Thousands of New Zealanders took to the streets on Queen’s Birthday to express solidarity with the US response to the killing of George Floyd. Here’s what went down.
Despite it being announced with less than 24 hours’ notice, huge crowds gathered at Auckland’s Aotea Square on Queen’s Birthday to march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Organised by a group of young people from New Zealand’s African community, the march sought to peacefully stand with those in the US protesting the killing of George Floyd, an African American man who was suffocated by a Minneapolis police officer.
By the time speeches began late afternoon, Aotea Square was filled to the brim, with estimates putting the crowd anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 people. Alert level two rules around the size of gathering and physical distancing were clearly breached. While many wore masks, the majority didn’t. The march, however, was allowed to go ahead and police stayed back, opting for a tolerant approach.
After a minute’s silence to honour the memory of George Floyd, one of the organisers of the event, Mahlete Tekeste, delivered an impassioned speech on the very real effects racial inequality. Tearfully, she condemned Floyd’s killing as another “state-sanctioned murder of a black man, another iteration of the same culture and pattern that’s pervaded the US from the very beginning.”
“We see a lot of people say the system is broken, but nah, it’s actually working just as it was designed. It’s a well-oiled machine.”
Tekeste then went on to point out that racism could take on many different forms and that it didn’t just look like slavery and Jim Crowe laws. Racism could also look like mass incarceration, gentrification, “All Lives Matter”, and the so-called “war on drugs”.
But it could also look like “the NZ Herald Facebook comments section”, “the overrepresentation of Māori and Pacific Islanders in our prisons”, and “a refusal to confront our own demons under the guise of being a tolerant, forward-thinking, progressive liberal nation to the point where a radicalised white supremacist terrorist completely flies under the radar and murders over 50 Muslims in cold blood”.
While the main focus of the march dealt with the plight of black people in the US, it also sought to call attention to the increasing “militarisation” of the New Zealand police, a reference to the controversial trial of armed police response squads. Kainee Simone, an African American who’s been living in New Zealand for the last few years, warned protesters against complacency.
“I think a lot of people fall into the trap of thinking that because it’s not as bad as it is in the US, because it doesn’t look like it does over there, because the police aren’t carrying guns everywhere they go – yet – that it’s not an issue that deserves a lot of attention here, but it’s going to become one,” she said. “Pay attention to what the police are doing in your community and in the communities near you because it’s not all cool.”
Hip hop artist and music producer Mazbou Q also took the stage as one of the event’s organisers, addressing those who questioned why New Zealanders should take to the streets for black Americans.
“They’re going to ask you ‘why are you here?’ and then they’re going to go back to listening to their music produced and performed by black American artists. They’re going to walk outside of their house in sneakers and jackets and all kinds of black American fashion. They’re going to meet up with their friends and say ‘sup G’ and say all kinds of black American slang. And they’re going to live in their houses, drive on these roads, and exist in a nation built on coloniser wealth … [built] in part from the slave trade, trading black people to the Americas.”
“But apparently, it’s not our problem. Apparently it’s got nothing to do with us. But here’s the thing, we use black culture, we take from black culture, and it’s about time we give back,” he continued.
“If we don’t give back, the message we’re relaying is that in New Zealand we love black culture, but we’re content with black suffering. We’re content with the fact that black individuals are executed by police on the street. We’re content that black mothers die at disproportionate rates on hospital beds because of the defunct and racist health system. We’re content that there’s a disproportionate number of black men incarcerated in America. That is what you say when you are silent on the issue of anti-blackness.”
He urged Jacinda Ardern to speak on the issue, particularly in light of New Zealand’s political, economic, and foreign policy ties with US. “You must condemn the endemic violence against black Americans because as a leader of a so-called progressive nation, as a leader of a so-called compassionate nation, a nation that prides itself on being loving, caring, and fighting for equality, you have a duty, and so far, the silence has been deafening.”
“There’s a community of [black New Zealanders] here … and we see ourselves in our black American cousins. Every time there’s an Ahmaud Arbery, a Philando Castile, a George Floyd, or a Breonna Taylor, we look at them and we see our faces and we’re reminded of what they’re going through.”
Last to take to the podium was world UFC middleweight champion and New Zealand sportsman of the year Israel Adesanya. Originally from Nigeria, Adesanya has lived in New Zealand since childhood and has served as a beacon for the country’s first-generation Afro-Kiwi community. He’s rarely shied away from speaking candidly when given a platform, and this time was no exception.
“I’m angry, I’m pissed off,” he exclaimed. “How many of you walk into a store and have to put your hands behind your back just so they don’t think you’re stealing? How many of you walk down the street and have to kind of smile to try and make the person, who you see is already kind of scared of you, feel comfortable?”
“Shout out to all the people of different races here because we need you. We need you to speak up and say something because I’m sick and tired of seeing those faces get killed because guess what? I see myself in them, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said.
“We squashed this Covid curve, right? [Now] they’re trying to militarise the New Zealand police. Let’s squash that shit straight away.”
Ahead of the official march down Queen Street, organisers again urged protesters to be “peaceful” and “respectful”. Pharaoh Swami, aka Mez, urged participants to kneel if they heard “any glass breaking” to isolate anyone causing trouble. He then rallied the crowd with chants of “Black Lives Matter”, “No justice no peace”, and “Arms down”.
Slowly, the crowd moved as it set off to march down to Britomart to the US consulate. On display was a diversity of people: Māori, Pasifika and Pākehā, young and old, queer and trans, children and babies. Protesters were upbeat as customers and employees from nearby stores watched the procession with curiosity and support. Just a few police cars stood by to ensure the march stayed on course while volunteers and Māori wardens kept crowds chanting and marching.
As the march reached its final destination surrounded by designer stores and multi-storey fashion chains, protesters were asked to kneel and raise their fists. There was no sign of the US flag outside the consulate. When the crowd rose, a haka broke out and a number of those in the crowd joined in.
As the official march ended and much of the crowd dispersed, a party-like atmosphere started to take hold as Tupac, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar blared from mobile speakers. People were dancing and hugging as a handful of police watched, some even taking photos with protesters.
By the time normal traffic resumed along Customs Street, it was dark. The protest was over, but there’d be more: another march is scheduled for Sunday, June 14.