A video of the arrest of a Māori man has gone viral, as police violence goes under the microscope globally. The police say the man violently resisted and their behaviour was appropriate. But the video reveals a familiar cycle, argues Emilie Rākete.
A week ago, police commissioner Andrew Coster stood in St Peters Church in Wellington to speak about the racist police killing of George Floyd. Coster spoke about the years of racist injustice perpetrated by his organisation (or as he put it: “unexplained discrepancies between like situations”). Coster spoke about the importance of change. Coster spoke about his personal commitment to ending racist police violence against Māori. And then, over the weekend, a group of cops pinned down Nikau Andrews and, he says, left him with injuries including a ruptured sternum.
This is the inane cycle of reform that Māori have been struggling with for the last 40 years. It began, in earnest, with Moana Jackson’s He Whaipaanga Hou, the first comprehensive report demonstrating the depth of the racism in the criminal justice system. Since then, the police have framed the problem as one of diversity and inclusivity: that police racism is due to too few Māori being cops, and too few Māori doing our part to help the cops do better. Coster recited these same excuses in his church speech, praising the diversity of his organisation and calling for “dialogue”, “a meeting of minds”, so we can “achieve the change we wish to see”. Yet even as the force boasts more brown officers than ever, police data shows the disproportionality of police violence against Māori is at historical highs. Despite the proliferation of ethnic, iwi and diversity liaison officers tasked with seeking community input, the rate at which police kill Māori and Pacific people has never been higher. The cycle of reform rolls on, pitiless, crushing us beneath it.
Watching a pile of cops pinning Nikau Andrews’ handcuffed body to the pavement, it looks less like a cycle of reform and more like the cycle of abuse that psychologist Lenore Walker used to describe domestic violence. Like your friend’s sobbing boyfriend, teary-eyed after beating the shit out of her again, NZ Police have asked Māori to believe them when they tell us that this time they are really going to stop beating and abusing us. This is the remorseful phase of the cycle of abuse. The violence, the abuser admits, was awful. Inexcusable. It can never happen again. The only solution, they tell us, is to cling tighter to them. We have to work with them on their journey. The nature of that journey, naturally, will be dictated to us on their terms.
A cop might call you, as one called me before my speech at Auckland’s Black Lives Matter rally, to ask if maybe talking to a liaison officer about racist police killings would make you feel better. Aren’t things so much better now? The police have listened to us. Andrew Coster, or other uniforms like him, are wheeled out at community events to show their smiling faces. If the police were a racist organisation, would Coster speak at a vigil for George Floyd? Surely not. Things must have changed. But of course, apologetic words from the cops don’t change our society. Māori still reside in the poorest neighbourhoods, working the worst jobs, making the lowest wages, living the most difficult lives. The tension phase of the cycle is unbearable. This inevitably causes social dysfunction, and so to avoid acknowledging the obvious – that capitalism depends on our misery in order to exist – the cops are sent in to pummel us into submission.
Reforming the criminal justice system looks like Coster’s face, mournful in the candlelit church. A young man spray painting a wall. A cop’s weight on a brown head. We must help the police do better. Another young Māori. More bruised flesh. Another apology. Reconciliation. Brown skin. Gunshots. Apology. Blood. Apology. Blood. The abusive cycle of police reform commands us to keep it turning, to ignore how much gore is churned up when we do. Like all abused people, Māori have been told insistently that the only way things will get better is if we work with the police. Our anger, our sickened and tired outrage is captured by heartfelt police spokespeople. All this sacred mamae is channelled into reform efforts that have amounted, in our nation’s entire history, to a pathetic and miserable nothing. The police have not killed so many Māori since killing Māori was literally their job in the Land Wars. You can’t reform a mass grave.
The sad death of a police officer in Auckland last week, the first such killing in more than a decade, was a tragic and upsetting deviation from the norm. Police report workplace assaults at about half the rate educators report workplace injuries. The injuries of Nikau Andrews, a handcuffed and immobilised Māori man, were tragic and upsetting because this is the norm. Māori have been watching our cousins, our friends, our loved ones being pinned down and abused by the police since cops first started toting muskets on our shores. We have been trained to be numb to it, to ignore the black eyes and the bruises and ask the police how we can help them. Trying to reform the police is not a psychologically healthy response born out of love for our people or a realistic expectation that it will change things. Believing the police can be reformed in 2020, after four decades of failure and bloodshed, is a trauma response binding us to the very institution that is harming and killing us. The worse they hurt us, the worse we let them treat us. The cycle of police reform is a death spiral.
In the aftermath of the racist killing of George Floyd, Black communities in America have rallied behind the demand to disarm, defund and disband the police. These acts will minimise the immediate threat posed to Black lives, provide new opportunities and new means by which life can be made possible, and finally end the system of racist state terror that started with slave patrols.
None of the cops who injured Nikau Andrews have been fired. Despite his beautiful words, Andrew Coster has done nothing to give Nikau justice. We will have to fight for it ourselves. It’s time to abandon the cycle of reform, the endless blood-drenched road to nowhere. New solutions are needed to save our lives, a new strategy of police abolition rooted in our own power and not that of our abuser.
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