Dangerous Utopias

What happened to March? My calendar accelerated and it just went. One minute I was planning for St Paddy’s Day and the next thing I know it’s been, gone, and done for. The ginko crop has been picked and dried. The grapes have swelled, ripened, and those not taken for the whanau tables are now wrinkling and shrivelling into sweet raisins. Our lifespan seems to be so short. I’ve a couple of stories to share, so lets cut to the chase. Wellington has been the geographic focus for much of my time, politics and politicians filling the void. The first big number was an international symposium on drug law, ‘Through the Maze – Healthy Drug Law Reform’ – held at Te Papa in early March. It was held as a precursor to a major meeting in Vienna where world authorities were to reconsider the ‘war on drugs’ in the light of a strong pitch from policy analysts and health professionals from many countries towards a more health related and harm-reduction focus. Whatever. In the eventuality the UN has decided on ten more years of ‘the war on drugs’. I had been asked to make a presentation at the Te Papa forum. I enjoy these opportunities because it forces me to distil my thinking. I was on my way into the powhiri for the event when my phone went. It was Ranga. “I think the Doc is dying”. The Doc, Dr. Ian Ambrury Miller Prior, had been going downhill for sometime. I said, “Bro, I’ll get this powhiri out of the way then I’ll come up”. “No”, insisted Ranga, “he is going now. Pick me up”. When we arrived at the old fella’s room at the hospice his daughters were around him. Roger Steele and Malcolm stood beside. The Doc was propped in his chair. He may still have been with us, it’s hard to tell, but we spoke to him, words of love, and affection, and thanks. A single tear trickled from his eye, and then, within a short time our uncertainty was relieved and the realisation that this grand old man had passed away fell upon us like a shroud, a funeral pall.

Let me just spend some time reflecting on this fine New Zealander – Alan Brunton once described him as

A man as handsome as photographs
Who was never an apprentice
But a master from the start
Whose blood was dangerous with utopias

By his own description Ian’s strong sense of social equity and justice came from his Methodist background. There was Methodist to his madness. His father Norman Henry Prior left him three shibboleths to be applied according to the occasion.

When in doubt do the courageous thing
Of those to whom much is given much is expected
Don’t let the bastards get you down

He was faithful to them all. When we speak of Te Whiti we speak of Tohu. Similarly when we speak of Ian we speak too of Elespie. His love, his lover, his friend and anchor since their marriage on the 14th March 1946. Ian,

Who approached a girl without deceit
Who married him without deceit
And paced him across oceans
In search of the health-giving cure
And the antidote to every madness

Alan Brunton

Elespie died almost six years ago (refer Nga Kupu Aroha “Embracing the Positive” December 2004 ) and from that time Ian was like a crab without a shell. They are now reunited for eternity. It was these two who through intelligent and considered assistance fostered social change, actors, activists, and activities. Their sense of social justice – dangerous utopias – knew no bounds. Ian’s epistemological approach (epidemiology) was transdisciplinary before academics had coined the word. He fused his medicine with politics and social justice. He demonstrated to fellow Pakeha how to live out the promise of the Treaty, reaching out to the tribal hinterlands of Ngati Porou, and Ngai Tuhoe with his skills and intellect, collaborating with his Maori peers such as the rangatira John Rangihau. He took a regional approach, boarding the waka to Te Moananui a Kiwa with his friend and our kaumatua Henry Tuia, to share his learnings and improve the health of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific Islands. And, armed with insights gleaned from his field experience and research he stalked the corridors of power, Parliament and the rooms of the Wellington Club, challenging, cajoling, persuading decision makers to implement socially just and effective policies. But the effort was not just confined to the hallowed halls. I believe that both Elespie and Ian implicitly understood that social change is fostered on the edge, not the centre. They applied the resources provided through the ‘noblesse oblige’ of Elespie’s tupuna, Willi Fels, to support the rebels and activists, people like Tame Iti and Tama Poata who are critical to our nation building. Their courage and insight penetrated the darkness of social exclusion and embraced the people Hemi Baxter called the tribe of Nga Mokai, the lost and lonely, the addict and drunk, the prisoner and gang member. Ian and Elespie saw potential where others saw only fault. They opened doors to another chance where others offered only a cell cage with no key. They seeded hope. When I went with Ian to the prisons he would say to the jailers, “where are the books?” He had no fear. The home at Wade St was as open to the gang member as it was to the Member of Parliament, in fact, in some instances, perhaps more so. When the Doc mixed on the street he was recognised, dapper, and commanding in bearing as rangatira so often are. It was cruel then to see our great chief and friend taken from us slowly, death working its way up his body, from the feet of the giant, upward, teasing him as God tested Job, reducing that powerful athletic frame, frustrating him, but not defeating him, his wit and perspicacity still sparking, a momentous project still on the go until God called it quits and asked for no more.

Susie, Ranga and I took the old fella home from the funeral parlour to where the whanau waited. Susie stood at the door and gave her simple karanga, in English, but true to every Maori value held dear by her father, “welcome home Ian”, she said, “come back into your home”, and we laid him in his marriage bed, the first time he had rested there since Elespie’s passing. Ian laid there at Wade St for the best part of the week as friends and family gathered, sharing memories and coming to terms with reality. His funeral was held at Old St Paul’s and here he was paid tribute in may voices and languages, the respect crossing generations, the children and grandchildren of friends and allies standing side by side. As his waka mate, his simple coffin, was borne down the aisle the brothers of the Black Power took over, chapter representatives from far and afield, calling him at the start of his final journey, “toia mai te waka”, the rhythmic motion of hands hauling the waka, taiaha swishing, fists raised in salute, accolades of love sprung from the seed of hope that Ian Prior had so constantly planted amongst us all.

Soon another pou is to be carved by Ranga from a  Wairarapa totatara and it will stand at Wade St beside that, representing Elespie, and carved from Australian jarrah. The tribe of Ngati Pakeha has another ancestor. Ian’s work is complete. Now it is up to us to build a just and loving nation, for love is a wonderful thing.

Love is the answer to the dark voices,
Of the demons that trouble us when youth has gone,
Saying “you fool you have had your day and wasted it”. The spirit of a spring morning,
When the wind moves gently over the grass
Is enough to tell us that the stone at the door of the tomb has been lifted.
Alleluia Adonai

James K Baxter

In the meantime, during the course of Ian’s rather extended tangi, the Healthy Drug Policy symposium at Te Papa churned on. I found the whole event really stimulating. Such was the quality of the presenters I expect the collective brainpower could have powered a small nuclear reactor. One speaker I took a real shine to was Sandeep Chawla, the Director of the Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Sandeep has one of those machine-like minds that churns through data like an icebreaker passing through an ice shelf. The way forward may seem impenetrable but he just keeps on trucking, breaking stuff up into bits you can deal with and giving at least a sense of the possibility of a way forward, given patience.

Sandeep had a few hours up his sleeve at the conclusion of the Symposium. He’d had a round of high powered meetings with Ministers and officials but had apparently intimated that he’d like as broad a view as possible about the New Zealand experience. The organisers asked me if I had any ideas. C’mon. With Eugene Ryder’s help we assembled a crew at the Wesley Church Hall in Taranaki St. There were guys accused of or convicted of dealing in drugs, and gang members, all ready to listen and talk. I explained Sandeep’s role, he gave a few comments about what he was interested in hearing about, and away we went. It is true that some people may not be highly educated but may be highly intelligent, and the dialogue that followed was a high order of conversation. It covered being Maori in New Zealand today, the issue of gang patches, and use of drugs, both licit and illicit. They asked Sandeep, “Why are alcohol and tobacco, both proven to be harmful substances, legal, whilst marijuana is illegal?” “Well”, said Sandeep, in a lilting talking style reminiscent of a Peter Sellars’ caricature, “it so happens that the Europeans more or less conquered the world. They liked and used tobacco and alcohol, so wherever they went they took it with them. On the other hand they did not like the indigenous substances, and to some degree the indigenous people that they encountered, and so these substances were banned. More or less that is how it has come to be. In the sense of law enforcement as compared to relative harms caused by different substances it all may be illogical, unfair, and even to some degree immoral, but that is the way it is.” The audience mulled on that a bit. One asked, “What is the difference between an organised criminal group – which is what we are accused of being – and these people from the finance companies who rip people off. Aren’t businesses organised criminal groups too?” “Well,” said Sandeep, “it is true that if you applied a strict interpretation of organised criminal groups, oh my goodness, you would have to close down very many major businesses running in the world today. Yes, I concede, that is true. That though is not where the world is looking”. The boys sat and mused over these truths and frank admissions. “Now” said Sandeep “I have listened to your speeches and answered your questions. Could I ask you something? I have noted your grievances, but I must say, it is my observation that compared to many other indigenous people the Maori people do not have things so bad. There is much respect for the culture and the people. I hear your complaints about being denied the way you want to live and the clothing ensigns you want to wear, but surely it is not all that bad. Could I put it to you….could you be just a little less annoying?” Now ain’t that the wisdom of an Indian contemplative!

Our Paddy’s Day Hui & Huilli went off like a bomb. Late last year James Sutherland and Martin Popplewell got talking to me and suggested cranking up the value of the charity art auction. We decided to cut down on the number of auction items and chase a higher value customer. Chris Finlayson, the Minister of Arts, agreed to give the annual St Patrick’s Day Address and the team enlisted Al Mackie from Band design in Napier who, with the generosity of Neville Smith from GEON Print produced cleverly designed invites.

We were blessed with a great day and a full house. The event started off by our taking our visitors up to Otatara. Nigel Hadfield gathered us together and took us through a protective karakia before we began. I’d organised some Irish musicians to lead the group onto the pa site.

At the top of the rise leading to that part we call Hikurangi, in between two pou, stood Shavaun, taking the role of kai karanga. She called out to us in the manner known to the hill and its descendants since ancient times. As the karanga rang out the musos ceased playing and the entire group paused. Behind the kai karanga stood a group of the young men of Waiohiki and as the karanga was completed they picked up the welcome with the Kahungunu haka, “Tika Tonu”. Done, they stepped back, and Shavaun motioned us to come forward. The Irish musos picked up their tune and up the path we went, over the rise and down to the ancient marae atea, where we had arranged seating.

Nigel told the group of tales of yore for the best part of the hour, and then we were done, and back to the base of the Maunga where we had our prayers of completion and thanks. Often people get overwhelmed by Otatara, but in this instance the consensus was that the impact was one of feeling located, anchored, at home. It seemed to me that in part this was because we were accompanied by the musos. I think this gave those of us who have come from the later canoes a sense of our own cultural roots, rather than the nakedness many Pakeha feel when they encounter a place of such a profound cultural strength. Back at the Arts Village Chris Tremain cranked the auction up for all that it was worth, and some. We sold $26,000 worth of art, quadruple our first efforts only three years ago. The Governor General made a bid from a distance and scored a piece by Mike O’Donnell; the Mad Butcher securing a beautiful work by Helen Mason, and another by Martin Popplewell; Kevin Tamati outbidded his rivals for Hugh Tareha’s taiaha piece, and Brian Sweeney won the race for Ranga Tuhi’s awesome ‘Pou Tuarongo’ print. They flew, out the door, Jeff Thompson, Dibble, Ben Pearce. What recession?

Back in the cowshed, life has been rolling on. Minister of Maori Affairs Pita Sharples has been pushing the boundaries in terms of resolving the problematic of Maori offending, gangs, crime, and the whole spectrum of issues tied up with the criminal justice system in Aotearoa. Philosophically I’m opposed to the privatisation of the prison system – I don’t believe anyone other than the State has the moral right to have someone in custody – but, I can understand the Maori Party’s pragmatism in terms of finding a way to enable a Maori response to the rehabilitation of offenders. The Maori party thinkers and policy makers need to separate out the punishment function from what Shaples calls the ‘habilitation’ function. Again, one could be cynical about Simon Power’s tolerance of Pita’s calls for alternative approaches, but Power at least has been prepared to allow constructive input from those who have previously been involved in offending, and that’s a big step forward. Sharples has also been working hard at engaging the leadership of Maori gangs inviting them to move past gangism towards a Maori paradigm based on supporting whanau achievement. You can summarise his overall stance like this:

Focus on the behaviours rather than on appearance or affiliation – the delivery of interventions and social services should be focussed on changing behaviours rather than focussing on what the recipient looks like or who they are affiliated to;

Remove the labels – there is a propensity to label groups of youth as youth gangs without recognising that young people need their peer support as part of a natural youth development process. Labelling theorists argue that labelling can create a self fulfilling prophecy situation where the young people’s behaviours will be influenced by the label.

Recognise that there is good in all wh?nau and communities – regardless of how alienated or dysfunctional a wh?nau or community may be, there will always be some good within it – identify the good and tap into it to start the change process;

Recognise leadership diversity – M?ori are not a homogenous group and a wh?nau has its own leadership that agencies need to accept and work through;

Engage wh?nau and community – recognise wh?nau and community are not passive recipients but are aspirational and are capable of designing, developing and delivering their own interventions and services that will factor in their wh?nau and community realities. People who have common experiences with hard to reach populations are the most appropriate people to design and deliver interventions projects because they can share their experiences of what has led them to make positive life choices;

Build capability and capacity – recognise wh?nau and community leaders are often people with instinctive leadership qualities and may need support to develop their formal leadership acumen;

Mobilise wh?nau and community – changing criminal behaviours effectively requires the wh?nau and community acceptance for the need to change; and,

Support and resource wh?nau and community initiatives – ensure Maori designed, developed and delivered bottom-up initiatives are adequately supported and evaluated by government Iwi and community agencies.

This is a korero focused on the future. A couple of weeks back I shared my thoughts with a number of Judges at a seminar organised by the Institute of Judicial Studies. I explained to the Judges that the general approach to gangs has generally been to undertake ethnographic study, and to extrapolate from trend data to discover what works, or might work. If you talk about gangs with the officials in our Crime Prevention Unit you might conclude that they follow Mortinson’s (1987) ‘nothing works’ hypothesis whereby the best we can get is ‘the least bad outcome’ through containment and suppression. If you talk with officials from Te Puni Kokiri you might conclude that anything can work as long as it assumes Maori potentiality, is run by Maori, and is consistent with the promises implicit in the Treaty of Waitangi. The real challenge is to move towards an effective prescription – the future “what must be done” to sidestep the much misunderstood deadly mixture of emotional and social forces that drive underprivileged young men into gangs, violence, crime, and ultimately imprisonment or death. I shared with them O’Reilly’s lore: focus on the good; assume the best; and, you’ll see it when you believe it.

As Plato suggests we need to shift our focus to the light at the mouth of the cave, and what must be in the future rather than what seems to be in the moment.

We have tended to use structural metaphors to describe gangs and to explain them in terms of organisational hierarchies whereas – in particular as regards the ethnic indigenous gangs – Maori gangs – they tend to be more viral in form, coming together in cell like organic clusters, often based around whanau linkages, and often dissipating as quickly as they form. The two big players in the public sector, the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Justice have, in my view, developed a type of ‘group think’ dogma which excludes input from gang members and former gang members and rejects out of hand the views of other Ministries, such as Te Puni Kokiri, that these very groups need to be engaged with.

In reality you can take the NZ gang scene back to the 1800’s with gangs of drunken Pakeha sealers and whalers causing mayhem in Maori communities. According to the Police’s own history, “Policing the Colonial Frontier”, it was this behaviour as much as any other that caused the settler Government to establish the New Zealand Police. This may explain the attachment Police have for gangs and the significance they have traditionally placed on gangs as a proven means of ensuring their ongoing expansion and increased powers.

As one Century passed to another it was a particular cluster of Pakeha who were seen to be causing the trouble and these tended to be Irish Catholics, who at the beginning of the 1900’s were imprisoned at a ratio of 3:1 as compared to other New Zealanders, the same unhappy reality faced by Maori communities today. Let us say that two successive World Wars deployed the testosterone of the potentially troublesome youth through to the late 40’s. The drinking culture brought back to New Zealand by war veterans led to its own stresses and for the younger veterans this morphed into the rebel motorcycle culture, still mainly Pakeha groups. But a rapid, State sponsored, shift of young Maori families from rural to urban New Zealand set in play a new dynamic. These whanau were almost like immigrants in their own land. Work was plentiful, and, in the main, people were gainfully occupied. Their youth, sharing a gregarious culture and warrior instincts spilled out into the fresh suburban landscape and the Maori gang was born. One of the paradoxes of New Zealand is that gangs seem to form at times of high employment – presumably because our low wage economy has both parents working and youth are left to fend for themselves. The shift in the drinking culture after the change to the liquor licensing laws and extended opening times unleashed Jake the Muss and there was mass gang violence on a regular basis at the large suburban barn type bars that had become popular by the late 1970’s. A decade of good times and easy employment came to an end with the oil shock and the recession. Structural reforms and high unemployment led to increased involvement by gangs in crime. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the cessation of pro-active social development programmes meant that gang members tended to pond, and not move in into more socialised lifestyles as they had previously tended to do. The definitional problem makes it a bit hard to measure but Police gang intelligence figures submitted for various Parliamentary purposes over the years indicate that there were about 2,000 to 2,500 gang members from the late 1970’s through to the late 1980’s with a trend downward. However, since then and after a decade of suppression policies and the post-Muldoon ‘we won’t make deals with gangs’ philosophy the numbers have increased. In 2002 – perhaps when the political needs were for a bit of hype and beat up, then Police Minister George Hawkins told Parliament that in New Zealand there were 6,000 gang members with a multiplier of 5-10 affiliates and followers – the conclusion being that up to 60,000 New Zealanders were involved in gangs. By 2007, perhaps at this point with a political need to minimise concern, his successor Annette King told the House that there were only 3,500 gang members and 40% were already in jail. As an aside that’s about the entire number of outlaw motorcycle gang members in the whole of Australia.

As I’ve already noted the fact is we just don’t really know because we can’t accurately define what constitutes being a ‘gang member’. This is because gangs create what oft quoted sociologist Stanley Cohen (Cohen, S. 1972:9) calls ‘moral panic’ and logic and proportionality go out the window. As a word, ‘gang’ has lost real meaning in NZ and has been absolutley messed up when we treated it as being synonymous with organised criminal group. The criminal factor has made getting clarity more complex because we have shoehorned our indigenous gangs into to fit our international obligations to crack down on organised crime.

Over the Easter weekend I was up the East Coast for an unveiling and a bit of constructive discussion with the Ngati Porou Ahi Kaa MC. We had gathered in memory of Rick Haerewa, and we will leave him now to be. This weekend there’s a Black Power leadership hui in Rotorua, followed by a community hui in Te Karaka on the issue of patches at tangi and so forth. The debate just doesn’t stop, and in its own way, that’s part of the resolution. We’ll keep on chipping away. Keep safe and share the love. Remember Ian and Elespie Prior. Court dangerous utopias. Arohanui. D

Tags: Alan Brunton  Denis O'Reilly  Ian Prior  

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