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Image: Don Rowe.
Image: Don Rowe.

ĀteaJuly 23, 2019

‘I’ve had my tangi’: Police descend on the occupants of Ihumātao

Image: Don Rowe.
Image: Don Rowe.

After months of protest, the last occupants were moved off Ihumātao in south Auckland by police this afternoon. Don Rowe reports. 

Most of the occupants of Ihumātao had been moved on. The police, numbering at least 30, had finally made good on their promise to remove mana whenua from Kaitiaki Village, enforcing Fletcher Building’s demands ahead of a planned 480-home subdivision. 

The land, which sits on fertile isthmus near Auckland Airport, was confiscated by the Crown during the invasion of the Waikato in 1863, and is now under the control of the predominantly foreign-owned Fletcher Building. Protesters have permanently occupied the land for months.

Darren Goodfellow has lived in the area for 20 years. Standing opposite the cordon, he gestured at a line of silent police blocking the entrance to Ihumātao.

“Seems like a good use of police resources, eh? Same old – profits before principle.”

A car pulled up onto the grass verge and three women got out. A protester near the police line turned, laughed and called out.

“Hey Aunty, no swearing, no fighting, all right?”

“I’ve been to many a protest,” replied a small woman in patterned gumboots, brushing herself off. “I know how to behave. I’m getting fish and chips!”

“I’ve had my tangi,” she grumbled, walking away.

By 1pm the police Eagle helicopter was circling, its rotors thwack-thwacking above the crowd assembled at the blockade. There was talk of occupants moving on adjacent land, and on the Ōtuataua Stonefields a group of supporters could be seen. Some wondered if the helicopter was searching the tree lines.

Image: Don Rowe.

Behind the police cordon the last occupants sat at a fold-out table, drinking tea and eating toast by a cast-iron woodfire. 

Two small dogs moved in and out of the police line, the only ones given free rein to cross back and forward. The road past Ihumātao is a busy stretch, with what feels like a truck every minute moving past, and periodically there would be horns tooting tautoko.

Aunty – no last name given – moved along the police line, a paper packet of hot chips in her outstretched arms. None of the police made eye contact.

“That’s the way of kaitiaki,” she said to the crowd. “You look after everybody.”

“Our job as Māori is kaitiaki, offering them a kai. It’s not their fault, they’re just like us. This is the mahi of a kaitiaki. We manaaki everybody on both sides. If they don’t want it, then kei te pai.”

Image: Don Rowe.

Soon the packet made it behind police lines, eyed suspiciously by two police photographers.

Gathered on the roadside were mothers, babies, kuia, dogs, prams. The community had turned out, and more were expected after school. At 1.30pm the Mana Party flag was raised, skirting underneath the low-hanging power lines. First Union was there, and Save Our Unique Land, and representatives from the Green Party. 

Every few minutes a plane left Auckland Airport, and when the wind stopped the sound of saws and hammers and drills came from the growing, growing, growing industrial parks behind the fences hung with protest signs. 

“Fletchers building on burial ground,” they said. “Fletchers you shall not pass.” 

Soon another paddy wagon arrived, nosing into the driveway. Assembled on deck chairs, the crowd began to stir. 

A union rep approached the driver’s door.

“There are already paddy wagons here, what is this needed for? Why does it need to be here?” he said.

“These are for containing criminals. There are no criminals here.”

Protesters block a paddy wagon from accessing the site. Image: Don Rowe.

As the protesters began to sing, their arms linked, the police became restless. They lined up in single-file rows behind the barricade, looking sideways at one another. 

“This is just like Bastion Point,” Aunty said. “It’s wrong.”

Soon the police backed down and the paddy wagon left to cheers. But behind the line the table and tea were gone, and the last occupants had been moved off the site.

“It was better to do this peacefully,” one said as they left. “We need calm.”

Earlier in the day, kaumātua including Te Warena Taua from mana whenua iwi Te Kawerau-a-Maki had walked onto the land to deliver eviction notices on behalf of Fletcher.

The gesture, said  Fletcher chief executive Steve Evans, was “a powerful message to protesters to leave. It was a request from elders who have lived at Ihumātao all their lives – not from Fletcher Building or police, but from those people who know this land, and its importance.”

But not everybody agreed with the sentiment. The occupying group SOUL delivered a petition with almost 20,000 signatures supporting their actions to parliament in March. There are iwi interests on both sides. As protesters began to disperse, a young woman sat her camp chair in front of the police line, staring up at them in defiance. 

“Imagine it being your job to evict kaitiaki. You have sick days. You could have stayed home,” she said.

“You’re complicit in colonisation. The armed constabulary at Parihaka were just doing their job. Apartheid police in South Africa were just doing their job.”

And then, from within the crowd, barely audible: “You’re a waste of tā moko”

The people were cleared from Ihumātao, but the whenua, as ever, remains in conflict. And as reports filtered in later of protesters returning, and arrests being made, it was very clear that the battle for Ihumātao it is far from any resolution.

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