Thousands across the country have been gathering this weekend for the victims and families of the Christchurch terror attacks. At Auckland’s Aotea Square vigil on Saturday, words of love and triumph were preached, as were reminders of New Zealand’s xenophobic past.
“Look at this place, it’s completely empty,” my taxi driver remarks as we drive through Karangahape Road. He’s been talking about his workload for the day and how it’s been eerily quiet for a Saturday afternoon. He has little doubt as to why. “Because of everything that’s been happening, you know?” He’s being vague, and it’s clear he’s hesitant to put a name to it. But he’s right, I do know. Everyone in New Zealand knows. How could you not?
We’re en route to Auckland’s Aotea Square where the city’s first major vigil for the victims of the Christchurch terror attacks is taking place. A substantial block of Queen Street has been closed off for the event with a string of police cars lining the roads instead. As the venue gets closer, more and more people start to trickle into view on the streets. They’re all walking in the same direction, all walking with the same purpose.
At Aotea Square’s grassy landing, hundreds, if not thousands, of people have already gathered to pay their respects. Just a handful have managed to jostle their way into some sliver of shade: the rest wait patiently under the glare of the afternoon sun. The crowd is about as diverse as you can imagine: young and old, men and women, brown and black, Pākehā and Asian. Suddenly, Jacinda Ardern’s immediate message – that “we were chosen because we represent diversity” – somehow makes a whole lot of sense.
“In all honesty, today I will not be graceful, I will not be articulate, and for that, I apologise,” says Pakeeza Rasheed, chair of the Khadija Leadership Network, organisers of the impromptu vigil. Rasheed, a human rights lawyer by trade, has a tremble in her voice as she presents the first speech.
“My heart bleeds for Christchurch,” she says. “We hoped, we prayed this day would never reach the shores of Aotearoa. But talking to many Muslims across New Zealand, there were many of us who braced ourselves for this. We knew we were not immune [because] the hateful ideologies that exist in other countries also exist here. It wasn’t very long ago that three women were attacked in Otago for wearing the hijab. These women were so scared they didn’t even report the incident – it was a bystander who had the courage to do so.”
“The reality is that we have an appalling history of violence in New Zealand, and an ‘othering’ of people of colour if we just consider the example of our tangata whenua. We continue that trend through the demonisation of Muslims and our tepid welcome of refugees… Muslim communities everywhere live in fear and anxiety, bearing the brunt of the world’s anger and wrath.”
Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson goes on to reflect this sentiment when she, along with her party colleague Golriz Ghahraman, step on stage to share their grief.
“New Zealand was founded on the theft of land, language, identity and the mana of tangata whenua. Here in Tāmaki Makaurau, this very land we’re standing on, is land that tangata whenua were violently removed from to uphold the same agenda that held the people in the mosque yesterday,” says Davidson.
“We acknowledge that the Muslim community has spent years of pained kōrero trying to warn the nation and the world about where hate speech leads us. Many of our Muslim people in Aotearoa are also tangata whenua themselves who help us draw the bridges between our communities. We will not minimise this racism and bigotry. We will not ignore that your sons and daughters have been the target of our surveillance rather than our protection.”
“A Syrian family was gunned down after surviving the war in Syria [on Friday]. They were gunned down in Christchurch, New Zealand,” says Ghahraman, who came to New Zealand as a refugee from Iran when she was just nine years old. “That isn’t the New Zealand that welcomed me, but it is New Zealand today. It’s part of who we are and we have to fix that, starting by acknowledging that we have to fix it.”
“We are hurt. We are in shock and we are scared. They want us dead,” Ghahraman proclaims with tears and fury. “We owe them the truth: this was an act of terror conducted by white supremacists who had the words of the UN Migration Compact written on their guns. I know that every time I walk into a room or onto a stage I do that as a refugee, as a woman of colour, as a woman from the so-called ‘Muslim world’. And let’s face it, they don’t care if we’re really Muslims or not, because this is about race.”
“We have to hold people to account from the trolls of the internet right up to those who sit in the House of Representatives with me on TV screens, every time they use the politics of hate and division and xenophobia.”
That message of accountability was also echoed by politicians, like Attorney-General David Parker and Auckland mayor Phil Goff. While Goff condemned, to huge applause, the “awful alt-right people who came here from Canada last year”, Parker announced to undoubtedly the biggest applause of the day that the government would be banning semi-automatic weapons (although Parker has since had to clarify his comments).
Parker also called out the tech companies that have allowed such hate to proliferate since. “How can it be right for this atrocity filmed by the murderer using a GoPro was live-streamed across the world by the social media companies?” asks Parker. “How can that be right? Who should be held accountable for that? You may be assured we’ll address that.”
From our regulation of social media to the regulation of guns, there’ll be much discourse in the next few months on what needs to be done to curb these weapons of mass destruction. But in the meantime, just days on from these murderous atrocities in Christchurch, we grieve and we heal from the pain together. It’s why vigils like these have been happening all across the country: it’s not just a matter of showing support to the victims and families affected, but to lean on each other and learn from each other too.
“It’s absolutely chilling to my core to be standing here today, seeing our fears manifest into reality,” Rasheed says as she fights back tears. “This is my call to arms for you. That we as a nation practise tolerance, practise love. When we see something that’s wrong, call it out. When you see Islamophobia, be brave. Don’t accept it. Call. It. Out.”
“To end, I will take a leaf out of my late father’s book. When our family home in Mt Roskill was vandalised after 9/11, he came out publicly and said he felt sorry for the perpetrator. I echo that sentiment because of how sad and how fearful a person must be to resort to something like this, something so heinous and something so disgusting. I will pray for him, I will pray for him. And we all should. Because Allah is all knowing and Allah is all forgiving. There’s light and there’s love in this world and nothing can dampen it.”
We’ll be compiling photos from vigils around the world. If you have any photos you’d like to send in, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.