“We honour him today because when he took his last breath, the rest of us were able to breathe.” These were the words spoken at George Floyd’s funeral that I felt directly in my bones, here, on my whenua, or land, of Aotearoa New Zealand. On Tuesday, the New Zealand police commissioner told the country a trial of Armed Response Teams (ARTs) – frontline officers who routinely carry guns – will not continue, and the teams will not be a part of the country’s policing model in the future.
The United States is 400-500 years deep in a history of colonisation and slavery. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are 200 years into our colonial history, and the way in which colonisation functions here is also rooted in white supremacy. Colonial structures, by design, take powers away from indigenous people and people of colour, putting them into the hands of the colonisers.
In New Zealand, police violence is nowhere near the scale of the United States, but it is an institution made from the same ingredients. Racial profiling and systemic racism underpin policing institutions. Analysing police statistics, researchers showed that police were more likely to fire shots at and use force against Māori than all other races combined in New Zealand. Māori are:
Six times more likely than Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) to have a gun pulled on them
Nine times more likely to be Tasered
10 times more likely to have a dog set on them
11 times more likely to be pepper sprayed
So when the police first announced they were trialling ARTs, my blood turned cold because I knew what it meant. I knew it was a further attack on Māori lives. Police were designing into policy something they knew would mean (more) shots fired and more Māori killed by police. It became a dangerous step towards the Americanisation of our police.
When Tuesday’s announcement came, relief flooded through me. And yet, I knew this decision was forced in large part by the impact George Floyd’s killing has had on wider (and whiter) New Zealand. For Māori, and other people of colour here, we have a prior understanding of this impact. It is not lost on me that, in some part, this decision came off the back of black lives stolen in the United States and white New Zealand’s ability to respond to what happened overseas, a place outside our own country and consciousness.
We are not the United States, but we do share a crisis in the way our police perceive and respond to our communities. Police, and its twin, prison, and their continued presence in their colonial forms, show that western culture is profoundly incapable of understanding harm and healing. It shows it can only recognise and respond to a very limited range of harm and is not invested at all in healing. We do not need to make up or invent solutions; they have been laid out time and time again. In New Zealand we must stop following the US and our own failed police examples. We must have a good hard think about if we can be the first British colonial nation in the world to come up with something actually transformative.
The response by Minneapolis to pledge to defund its police and redirect funding is transformational. They have pledged to fund proven, preventative responses and community led services that invest directly in their people, ultimately giving resources and power to show that black lives actually do matter.
This is a conversation we need to have, and action we need to start taking here. We invest billions in ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, expecting police and prisons to be the reaction to harm in our communities. In New Zealand, Māori, our Indigenous people, make up 16.5% of the general population, but we make up over half the prison population and shamefully, New Zealand has the highest incarceration rate of indigenous women in the world. We, as Māori, and as a nation, will not find life, we will not find our next breath in the colonial structure of prisons or interactions with police.
Right now we have a police commissioner who has committed to a philosophy of unarmed policing. However, the lives of our people cannot depend on who is the individual commissioner of the day. We require transformative change that puts power and resources back into the hands of communities and in the hands of Māori to make decisions and implement solutions in response to the burden colonisation has put on our people. To be “Māori” literally translates to be “normal” or “ordinary”.
I have a lot of breaths left and it is my highest aspiration, my responsibility as an ancestor, to leave the world in a way that our next generations can carry out our right to just breathe, to just be Māori.
Julia Amua Whaipooti is a justice advocate and an Ngāti Porou woman from Aotearoa New Zealand.