It is time to talk about Christchurch’s racist past, and present

Cantabrians have shown great compassion and generosity to Muslim and migrant communities following the terrorist attacks. But properly healing the wounds of March 15 also requires facing up to the city’s racist history, writes Dr Rawiri Taonui

Content warning: this post includes offensive images and descriptions of violence and racist language.

Following the terrorist attacks in Christchurch three months ago, Mayor Lianne Dalziel said the shooter was an outsider who had imported “hatred” and “extremism” into a city that was neither white supremist nor Islamophobic. It is certainly true that the accused gunman was born and raised in Australia, and that his New Zealand base had been Dunedin. It is true, too, that the tragedy inspired an overwhelming display of compassion and generosity from the wider Christchurch community toward Muslim and migrant communities. But none of that should blind us to another truth: the seam of racism that runs through the city’s history.

On Friday, outside the High Court in Christchurch, where the accused in the mosque murders had earlier pleaded not guilty, a man was reported to be expressing Nazi views in the direction of survivors of the attacks. It would be comforting to think this was an aberration in Christchurch’s story. It is no such thing.

The city’s violent, white supremacist past needs to be addressed in order to heal from the wounds of March 15.

My life in Christchurch

Christchurch is a great city. I lived there for 10 years. During the aftermath of the main earthquake, people helped each other. Neighbours dug liquefaction out of each other’s yards. My family ran a relief effort in the eastern suburbs.

On my first day as a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury a neighbour rang to report that “a large Māori man has just come out of one of your houses on Ilam Road.” Without checking the rental list, security stormed our house. On the second day, someone at the Recreation Centre refused to believe I was staff. I complained and received a verbal apology that this had never happened before. Months later, a long-serving Māori colleague asked me “Guess what happened to me at the Recreation Centre?” I guessed correctly. On our third day in Christchurch, a skinhead approached my wife in a supermarket saying: “You look pretty, pity you aren’t white.” Her reply: “Pity I’m not desperate.”

And on it went. Constantly being asked what I was studying, and replying “I am the new Senior Lecturer.” An anonymous hate note in the internal work mail; the hand writing later matched to a retired Pākehā colleague. A college funding committee requesting only my CV from a research team. My daughter called a ‘nigger’ at a football game.

In many ways, Christchurch is no different than anywhere else in New Zealand. We’ve experienced racism in Auckland, Wellington, Palmerston North and elsewhere; but much more of it in Christchurch. I lost count of the people who asked if ‘Doctor’ was my first name.

White racism against Māori

Contemporary white racism has origins in the slave trade and colonisation during which European countries applied a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of races, from white to brown to yellow to black, to justify the exploitation of labour and extraction of natural resources from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania.

Māori bore the brunt of colonial racism in New Zealand. When forced selling and confiscation of impacted Māori populations, Member of Parliament Robert Bruce declared ‘we could not devise a more ingenious method of destroying the whole of the Māori race than by these land courts … a great number die’.

Racism expressed itself in violence. The Kai Iwi Colonial Calvary sabred and shot naked Māori boys at Handleys Woolshed. There were summary executions in the Urewera Forest, bounties for Māori heads in the Taranaki and pacifist Parihaka was sacked.

With suppression of culture and language added to war and land loss, Māori entered an intergenerational cycle of poverty, poor housing, differential rates of arrest, conviction and imprisonment, unequal health care and poor pass rates in education.

Conversely, the economic, political and cultural benefits that accrued from this racism established a ‘white privilege’ in ‘power, advantage and patterns of thinking’, one most often less understood by those it benefits.

White racism against other communities

During the 19th and early 20th centuries racism reached into fledgling Chinese and Indian communities. Edward Terry shot and killed Joe Kum Yung to highlight the ‘danger of the yellow peril’. Prime Minister William Massey said New Zealand should remain a ‘pure Anglo-Saxon … white man’s country’. Chinese and Indians were denied citizenship until 1952.

Supported by 160 of 200 local government bodies, Pukekohe threaded three anti-non-white strands together excluding Māori, Chinese and Indians from barbers’ shops and private bars and segregated seating in the cinema and public pool.

Racism haunted the Jewish community. The 1930s New Zealand Social Credit Party and later League of Rights drew on the anti-Semitism of fascist Nazi Germany. In the 1970s, Pacific peoples were targeted through Dawn Raids searching for ‘overstayers’. Changes to New Zealand’s immigration policy in the mid-80s saw a renewed targeting of Asians and more recently the Muslim community.

Chinese, Indian and Māori labourers in Pukekohe’s market gardens in the 1960s. These groups were excluded from barber shops and pubs, and made to sit in a designated area in the local cinema. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library

White racism in Christchurch

Racism varies by demographic mix, is higher in European dominated areas, follows international trends, intensifies during hardship and grows in response to real and imagined threats.

The 1970s New Zealand economic downturn, rising unemployment, and 1980s/1990s Roger and Ruthanomics restructuring, which disproportionately impacted low socio-economic Māori and Pacific communities, also differentially impacted predominantly white working class communities in the European dominated South Island.

Add a strengthening women’s movement, the Māori Renaissance, changes to New Zealand immigration laws and the emergence of alt-right online opportunities for young white males burdened with the inadequacy of not advantaging from white privilege and Christchurch had the perfect mix for the rise of white-supremacist racism.

From the late 1960s onwards, more street level white racist groups emerged in Christchurch than elsewhere in New Zealand. Some were local. Others such as the Harris Gang branched out with offshoots like the Road Knights and Bandekreig Skinheads. The Skinhead Bastards and the Fourth Reich formed in Christchurch’s Paparua Prison.

Most adopted Nazi ideology and regalia. Some affiliated overseas. The New Zealand National Front followed the anti-immigrant British National Front, another became a chapter of the British based Blood and Honour, the Southern Hammerskins joined the American centred Hammerskins Nation. Umbrella organisations formed uniting multiple groups. The Skinhead Bastards, the New Zealand Hammerskins and other groups joined the National Front forming the National Front Skinheads.

Violence followed. Harris gang member Neil Swain took witnesses hostage, firebombed houses and nail-bombed a police station. In 1989, skinhead Glen McAllister shot and killed an innocent bystander then took his own life.

Racist violence was exported out of Christchurch. Members of the Fourth Reich were convicted of killing a young Māori man, Hemi Hutley, and throwing him in the Buller River. Afterwards, killer Aaron Howie allegedly told his brother “We killed that nigger”. Hayden McKenzie and another member, Shannon Flewellen, killed South Korean student Jae Hyeon Kim on the West Coast because they wanted an ‘Aryan and pure’ New Zealand.

In 2004, members of the Christchurch Asian community organised an anti-racism march after skinheads assaulted a student from Vietnam. Canadian Professor Audrey Kobayashi, who analysed debate around the march, concluded that rather than focusing on the needs of the victims, community leaders concentrated instead on minimising the perception that the white community harboured racism. For example, then-mayor Garry Moore accused the organisers of staging a “forum for extremists” and a previous mayor, Vicki Buck, said that apart from the odd incident by peripheral groups, she “didn’t see any racism” in Christchurch.

The extent of white racist violence

The full extent of this violence will never be known because New Zealand does not record hate crime data. From 2004 onwards, we do have informal monitoring of media-reported hate crimes via the Human Rights Commission’s Annual Race Relations Report – Tui, Tui, Tuia (these were discontinued after 2013 by incoming Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy).

The available reports between 2005 and 2013, cross-checked with media, show 108 incidents of racist violence and harassment against more than 200 victims, ranging across murders, three firearms incidents, a bombing, assaults, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues and mosques, arson of a synagogue, setting dogs on Asians, and driving new immigrant citizens from their homes and in some cases to leave the country.

The targets were Asian (37%), Muslim (28%), Indian (14%), Jews (6%), Māori (5%) and Pacific (4%) and other non-white immigrants (4%).

By number of incidents, 52% were in the South Island (home to 23% of the New Zealand population); 48% were in the North Island (77% of the population).

The highest percentage by city were Christchurch (24%), Nelson (12%), Wellington and the Hutt Valley (11%), Auckland (10%), Invercargill and Dunedin (6% each).

The higher rate in Christchurch (population 400,000) compared to Auckland (1.4 million) reflects the demographic differential: Christchurch is 87% European and Auckland is 59% European. Similarly, Nelson, with the second highest rate, lies in the 93%-European Tasman region.

Racism in Christchurch today

Christchurch racism continues to the present day. In 2011, Jared Peck was sentenced to two years in prison after he and others attacked five Asian people on Riccarton Rd. That same year, Phillipa Parker and her boyfriend Steven Donaldson set dogs on Asian people walking along Lincoln Rd. A Chinese man was attacked three-on-one and had his jaw broken.

In 2015, 40 to 50 rugby supporters racially harassed Fijian player Sake Aca, including calling him a “black cunt”. In the same year, student Malo Seumanutafa said his Christchurch school experience regularly included the epithets “black nigger”, “darkie” and “fuckin boonga”.

In 2016, Newshub obtained a video of Christchurch businessman Philip Arps delivering a pig’s heads to the Al Noor mosque, performing a Nazi salute and declaring he’d prefer to deliver “molotov cocktails … get the fuckers out, the rules are changing, bring on the cull”.

The website for Arps’ Nazi-themed Christchurch business Beneficial Insulation was named ‘BIIG.com’, after a barracks in Auschwitz concentration camp. Meterage was charged at $14.88, a numeric symbol that references a 14-word Nazi phrase from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf  and the eighth letter of the alphabet, standing for ‘Heil Hitler’. His ‘Black Sun’ business logo, also used by the Christchurch shooter, is one Heinrich Himmler had embossed on the floor of the SS Centre at Wewelsburg Castle.

On social media, Arps described the shootings as ‘excellent’. Other posts say he would “machine gun Jews” because “Hitler was right”: the “filthy little Jew lies behind everything”. Arps is now convicted for distributing the video of the mosque shootings, including asking an associate to add “cross hairs” and a “kill counter”. When questioned he said, “I could not give a fuck”.

This year, Darius Shahtahmasebi, a specialist in humanitarian refugee and immigrant law, said racism is “normalised” for Muslims and Asians living in Christchurch, including skinhead harassment and regular swastika and ‘Asian go home’ graffiti in high school toilets.

Last month Against Racism Ōtautahi launched a poster campaign highlighting racism in Christchurch. The images included skinheads stomping the sandwiches of Pacific kids playing in a park, and African and Muslim women being told to take off their scarves, go back to their own country and being called ‘terrorists’.

Christchurch business owner Philip Arps, whose company logo is a sunwheel, an Indo-European symbol appropriated by Nazi Germany, was arrested in March on two charges of distributing the mosque murders video. (Image: Facebook)

The Right Wing Resistance

Far-right expert Professor Paul Spoonley has said that we ought not over-estimate right wing groups “because very often they are exceedingly small”. He points out that numbers have declined and figures such as Kyle Chapman have moved on.

True, street level white supremacist groups are small. But that is precisely what makes them dangerous. Small resists infiltration and conceals violence. Small is agile. Units move from Skinhead, National Front, Right Wing Resistance and now Resistance 14. And numbers are growing.

Founded in 2009 by Kyle Chapman, the Right Wing Resistance (RWR) created a new model of street level white supremacy. They denied being racist or fascist and avoided public displays of the swastika and Nazi salute. The public face included marches, leafletting, celebrating ‘white European culture’, ‘street patrols’ to ‘protect the public’, a Fight Club for fitness and a Survive Club for paintball and camping. Like the Boys Brigade, there were smart black uniforms and ranks like general, colonel and unit leader.

However, archived posts from now banned sites (links withheld) paint an entirely different picture. Members believe whites are superior, Māori are dumb, Asians are not to be trusted and Muslims here to “take over New Zealand”, “rape white women” and “kill all our pets”.

The ‘Aryan symbols’ the RWR used to replace the swastika were invariably drawn from the Waffen SS. The wolfsangel insignia on the RWR logo is from the SS Das Reich Division; the lapel and cuff insignia on uniforms also from the SS. Away from the media, leaders and members appear in numerous photos performing Nazi salutes and wielding swastika flags, including on a wedding cake.

Small militia units called ‘Retaliators’ wore balaclavas and carried weapons including hatchets, slashers and rifles and likely tasked with beating non-whites. The Fight Club and Survive camps were about preparing for inter-racial war. RWR leader Vaughan Tocker said that since his wife had left him for an Egyptian man he was preparing for “inevitable race war”.

Members were encouraged to obtain firearms. They often posed with firearms, several of which remain legal under the new Arms Act. The emergence of RWR paralleled the rise of white violence in Christchurch.

Exporting hate out of Christchurch

Utilising the web, the RWR exported their model around New Zealand and overseas. By 2012, a dozen other New Zealand branches had emerged. By 2015, there were RWR units in 27 other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, a dozen in mainland Europe, two in Latin America and several in the United States and Canada. Chapman and later Tocker held the position of World Leader. Scandinavia’s newly emerged and very strong Nordic Resistance Movement resembles the RWR model.

In 2016, the RWR joined the Black & Silver Solution, which included the Sadistic Souls MC, the Aryan Nations, the Creativity Movement, a pantheistic white church advocating ‘holy racial war’, and the remnant United Klans of America, whose members carry convictions for bombing a black church, lynching a black man and other murders.

The networks were such that there is no doubt that the shooter in Christchurch was aware of the RWR. It is difficult not to think that some of them knew of him. And, rather than Chapman moving on, he has been busy advising on the setting up of groups on university campuses.

As the RWR label waned, other groups have formed, such as the defunct Auckland University European Club, the Western Guard and the Dominion Movement. Currently in hiding, they are smarter, better educated and more security conscious than the RWR, and will re-emerge.

Kyle Chapman (centre) and reps from Blood & Honour, Southern Skinheads, White Pride and National Front celebrating the 4th anniversary of RWR. (Image: Facebook)

Combatting white supremacy

Natasha Frost wrote that “the biggest barrier to fighting racism in New Zealand is a reluctance to admit that it exists”. There is denial about racism in Christchurch. As Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has said, “We can’t pretend this was an aberration from overseas. The truth is it happened here.”

Māori Party president Che Wilson has called for a national conversation on racism. We can be braver about treating white supremist racism and violence as terrorism. It took several hours for the ‘t’ word to be used on the day of the Christchurch shootings, but better than not at all.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s campaign against harassment and hate speech on social media is good, but will only go so far. There are many options for hate on the dark web and sites in other countries. At the highest level we need stronger hate speech laws. We need a database of hate crimes and incidents including the ethnicity of both victims and perpetrators.

We must also consider banning violent hate groups. Finland is currently in the process of outlawing the Nordic Resistance. We can also ban Nazi symbols, including not only the swastika and Nazi salute, which are barred in Germany and France, but also Waffen SS symbols. None of these measures infringes constructive free speech.

We should also acknowledge the heroes in the struggle against racism: generations of tireless Māori activists and Treaty proponents, groups like Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga, people like those on Twitter who exposed Arps, others who are reporting distributors of the shooting video, Helene Wong who has called for more peer pressure to challenge racism, Pearl Little who has challenged her university about alt-right racism and Vera Alves who has called on people to report racism in personal and online contexts.

We can commend cities like Nelson which, rather than deny the problem, decided a decade ago to confront racism with the Nelson – Tasman Speak Out initiative. We should also support Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel. She has a difficult task ahead, but she’s gutsy, and on the day itself was the first to describe the attack in Christchurch as ‘an act of terrorism’. We’ll need more bravery like that in order to win the long, hard battle in front of us.


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