofixes.”
Following the release of Milked, Huriwai was invited on to the AM Show for an interview about the documentary. Before the end of the segment, however, the producers brought on the CEO of DairyNZ, Tim Mackle, for what was presented as a head-to-head debate. ALL called it an ambush.
“Looking back we were definitely being naive on the AM Show interview,” says Seger. “It’s a reminder to not take the power of the dairy industry for granted. Their goal is to market their narratives about dairy and they have the platform and resources to do it with.
“But thankfully in this digital age, social media gives us a way to reach people outside of traditional media outlets which are by design resistant to disruptive ideas.”
View this post on Instagram
Other resistance has come from a darker place. The introduction of Three Waters – and the government’s apparent inability to clearly articulate the nature and necessity of the changes – has stoked a fierce backlash, much of it racist.
“Although Māori will be given more of a voice [under Three Waters], the vague nature of the government has been a great example of what happens when information isn’t clear and accessible,” says Huriwai, noting that some groups have exploited the confusion to promote the idea that Three Waters is an “asset grab” by Māori.
Huriwai says he tries to approach such push-back from a place of empathy. “Colonial New Zealand is gaining some self-awareness, so naturally there are growing pains at the moment and we need to acknowledge those pains and help those struggling to reach the other side.”
The best way to fight back is to foster community, he says. “Our focus needs to be on building bridges, fast. It doesn’t matter how strong our bubbles are if we’re failing to bridge them and align our common goals.” This means getting out of our comfort zones, practising patience and being open to sharing kai with those we may disagree with.
“Because if we’re not willing to do that, we’ll never match the strength of those that benefit from the status quo.”
Don Rowe is a Māori political affairs reporter, creating public interest journalism funded through NZ On Air.