Reitu Noble Harris, Kahukura

Wellington Blacks

My friend and leader Reitu Noble Harris, pensioner, was downed by winter pneumonia. Marshalled by Hine Nui Te Po he passed into the long night late on Sunday 9 July 2017. I was suffering from the same lurgy. Maybe six hours after his death I awoke from my slumber, sweating profusely, feeling as if I was drowning, my chest gurgling and lungs wheezing. My lady Taape in her sleep called out “go away, go away”. I’ve come to recognise although not necessarily comprehend some of the metaphysical realities of the Maori world and I spoke out into the darkness of our room “No I’m not coming with you!  What do you want, a spokesman at the Pearly Gates or something?” Spokesman has been the role I played for him for close to 45 years. I’ve been allowed to stay behind and endure our mortal coil, apparently with tasks yet incomplete. This poroporaki is possibly one of them.

In marking Reitu’s death commentators variously described him as the founding rangatira of the New Zealand Black Power and as the gang’s national president. He was definitely the founder of Aotearoa’s Black Power. At times he was also the unchallenged authoritative voice of those who gathered under the banner of He Ringa Kati, the clenched fist: Mana Mangu; Mangu Kaha; Black Power.

But like most Maori movements the Black Power have a fluid approach as to who holds authority at any given time and in any given place. Who leads when and where is organic, relational and dynamic. When facing resistance from within Harris would never assert rank. He’d read, then make, the play. If there was dissension he’d “propose” a solution as if it were an invitation to collaborative action rather than an edict or order.

There is a Maori word “kahukura”. It arises from the philosophy promoted by an action programme called E Tu Whanau. This promotes te mana kaha o te whanu (family strength) in the fractured communities on our country’s social edges. It’s a metaphor for an agent of positive change. In the natural world a kahukura is the lead bird in a flock of kuaka, the bar tailed godwit. In their migratory flight from China the kuaka assemble in an arc formation. The younger birds fly in the middle of the flock flanked by older members.  Positioned at the mid-point of the arc the kahukura takes the brunt of the wind. However, as the wingspans of the following birds overlap each other updraft is created and the leader is buoyed and supported in this epic journey. What a wonderful notion, to be uplifted by one’s flock. Rei Harris was a kahukura and this was testified in a powerfully symbolic act – testimony that he had been redeemed for past transgressions – when the women of our movement lifted him from the porch of his ancestral meeting house and carried him to the hearse for his final journey.

Rei’s seminal social foray was to establish the Black Power primarily as a defensive alternative to the emergent Maori gangs such as the Mongrel Mob and other established mainly Pakeha gangs. These were the days of full employment when young Maori men from the provinces and rural communities poured into Wellington as the labour force to help build the motorways and office towers. Harris always worked, generally in the construction industry. Being employed was originally a significant point of differentiation between the Black Power and other Maori gangs.

Although diminutive in stature Harris protected his people. One of the realities of being a gang leader is that you need to win the physical. The daily toil of barrowing and screeding vast amounts of concrete made Reitu develop a heavily muscled and powerful upper body. He would not be intimidated by the larger men he invariably encountered. When push came to shove Harris would use his small size to get in close and drive up into his opponent’s ribcage with breath-depleting punches of such ferocity that his foe would be virtually asphyxiated and collapse. These rapid executions generally had a salutary effect on any others who may have intended to engage. Thus, Reitu the pacifier became the leader of choice. People felt safe when he was around. The legend grew. Eugene Ryder tells of being at an event in the Hokianga attended by Reitu. A couple of local Maori kids rode up on their horses. “Which one is Rei Harris?” asked one of the tamaiti. Eugene pointed to Reitu. “Nah!”, said the boy “Rei Harris is a really big guy, that’s not Rei Harris”

When “Burma Bill” Maung Maung came to Wellington scene he brought a mix of applied Buddhism and Baxterian ethos. Bill formed a cadre of social change agents around Reitu and helped him set ambitions for the Black Power. These goals went beyond becoming a better class of thugs into a powerful force for social good. Reitu got political and stood for Matui Rata’s Mana Maori Motuhake Party. He was at home with other leaders of the day such as Graham Latimer and Rob Muldoon. He became a champion of the alienated and marginalised, misfits, the tribe we call Nga Mokai. Criminologists would describe his implicit philosophy as “desistance theory”. We remained more sinners than saints but things improved for the better. So, despite our failings Reitu led us towards the greater promise for good. We followed him willingly, and, on occasions were ready to die doing so.

Now, he’s gone and died instead. How do we memorialise him? How do we encapsulate his legacy? If he were still with us in the midst of the pre-election hype he’d be prodding me to speak out – as I have – in response to calls for ‘boot camps’ and the usual application of a harder rod on the backs of the poor. Many years ago Rob Muldoon told me “Denis, there’s an election coming up. I’m going to be speaking about gangs but don’t get too upset, you and I will talk again after I’m back in”. Accordingly, I’ve been putting the following ideas to the leadership of the Black Power and I now share them with you looking towards a more sensible and less hysterical post-election reality.

  1. To memorialise Reitu, get a marketable skill and get a job! We’re in a building boom. If you can drive a machine, erect scaffold, wield a hammer, or do more highly skilled things there are employers crying out for you. We have the numbers and are a potential nation-wide workforce. If you want to be a gang member then be a member of a work gang. If we grow our construction skills we then have the potential to come together and help each other build our own homes for our whanau. The horticultural industry has a desperate need for a labour force, particularly if it is self-organising. The hospitality industry needs people too. Why even entertain crime when through a job or self-enterprise you can earn a legitimate dollar? If its legitimate you get to keep it!
  2. To memorialise Reitu, if eligible, make sure you are registered to vote and exercise that vote. Make sure three others do likewise. Exercise your rights and influence policy. Look at the policies of the various parties and ask yourself where they line up with Reitu’s values of “mana Maori motuhake”. Remember too that every right has a responsibility, the responsibility of being a law-abiding citizen. Part of the answer to reversing the criminal policies that see Maori people in jail and returning to jail sits with us in our own behaviours and lifestyles. Control what we can and hammer the system over the balance.

There my brother, I’ve put it out there. Let’s see who has ears to listen.

Eternal Rest grant to him o Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him. May Reitu Noble Harris rest in peace, content that his legacy will be fostered and come to fruition.

Gather together misfits I said, and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.

Colm Toibin (2014) The Testament of Mary New York. Scribner: 6

Tags: Obituaries