David Williams: the pen theft story that stands the test of time

Opinion: Law professor David Williams reflects on a moment in his life when the pen was indeed mightier than the sword.

Emeritus Professor David V Williams achieved notoriety in 1978 when he tried to be arrested for stealing a pen from his employer, the University of Auckland
Professor Emeritus David V Williams achieved notoriety in 1978 when he tried to be arrested for stealing a pen from his employer, the University of Auckland. Photo: Elise Manahan

In 1978 I achieved some notoriety in attempting to have myself arrested for the theft of a ballpoint pen from my employer – the University of Auckland.

The action was intended to highlight racist policing policies affecting people from the Pacific in that era of the Dawn Raids and ‘random’ immigration status checks. This was a period of rising unemployment as the economy faltered. Neither employers nor the government had bothered to enforce the immigration laws on temporary visas for many years when the economy was booming. Employers were eager to fill labour shortages with migrants from a number of Pacific nations. In the 1970s, however, the police were called upon by successive Labour and National governments to round up ‘overstayers’.

The ‘random’ checks conducted by the police were not particularly random. A large proportion of ‘overstayers’ at the time were young people from Europe and North America, but it was Pacific people who were targeted on the streets of Auckland and whose homes were raided. Caught up in such a random check was a 17-year-old worker walking home along Karangahape Road. A police officer asked to see a work visa. Being from Niue, and thus a New Zealand citizen, the young worker didn’t have one. He didn’t need one. Then, as reported in the Auckland Star, the officer asked about three combs that were protruding from his pocket. They were handed over to the officer with the explanation that one was his own and two were from his work. He was arrested immediately and convicted of theft from his employer.

It transpired that police had failed to contact the Symonds Street employer. When they did so, after the employee’s conviction, they were told that taking combs (worth 20c each) from the reject bin at the factory was a common practice among employees and one that management allowed.

Meanwhile, being incensed by the Auckland Star report, I arranged with then newspaper reporter, Donna Chisholm, to go to the police station where I would confess to the crime of theft from my employer of a pen, valued at about 20 cents, that I had at home.

My efforts to get arrested failed. I informed the Watch House officer that I had committed the crime of theft from my employer. The officer suggested I might have been doing work with the pen at home. No, I insisted – quite truthfully. ‘Well’, the officer replied, ‘We’d better ring your employer and find out whether they want you prosecuted’.

The Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law were contacted. They advised, “don’t arrest him, that will give him the publicity he seeks”. In fact, though, Donna’s reporting (and subsequent television news items) provided considerable publicity that highlighted the discrepancy between the police treatment of an educated Pākehā man brazenly confessing to a crime, and of a young Pacific worker walking along the street who was not an ‘overstayer’ and whose employer did not view his actions as theft.

Two-thirds of all victims of fatal police shootings have been Māori or Pacific. Is this pattern ‘random’ like the checks on 1970s ‘overstayers’?

Emeritus Professor David V Williams, Faculty of Law University of Auckland

The story of the pen incident has had a number of retellings. The pen itself is now a material object in the Auckland Museum’s collections and was the subject of a story by Madeleine Chapman in 2018.

On Tuesday 11 May 2021 the story of the pen, and the impact of racism on the lives of Pacific Peoples at the time, will feature in the final episode of The Single Object, a new video series from The Spinoff, funded by NZ on Air.

I am sure that the story’s recent retellings can be explained by the fact that, though set in 1978, it draws attention to ongoing issues of contemporary importance relating to policing, and the focus of policing activities on Pacific and Māori.

Racial profiling and police bias are issues leading Māori scholars such as Dr Moana Jackson and Khylee Quince (Dean of Law, AUT) have been drawing to our attention for many years. Compared with Pākehā, Māori are six times more likely to be handcuffed, 11 times more likely to be subdued with pepper spray, six times more likely to be batoned, nine times more likely to have dogs set on them, ten times more likely to be tasered and nine times more likely to have firearms drawn against them by police.

Over the past decade, two-thirds of all victims of fatal police shootings have been Māori or Pacific. Is this pattern ‘random’ like the checks on 1970s ‘overstayers’ were supposed to be? Or does it illustrate institutional racism at work – both then and now?

Dr David V Williams, FRSNZ, is Professor Emeritus and Honorary Research Fellow in the Faculty of Law.

The pen was gifted to the Auckland Museum in 2015. From left, Roy Clare, Nina Seja, David Williams (with the pen), Marilyn Kohlhase and Tigilau Ness.
The pen was gifted to the Auckland Museum in 2015. From left, Roy Clare, Nina Seja, David Williams (with the pen), Marilyn Kohlhase and Tigilau Ness.

The views in this article reflect personal opinion and are not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.   

The pen episode of the The Single Object will go live online on 11 May.

This article first appeared in the May 2021 edition of UniNews