AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 25: Police keep a presence at the gates during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup Semi Final match between Tonga and England at Mt Smart Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

‘It felt like they were in a riot mode’: Police tactics turn ugly in Otāhuhu

Police conducted a ‘major operation’ in the aftermath of Tonga’s loss to England  in the RLWC. Jamie Wall was there, and reports on what many in the community felt like overkill.

Last night, in the wake of Tonga’s 20-18 loss to England in the Rugby League World Cup,  thousands of locals took to the streets of the Otāhuhu town centre to celebrate Tonga’s dream run in the tournament. The crowd flowed from the game at Mt Smart to the suburb, where a long procession of cars and flag waving fans creating a noisy and joyous atmosphere.

At the same time, police responded to the fan turnout with what they characterise as a ‘major operation’ in the south Auckland suburb. Members of the public have reacted strongly to what they’ve described as a heavy-handed approach by the police. Many have complained of an intimidating atmosphere in which police ripped and broke flags, some being waved by children.

In a Friday press release, Inspector Wendy Spiller of the Counties-Manukau Police said: “We will have a significant police presence in the area and will be taking a zero-tolerance approach to any behaviour which puts members of our community or our staff in danger.”

For many in the community the large police presence felt oppressive, and described actions which they felt rested on negative assumptions about the revellers based on their ethnicity.

Papatoetoe resident Ema Tavola was in Otāhuhu last night, and described the atmosphere as “something I had really been looking forward to, to see my community in such a happy state.” She was alarmed at the large police presence.

“It felt like they were in a riot mode. They definitely wanted their presence to be felt in a really assertive way. Their presence was aggressive and didn’t feel like they were there to support the energy, which was really disappointing.”

Others questioned the motivation of the police’s actions, with one Twitter user saying that they found it bizarre that the police were confiscating alcohol out of cars driving up Māngere Rd under the guise of public safety, when there were at least eight alcohol outlets open between Otāhuhu and Māngere town centre.

Police say 21 arrests were made throughout the evening following disorder-related offences, and their spokesperson Spiller said this morning the large police presence “was to ensure the safety of the community following last night’s league match at Mt Smart Stadium.”

The heavy police presence and subsequent arrests appeared partly caused by the lack of any major planned event. “There was a real lack of foresight,” says Tavola. “They could’ve closed Great South Road and had a street party – created an alcohol-free area for children, but it was the complete opposite of that.”

The aggressive style of policing contrasted markedly with the friendly facilitation of the Lions tour, and the swiftly-planned community events which followed the America’s Cup win. Tavola lamented the way they dealt with the crowd’s Tongan flags, which had become the enduring image of the tournament.

“The manner in which flags were ripped out of people’s hands and broken was a really aggressive way of saying ‘we’re in charge’. That’s not how you broker safety with a community, that’s how you intimidate people.”

Many people have voiced concerns about the portrayal of Tongan and Pacific Island supporters in the media, which they feel has exacerbated the police response.

Tavola too linked the police’s tactics to the way it was covered in media. “The mainstream media [was] giving Tongans and all Pacific Islanders such a bad rap throughout the whole World Cup – it’s a really vulgar state of power and control.”

Several weeks ago, in the aftermath of Tonga’s win over New Zealand, a police officer was struck in the face with a flagpole in a disorder incident. Last weekend, a female police officer from Counties Manukau was knocked unconscious. 

Earlier this year, though, police seemed to have a very different approach to fans of the British & Irish Lions rugby tour. We contacted Superintendent Sandra Manderson, who replied that “the behaviour from fans during this event has been completely different to the behaviour of Lions fans. We have responded accordingly.”

In the lead up to a Lions test, Wellington Inspector Neil Banks quoted in Stuff as saying:

“Visiting Lions fans and local fans alike have embraced the spirit of what is a very special occasion for New Zealand. We are not expecting to need to make large numbers of arrests.”

Superintendent Manderson was also quoted in the same article, saying: “This has been a really special event for New Zealand, and our staff have really enjoyed engaging with fans at games and around the country and helping them stay safe. It was a pleasure to police.”

During the tour police made 13 arrests for disorder offences – including English prop Kyle Sinckler, a member of the Lions tour party.

Despite the reaction from the Tongan community, Police maintain they merely responded to circumstances as they presented themselves. “We have made significant efforts to engage with the Pasifika community ahead of this event and during, and feel confident our relationships within the community remain strong.”

Tavola echoes the feelings of a number of people within the community in sounding unconvinced. “Their version of safety and the community’s version of safety are two different things.”

Read more: our photo essay on the crowd headed to Mt Smart

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