A decision to ban uniformed police officers from marching in the Auckland Pride Parade has proven controversial. In a column first published on RNZ, activist Laura O’Connell Rapira explains why the thinking behind the decision matters so much.
The Auckland Pride Board have banned police from marching in uniform next year because police uniforms represent oppression and violence to many rainbow folk and people of colour.
The first police officers arrived in New Zealand in 1840, the year Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed. The first police force was part police, part militia. They helped enforce British control by suppressing and imprisoning Māori who resisted colonisation, even if that resistance was peaceful.
In early colonial New Zealand – as in Britain at the time – the people most likely to be arrested and put in prison were people with mental health issues, people of colour and people of diverse sexualities and genders.
Early records show that British settlers were surprised to find that Māori did not punish people who were gender non-conforming, or had partnerships with people of the same sex. There are also examples of same sex/both sex practices in traditional Māori arts and narratives. We are not alone in this; many indigenous cultures have different ways of seeing gender beyond two tick boxes.
Our kuia (elderly women) in the takatāpui* community have often been honest about the discrimination and violence they faced as whakawāhine (transwoman), transsexuals, transwomen or drag queens in earlier decades. The late Dana de Milo had shared many stories of the fear that her community had of the police: “I mean, it was terrible in my day, you got beaten up, police beat you up.”
Historically police have played a role in degrading the mana of Māori, the mana of sex, sexuality and gender diverse people, and the mana of people who are both. When police officers don their uniform today, they carry with them this history, whether they know it, agree with it, or don’t.
That’s what makes the Auckland Pride Board’s decision to disallow police from wearing uniforms so significant. And why the New Zealand Police’s decision not to engage in Pride if they can’t wear uniforms is so disappointing. Police uniforms represent oppression and violence to many rainbow folk and people of colour. Because the history of police toward rainbow folk and people of colour is violent. In the 1940s and 50s, it was still legal for gay men to be sentenced to whipping, flogging and hard labour.
In 2015, New Zealand police commissioner Mike Bush admitted that police hold unconscious racial bias toward Māori. Despite this, by 2017 there still hadn’t been any reduction in the number of Māori being arrested.
According to Victoria University’s annual trust survey, the police are the second most trusted group by Pākehā in New Zealand, with Pacific people trusting police less.
If police not marching in uniform makes queer people of colour feel safer about participating in Pride, this is a good thing. Police officers have not been banned from Pride, only asked to participate without a uniform. Representation matters, but reciprocity matters too.
In te ao Māori, the concept of reciprocity is central to how society works. It is about give and take, and the restoring of relationships towards balance and harmony. The restoration of mana towards those who have experienced harm is an important part of this process. When it comes to reciprocity, there are countless times when Māori have continued to show manaakitanga (uplifted others’ mana through acts of generosity) towards the police, in the hope that it will enshrine a relationship of balance and care for the future. The work of rainbow, takatāpui and intersex people, in helping the police to understand how to better serve us is one example. Members of the Wellington rainbow community have a tradition of attending the police college every year to assist in training new officers about what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
Reciprocity is not just about rainbow printed police cars and flashy recruitment ads. It’s not about the proclamation of diversity while racism is upheld in our justice system in a myriad of ways. It is about actions and addressing past wrongs. It is about changing behaviour, statistics and lived experiences.
Aotearoa is known for its leaps towards equality, often leading the rest of the world. We no longer believe that loving someone of the same gender should send you to prison, and you can even put a ring on it. Pride could be an opportunity to address the existing harms, imbalances and legacies of violence that still run deep in our country.
Our rainbow communities have a shared history of discrimination, and working together to overcome hate. We can choose to stand in solidarity by those affected by racism in this country, both past and present. We can ask why billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on police and prisons, while rainbow and kaupapa Māori organisations struggle to survive. Imagine if equivalent resources went into funding initiatives focused on healing from the harm of colonisation, homophobia and transphobia.
We can hold space for the past harm that has been caused in the name of the police force, towards our ancestors historically and those who were violated recently. We can remember the voices of those who cannot appear in a loaded Facebook argument – our whānau who are in prison, or have died too young because of homophobia, transphobia and racism.
The good news is that it is possible to heal old wounds. It is possible for police to show humility, acknowledge their wrongs, and admit there is still more healing to be done before they can be welcomed at Pride in the uniforms that have caused so much harm to the rainbow and takatāpui people who came before us. If police can do that, maybe one day we can all march together with real pride.
* Takatāpui historically means ‘intimate companion of the same sex’ but was reclaimed in the 80s and emphasises a person’s identity as Māori as inextricably linked to their gender identity or sexuality.
Laura O’Connell Rapira (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Ruahine, Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Whakaue) is the Director of ActionStation and a proud member of the rainbow community. She lives in Wellington but her heart is in Wāitakere where she grew up.
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