In 1971 Auckland’s Ponsonby was dilapidated, rat-infested and constantly patrolled by police, prompting a group of young activists to resist systematic racism. The 50th anniversary of the birth of the Polynesian Panthers is being marked this week. In part one of 1 NEWS' two-part series, Symone Tafuna'i speaks to one of the group's members.
“My name is Henry Tuivaiti and I was a proud member of the [Polynesian] Panthers. Although it was a support role … it opened up my eyes to the politics that was going on back in the day and I will never forget it.”
Henry Tuivaiti, 65, is the youngest of six siblings who grew up in the Auckland suburbs of Newton and Grey Lynn.
“I was happy with what mum and dad did for us. Family was everything.”
Tuivaiti’s parents moved to New Zealand in October 1953 for two reasons: “Make money and send their kids to school.”
“Mum and dad would pay for our school fees and try to send money back to Samoa to try to help the family back there. It was an ongoing struggle.”
Tuivaiti attended Newton Primary, Kowhai Intermediate and then Mount Albert Grammar School.
He said he was unaware of the racial tensions that were progressing outside of school until he reached fifth form (Year 11), where he “started to notice just the little things”.
“The Polynesian students and the majority of the boys had afros. They were all told to get their hair cut.” Meanwhile, his European peers had “long surfy type hair” and were allowed to keep their hairstyle without consequence, he said.
“A lot of the Polynesian boys and Māori boys were all targeted by prefects, which we thought was unfair.”
Tuivaiti told 1 NEWS numerous Polynesian families were struggling to pay for school fees and uniforms. Because of this, he said students were given “detention” for not conforming to the rules.
Some Pasifika prefects would reassure the students and help out where they could.
Prefects would say, “go down this street so you don’t have to see [the teachers]”, he said.
One of these prefects was Will ‘Ilolahia, who would later become the chairman of the Polynesian Panthers.
The Polynesian Panthers were a social activist group created in June 1971, inspired by the US civil rights group the Black Panthers. Paul Dapp, Will ‘Ilolahia, Vaughan Sanft, Fred Schmidt, Noora Teevae and Eddie Williams were some of its first members. Dr Melani Anae and Tigilau Ness, who played significant roles in the movement, joined later that year
‘Ilolahia saw similar parallels between the African American and Pacific/Māori people who were fighting against the same cause: Racism.
“The guys who were leading it were looking at things and ways of helping out the community,” Tuivaiti said.
Joining the Polynesian Panthers
In the early 1970s, Tuivaiti was convinced by his good friend Ness to join the Polynesian Panthers at the age of 16.
“I wasn’t one to speak out or anything. I played a supporting role and helped where I could,” he said. This role included lending a hand in the Panthers’ after-school homework programme.
Joining the group “opened up my eyes to what was going on”, like the dawn raids of the mid-1970s through to the early 1980s, Tuivaiti said.
“Police officers would pick on people, especially Polynesian and Māori. You would be stopped on the street and questioned. They wouldn’t do it to anyone else.”
During the dawn raids era, the Polynesian community was used as scapegoats for the economic strain New Zealand faced after World War II.
After World War II, Aotearoa was hit intensely with labour-shortages in manufacturing. So, the government encouraged Pacific people to immigrate to fill this labour gap. Work programmes were created for young Pacific men and women to be used in the agriculture, forestry industry and domestic sphere.
However, during the early 1970s, an economic recession led to high unemployment. Despite Pacific people aiding the expansion of the country's industry, they were blamed for taking jobs away from New Zealanders.
At the time, Prime Minister Norman Kirk implemented stricter immigration policies targeting Pacific people specifically. Kirk gave police officers permission to target Pacific Island homes of people they suspected of “overstaying”.
Joris de Bres (former Race Relations Commissioner) claimed more than 1000 people were stopped at random. But, less than 20 people were found overstaying their visas.
At the time, despite a large number of “overstayers” in New Zealand from Europe or North America at the time, they didn’t face the same scrutiny.
Tuivaiti recalls how he witnessed his peers being forced out of New Zealand.
“It was a sad thing losing family like that.”
In response to the raids, the Panthers found the addresses of the politicians who supported the policy. When the Panthers arrived at their houses, they would turn on their car headlights and start yelling through the megaphones until someone woke up.
“That was [our] way of payback,” Tuivaiti said.
The Panthers also offered legal support, which ended up proving useful when Tuivaiti got into an altercation.
One night, Tuivaiti said he witnessed a man physically assaulting his girlfriend.
“I stepped in to stop him. He threw a punch and I threw a couple back,” he said.
He said this man went into a bar nearby to get his friends to take him on.
“Next minute they all came and chased me."
The cops were alerted and Tuivaiti was arrested. He faced court the next day where David Lange, who would later become Prime Minister, represented him as his lawyer.
“[David] says [to me] ‘I am here to represent you legally and the Polynesian Panthers have provided this for you.’”
The Panthers provided Pacific people legal representation with lawyers only charging as little as $10 for their services each time, Tuiviati explained.
“I still owe David Lange $25,” he joked.
Tuivaiti recalls his most memorable moment was when ‘Big Eddie’ Williams (Polynesian Panther co-founder) led a small group of Panthers to New Lynn to avert a brawl between two gangs in front of a car yard on Great North Road.
“There were half of a dozen guys from the Panthers in the middle.”
The Panthers questioned both gangs: “What is with you guys? You are fighting [against] family.”
Even though it was a frightening scenario to witness, Tuivaiti said he would “never forget it”.
“The Panthers were not afraid to go out there and speak their mind.”
He said the leaders of the Panthers “never spoke down to people”.
“They spoke to people on a level that didn’t belittle anybody and with respect.”
Now living in Australia, Tuivaiti has been working as a lineman for 36 years and is in charge of his crew.
“At the end of the day the people needed a voice and the Polynesian Panthers were born. They became the voice of the people.
“I am actually glad Tigilau Ness talked me into joining.”
His message to the next generation of activists is this: “Get involved with politics and speak for your people.”