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Photo: Cam McLaren/Getty Images
Photo: Cam McLaren/Getty Images

SocietyFebruary 9, 2019

Police uniforms were a deal breaker at Pride. So why weren’t they at Waitangi?

Photo: Cam McLaren/Getty Images
Photo: Cam McLaren/Getty Images

Controversy over police insistence on wearing their uniforms led to their withdrawal from today’s Pride Festival march. So imagine Emilie Rākete’s surprise to see officers deployed in casual clothes just three days ago at Waitangi.

By now most of us have likely heard about the public debate around police involvement in the Auckland Pride festival. The issue has become as unavoidable as a patrol car cruising through a brown neighbourhood, on the lookout for any kids riding their bikes too rambunctiously. I’ll summarise quickly, so we can move on to discussing the latest absolutely bewildering development.

The police withdrew their application to participate in Auckland’s Pride Parade this year, after the Auckland Pride organisers asked that the police not march in their uniforms. Auckland Pride made the request after seven community consultation hui last year, in which takatāpui and transgender members of the gay community made it clear that police violence was a pressing issue in their lives. Members of People Against Prisons Aotearoa, the criminal justice community organisation I’m a part of, spoke at one of these meetings. Our position is that the police have no place in a celebration that honours Te Tiriti o Waitangi, given that according to their own statistics, they use violence against Māori at far higher rates than against Pākehā. Furthermore, this rate is getting worse and worse every single year. Police spokesperson Inspector Tracy Phillips made it clear that if they aren’t allowed to wear their uniforms, they aren’t being made sufficiently “welcome” and they won’t participate. Everybody got mad, some people tried to roll the board over it, the community affirmed it and stood  by the board’s decision, and now we’re all getting dolled up for this year’s Pride march.

Then, in a move that at first completely blew me away, it came out that the police weren’t even wearing their traditional uniforms at Waitangi this year. They’d switched them out for a “casual”, “approachable” look. After the enormous public screaming fight that the police chose to kick off rather than make a small, symbolic concession that takatāpui are right to be concerned about police violence, this seems confusing. The community, I think understandably, is pretty confused.

However, once I finished picking bits of my brain out of the drywall, it actually makes total sense. Further, this actually isn’t even the first time that the police’s insistence on being allowed to wear its uniform to Pride has been shown to be, well, a little inconsistent. Last November, a slightly dodgy-seeming awards show handed out trophies on behalf of New Zealand’s LGBTI community. Despite having cancelled LGBTI diversity training for frontline staff more than two years ago and, it seems, not replacing it with anything beyond a vague mandate to be nice, the police were awarded Organisation of the Year. Sure enough, police dignitaries including Inspector Tracy Phillips were there in person to accept their award – not in their apparently mandatory uniforms, but in civilian formalwear.

New Zealand Police pose with their award for best Organisation at the New Zealand LGBTI Awards 2018 at the Cordis Hotel on November 29, 2018 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

So what’s going on? In one case, the police have argued that they absolutely must be allowed to wear their uniforms to community events. Asking them to do otherwise, even when that request is itself a compromise with a disproportionately brutalised community who don’t want them to show up at all, is apparently a completely unacceptable attack on the honour of the institution. In another case, though, the police showed up for a swanky $200-a-head prize gala to receive an award, and none of them looked especially teary at the prospect of doing so in a ball gown or tux. Likewise, at Waitangi the police were happy enough to mingle wearing, if you’ll allow me a moment of lesbian cattiness, polos and dad shorts. So why was it only Auckland Pride’s request that led to such a public and open dispute?

The police’s own statements to media give us a good first step towards explaining this contradiction. Speaking to gay media outlet Express, Inspector Tracy Phillips says that “if our people are not allowed to proudly march as police officers, we won’t come.” And that, really, is it. The police couldn’t march proudly, in their uniforms, because the Auckland Pride community has made it clear what that uniform represents to us. It represents a cowering 12 year-old being mauled by a trained attack dog. It represents teenagers burning to death inside wrecked cars following preventable Police pursuits. It represents the constant racist overpolicing of Māori communities. In short, the police pulled out of the Parade because Auckland Pride had the audacity to point out they have very little to be proud of.

On the other hand, neither the LGBTI Awards nor the proceedings at Waitangi made what it is that the police do the subject of political attention. In an era in which disproportionate police violence against Māori is reaching a new height, its public relations strategy has hinged on the language of diversity and inclusion. There are brown faces in the police force, there are rainbow badges pinned to all of the appropriate lapels. So long as the police are allowed to represent themselves as an innocuous part of our communities, so long as they are heaped with praise and awards and allowed to put their branding front and centre of our events, the police have shown themselves more than happy to wear whatever clothing is appropriate for the occasion.

When the police first started marching uniformed in the Auckland Pride Parade, Māori were 7.1 times more likely than Pākehā to be subjected to police violence. Māori are now almost 8 times more likely than Pākehā to be beaten, tasered, pepper-sprayed, mauled by an attack dog, or shot by a police officer. If Pride is something the police want to put their branding on, if Pride is something the police want a place in, the worsening trend of racist violence needs to end. The police will need to work for it. If the police’s behaviour over the past months is any indicator, they have no willingness whatsoever to do this work.

The police-led boycott of Auckland Pride has in my view never been about their uniforms. It has been about dominating a public conversation about racist police violence. It has been about punishing, in the most public and contemptuous manner possible, the Auckland Pride community for daring to raise the issue of racist police violence. This only makes it more important, more necessary, that we remain absolutely unrelenting in the pursuit of our mutual liberation – something which flows not from the heel of a police officer’s boot, but from the collective power of masses.

Keep going!