Around 4,000 New Zealanders recently made international news as they marched down the main commercial thoroughfare of the country’s largest city, chanting “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” — or rather, adjusting for the antipodean accent, “BLECK LOIVES METTER!”
The protest was organized by 23-year-old Lulu Tekeste and her older brother, who are African New Zealanders, as well as four of their friends. She says they were “sick and tired of feeling helpless” about the situation unfolding in the U.S. “It felt lonely, because the majority of the New Zealand community don’t even really know that there’s a Black community here who, in a really, really deep way, feel the pain of the African-American community,” she says. “We see someone [subject to police violence], and I see my dad, and I see my brother, you know? We felt isolated, and not seen or heard.”
Tekeste says she and her friends expected a turnout of “a couple of hundred people, max,” but after some high-profile New Zealanders like Parris Goebel shared the event, it became bigger than they could have imagined.
The march was a display of international solidarity that seemed to surprise and charm American audiences. Thousands of miles away from the epicenter of the protests, in a country touted as a progressive haven with the most competent leadership in the world, Kiwis were fired up enough to get out on the streets in droves about a seemingly distant issue.
This framing, however, misses a deeper truth: New Zealand is far from being a progressive haven, the protests weren’t some charming oddity and the issue of police violence is highly relevant to the South Pacific island. “Yes, we’ve got [Prime Minister] Jacinda [Ardern] and we’ve got sunshine, but we’ve actually got a massive problem in this country with racist police violence,” says Emilie Rākete, a founding member of the prison abolitionist group People Against Prisons Aotearoa (Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand), whose members supported and attended the protest. “And the primary victims of that violence are the Māori, Pacific and migrant peoples who were leading the solidarity march in Auckland.”
New Zealand’s Māori and Pacific communities are heavily overpoliced and imprisoned. Māori constitute about 16 percent of the general population but make up 52.8 percent of the prison population, and New Zealand police use all forms of force — including tasers, firearms, dogs, batons and pepper spray — at significantly higher rates on Māori and Pacific people than on white New Zealanders. For example, Māori are 12 times more likely than their white counterparts to have a police dog sicced on them, and in the past 10 years, two-thirds of the people shot by the police were Māori or Pasifika.
Black New Zealanders also report racism and harassment at the hands of the police, accounts that have received little public attention until now. Tekeste confirms that the experience her brother and other Black friends have with the police in New Zealand has “never been too positive.” “If you talk to a white Kiwi about the cops, they’re probably going to tell you about the good encounters that they’ve had and that they normally feel safe around the police,” she says. “But that’s not the case for our people of color here, whether that be Black people, Māori, Pacific Island people or other immigrant groups.”
Part of the reason for this disconnect is what Rākete describes as a “common misunderstanding” that the New Zealand police aren’t armed. “Cops in this country don’t walk around with a firearm, but they do walk around strapped with a taser, pepper spray, a baton and handcuffs, and every cop car has got an assault rifle and a glock in the trunk,” she explains. “Those weapons see frequent use, almost entirely against Māori and Pacific people. So the police here do have almost immediate access to deadly force.”
And they use it, too. “Just looking at the last seven months, four people have been shot and killed by the New Zealand police,” Rākete continues. “That’s the same number of people that were killed by the British police, who have 10 times our population.” She says New Zealand’s criminal justice system is “extremely disproportionate in its use of violence compared to similar countries overseas, and the primary victims of that violence are Māori and Pacific people.”
While Rākete acknowledges that American police are “far more blood-drenched” than their counterparts in New Zealand, she says that these are “structurally related problems” of the “same quality.” “In America, the police are the descendents of slave catcher patrols, [and] in Aotearoa, the police force are literally just the renamed Armed Constabulary Force, who were the military wing of colonization in Aotearoa,” she explains. “That’s the genealogy that we’re dealing with here.” She adds that racism against Māori has been the “core function of the New Zealand police since they got to this country.”
That’s an untidy reality, of course, which much of the coverage of New Zealand’s protest has ignored. “A lot of people from America have misunderstood the dynamic,” Rākete says. “Absolutely a huge part of why people marched is because New Zealanders feel the horror and the pain of Black people in the United States. But if you look at photos of the march and its speakers, it wasn’t just a demonstration of empathy for Black people in America. The march was led by Black, Māori and Pacific people here in Aotearoa, who also live under threat of execution by the police.”
There are concerns that things will get worse as well. The New Zealand police recently rammed through undemocratic trials of armed, militarized police teams, similar to the SWAT teams established in the U.S. in the 1970s, in areas predominantly populated by Māori and Pacific people. The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have caused a groundswell of opposition to those trials by New Zealanders who are concerned that U.S.-style policing could be New Zealand’s near future. “We can see what’s in the future for us,” Rākete says, “because our government is trying the same failed, terrible policies here.”
Unfortunately for New Zealanders, American policy and governance has a strong influence on New Zealand’s politicians. Successive New Zealand governments have adopted failed American approaches to crime control long after their lack of effectiveness has been demonstrated, like California’s disastrous and draconian three strikes policy from 1994, which a conservative New Zealand government introduced in 2010 despite resistance by judges and human rights advocates. “Of course you can’t put people in prison for life for their third conviction, that’s an insane policy,” Rākete says. “But America did it, and so we did it.”
Now, New Zealanders are at a critical junction where they have the chance to stop American-esque policing taking hold in New Zealand, and inspired by the example of American protesters, they’re getting out on the streets to resist. “It was powerful having tied the protest in with the Black Lives Matter movement,” Tekeste says, “because we got to see that if we let this [police militarization] go on any further, this is the extent it could get to.”
“People all around the world are looking at America and seeing what the resolution of these contradictions looks like,” Rākete adds. “And it looks like fire in the streets.”