Māori and Pacific dread armed police patrols

Opinion: Fear and anger from Māori and Pasifika to armed policing in Aotearoa are not emotional reactions: they are valid scientific conclusions, writes Emilie Rākete.

When Mike Bush, the now-ex Police Commissioner, announced squads of police officers armed with automatic weapons would be put on patrol in New Zealand, I was shocked.

Not just because of the disastrous consequences I knew that police armament would have on Māori. Not even just because this decision had been made without any democratic process. I was shocked because, as Bush explained his justification for putting Armed Response Teams on New Zealand’s streets, I realised something. Bush was saying that police armament is necessary as a response to violent firearm crime. This is not true.

In my role as a community organiser with People Against Prisons Aotearoa, all moves towards police armament concern me. In early 2019, in response to alleged gang activity, all frontline officers were armed with pistols. I lodged an official request with the police asking to see their data on firearm crimes and attacks on police officers. This clearly showed assaults on police are rare, firearms are almost never used in them and the overall rate of firearm crime has barely changed since 2013.

This seems to indicate the claims Bush made to justify Armed Response Teams were proven untrue by the police’s own records. Far from being a necessary response to a bullet-riddled operating environment, Armed Response Teams seem instead to be some police bureaucrat’s passion project. The evidential basis for Armed Response Teams evaporates as soon as it’s given the slightest criminological examination.

The character of law enforcement was changed by this step towards armament and it was Māori and Pacific people, people with mental illness and the working class who paid for it with their lives. In the course of the six-month trial, police officers across New Zealand shot and killed three people. These armed patrols, supposedly meant to deal with life-threatening firearm emergencies, turned out to spend most of their time carrying out traffic stops. The benefit to New Zealanders? Zero. Nobody’s life was better because these teams exist. What these teams lacked in purpose they made up for in threat: polling by Action Station Aotearoa showed 87 percent of Māori and Pacific people felt less safe and 91 percent said they would be less likely to call on armed police in an emergency.

So far, shamefully, the Government’s resistance to this act of escalation by the police has been symbolic at best. Stuart Nash, Minister of Police, and Jacinda Ardern have both muttered their opposition to “a generally armed police force”. But Nash is maintaining the position that separation of police operations and police policy, intended to prevent the Minister of Police from personally directing specific police activities, somehow means he cannot be involved in the decision to end New Zealand’s post-Land Wars consensus that our frontline police force be unarmed.

The dread—and the anger—felt by Māori and Pacific people towards the police isn’t arbitrary. Before 1885, the New Zealand Police were the Armed Constabulary Force, the brutal military arm of New Zealand’s effort to put down Māori resistance to colonisation. Likewise, when New Zealand was finished exploiting the labour-power of Pacific workers, it was the police who unleashed the racist terror of dawn raids on this community. In the present, both of these populations are targeted by the police and made the victims of police violence at rates far higher than Pākehā.

Nash and Ardern seem to be abdicating responsibility for armed police patrols because they stand for a society that isn’t too gory, but one in which Māori know exactly which way the guns will be pointing if we start to think about trying anything.

In this context of historical and ongoing racist violence, fear and anger are not just emotional reactions to policing in Aotearoa: they are valid scientific conclusions. Māori and Pacific people have accurately determined that the fundamental purpose of the police has never changed. To these communities, the police were, and remain, a weapon of class war, a racist force operating for the purpose of maintaining the division between exploiter and exploited, between rich and poor, between the ghetto and gentrification.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that class struggle is an unending fight, one which is by turns more visible and more hidden. The push for armed frontline policing isn’t driven by a need for greater security, and it isn’t driven by the particular historical situation we find ourselves in. The police are claiming the right to patrol brown neighbourhoods armed with assault rifles. The police have unilaterally claimed the right to patrol brown neighbourhoods armed with assault rifles. This decision was strategically made because the purpose of policing is to repress the brown proletariat, and tactically made because their leadership calculated they'd be able to get away with it.

The class struggle is entering a phase in which the antagonistic contradiction between the enforcers of capitalist rule and the immiserated working class is more visible.

In the light of class conflict, the state’s failure to regulate policing makes perfect sense. If Police Commissioner Andrew Coster, in the grip of some galactic brain convulsion, announced that police would be forcibly returning all stolen Māori land to its traditional owners, the Government would obviously intervene to prevent the annihilation of capital. ‘Separation of powers’ would go straight into the toilet. Nash and Ardern seem to be abdicating responsibility for armed police patrols because they stand for a society that isn’t too gory, but one in which Māori know exactly which way the guns will be pointing if we start to think about trying anything.

The liberal bourgeoisie’s assent to armed policing just means it’s on us to stop this from happening. The fight to save Māori lives, to push back against state violence and secure a future in which all of us share in the wealth of our prosperous little islands has always been fought from street-level. People Against Prisons Aotearoa is proud to be leading the Arms Down campaign, an organised push back against unelected police bureaucrats pressing to put armed police patrols into our communities.

While the police conduct an evaluation of the disastrous Armed Response Team trial, we offer our Have Your Say tool which provides contact information for the police Armed Response Team feedback line, the Minister of Police, and your local elected officials. We provide scripts to help you express why armed police patrols are a deadly, racist idea. It is with this quiet, collective work that we can build a movement whose demands are impossible to ignore.

Emilie Rākete is a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and a community organiser with People Against Prisons Aotearoa.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Māori and Pacific dread armed police patrols 9 June 2020.

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