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Polynesian Panthers call on Government to apologise for 1970s dawn raids that targeted Pasifika immigrants

Nearly 50 years on from the anniversary of the establishment of the Polynesian Panthers Party, the social justice group says racism is still rife in New Zealand. 

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Dr Melani Anae, Reverend Alec Toleafoa and Tigilau Ness say the raids that targeted Pasifika were a form of state-sanctioned racism. Source: Breakfast

It’s also calling for the Government to apologise over the dawn raids policy of 1974 and 1976 which saw immigration officials target the homes of Polynesian immigrants in the early hours of the morning in a crackdown on alleged “overstaying”. People, even Māori, were also stopped on the street and asked for proof of residency.

The policy followed a boom in jobs after World War II, where many people from the Pacific Islands were encouraged to come to New Zealand to fill roles in growing industries. 

1 NEWS understands the Government is in discussions and is receiving advice about a potential apology. 

It was June 16, 1971 in the suburb of Grey Lynn in Auckland. Inspired by the Black Panther movement in the US and its literature, Nari Meleisea and Will ‘Ilolahia called the Panthers’ inaugural meeting. 

‘Ilolahia saw a connection between the Black civil rights movement and how Pacific people in New Zealand could fight discrimination and racism through political means. 

The idea captured the imagination of University of Auckland associate professor Dr Melani Anae who was a teenager at the time. She became one of the original members of the group while she grieved the recent loss of seven members of her family in quick succession. 

She told Breakfast being part of the group gave her the political voice she didn’t know she had. 

“I thought this was my chance to do something. To make change.”

But that change needed to be ongoing, she added, and experiencing racism “of course” still the reality for many Pasifika in New Zealand today. 

“What people don’t realise is that it’s everyday racism. We wake up to it. We go to school to it … we go to our workplaces, we’re profiled at St Lukes shopping centre. Every day. That’s what we go through.”

Tigilau Ness joined the Panthers after being expelled from school for refusing to cut his afro, which he argued was against Niuean tradition to hold a hair-cutting ceremony for the oldest boy in the family. 

“Being young people, we naturally resisted,” he said told Breakfast.

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In 1971, Ponsonby was dilapidated, rat-infested and constantly patrolled by the Police, prompting a group of teenage activists to fight against the systematic racism of the time. Source: Sunday

It came at a time when some Pālagi - westerners - saw them as “savages”, he added.

“That we were violent. That we were rapists. That we were not fit to be in the community.”

But, resistance came with a cost. Ness said the Panthers were ostracised by their own people and stigmatised as troublemakers. 

“We were proud of who we were and quite resilient.”

In the three years before the dawn raids, among its numerous activities, the Panthers set up homework centres and distributed legal aid documents to help people understand their rights when dealing with police.

But, it was the group’s activities during the dawn raids that cemented their place in history. In protest of the raids, some members organised “counter raids” on the homes of several prominent cabinet members at the time. 

This included surrounding the homes of the National MPs Bill Birch and Frank Gill (Immigration Minister at the time), who were supportive of the policy, with lights and chants from megaphones in the early hours of the morning. 

The Government's dawn raids ended less than three weeks after the protests began. 

Reverend Alec Toleafoa joined the panthers as a 16-year-old because he was tired of police harassing young Pasifika in his neighbourhood. 

“So we learnt then that we were already suspects before we had done anything wrong … so the dawn raids came along and pretty much nailed that up during the random checking that we were regarded as suspects in a way that no-one else was.”

He said an apology from the Government for the raids would put right to the “injustice” Pacific people had faced. 

He also wanted to see a change in the language of the courts to emphasise restoration and education “as opposed to compensation and reparation - all of these belong to another environment”.

But, Toleafoa warned the ideology of considering some groups in society as the “other” that informed the dawn raids was still present, and that this could be seen in situations like Ihumātao and Parihaka.

“Every other event in New Zealand’s history is underpinned by the same ideas that gave rise to the dawn raids.”