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Polynesian Panthers still fighting racism in Aotearoa 50 years after founding

Fifty years on from their founding, the Polynesian Panthers are still fighting racism.

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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

In 1971, amid the dawn raids, tenant's rights, and police brutality, the Panthers burst out of the central Auckland suburb of Ponsonby intent on revolution.

Reverend Alec Toleafoa, musician Tigilau Ness, and associate professor Melani Anae were among the original Polynesian Panthers.

In the early 1970s, the Government encouraged Pacific Islanders to come to New Zealand because the country was short of workers.

“We were pretty much viewed as units of productivity, our humanity was not part of anyone's vision at the time,“ Toleafoa said.

The place Toleafoa grew up was not the latte sipping, European car driving, multi-million dollar villa, Ponsonby of today.

“It was a slum, many of the buildings, where if they existed today, they would be condemned as unfit for human habitation,” he said.

The community also felt harassed by police with Ness among those copping a few beatings.

“Some of us were picked up, put in the cars, in their police cars, taken around in to the dark end of the street or alley, beaten with, with wet newspaper, no bruises and dropped off,” he said.

At some stage the Polynesian community was going to fight back.

A 16-year-old Melani Anae snuck out from her family home to join a revolution.

“I was angry, bitter and I felt really rebellious,” she said.

There was a food bank, a tenants’ aid brigade which stopped forced evictions. Even their own newspaper.

David Lange, well before becoming Prime Minister, helped write the Panthers' legal aid pamphlet.

That knowledge translated to power, with the Panthers taking it and forming the police investigation group - pig patrol for short.

Now the bright light of the mainstream is shining on them - a television drama, an art exhibition - but the question remains about racism in New Zealand half a century on.

“On the surface, things are looking better, you've got diversity and more Pacific MPs, but my measuring stick is what's happening to people, what are the statistics?” Anae said. 

“They haven't changed. We're still at the bottom of the heap. And that's what institutional racism does, as long as there's racism. It's designed to keep some people higher than the others. And that's just a fact.”

Racism leaves Ness focusing on the younger generation.

“Racism is a white problem, you have to fix it. We're tired of saying y’know, fix it,” he said.

“Which is why I'm saying I've given up on adults! I'll go with the kids. They got no qualms about race, colour, creed, religion, nothing. All they want is to be safe and to be loved.”

These days the Panthers' message is spread through the schools rather than the barricades. Their legacy is living and breathing.