Thu. Sep 23rd, 2021

Clinton Edward Hewett may have only been five years old at the time, but there’s a morning in 1974 that he can recollect in astonishing detail.

At 4am in his peaceful cul de sac in Mangere, South Auckland, he remembers being woken by crying on the street, flashing blue lights, and pounding knocks on the door.

“Suddenly there were police everywhere around the house and I was bawling my eyes out. Seeing the cops, and not knowing what’s going on,” said Hewett.

The police were searching for immigrant overstayers hailing from Samoa, Tonga, or Fiji.

During New Zealand’s prosperous post-war period, the mass migration of Pacific Islanders was encouraged to help make up for the country’s depleted labour force. However, as work dried up during the recession of the 1970s, the community became a scapegoat for the country’s economic ills.

It didn’t take long for the police to realise that they had barrelled into the wrong home. Clinton’s father might have had brown skin, but he was a Cook Islander – all of whom have full legal status as New Zealand citizens.

Clinton Edward Hewett at the Te Oro community centre in Glen Innes, Auckland, New Zealand
Clinton Edward Hewett at the Te Oro community centre in Glen Innes, Auckland, New Zealand Photograph: Apela Bell/The Guardian

But instead of apologising for their intrusion, the police began abusing them.

“The constable turned to my mum who was white and says “what are you doing with this black c-word,” said Clinton, refusing to use the curse word himself.

“My dad was about to have a go at him. It was the Samoan officer who came in with the constable, who grabbed my dad and said, ‘it’s not worth it bro, it’s not worth it’.”

The intrusion was one of many during the so-called Dawn Raids, a dark affair in New Zealand history that took place from 1974 to 1976.

Armed with batons, dogs, and megaphones, police would carry out government-authorised raids on the homes of Pacific Island peoples in the early hours of the morning, as they searched for overstayers to deport back to their home countries.

Alongside the raids, other forms of discriminatory policing were taking place, including the policy of “random checks” on people in high density brown neighbourhoods.

“What we saw during the Dawn Raids was a massive abuse of government power. It was government-sanctioned racism and government-sanctioned terrorism,” said Reverend Alec Toleafoa, one of the original members of the Polynesian Panther Party (PPP).

Modelled on the United States’ Black Panther group, the PPP was started as a social activist organisation fighting for fairer treatment of Māori and Pasifika people in New Zealand.

Kennedy Maeakafa Fakana’ana’aki-Fualu (l) and Will ‘Ilolahia at the Otahuhu community centre in Auckland, New Zealand
Kennedy Maeakafa Fakana’ana’a-ki-Fualu (l) and Will ‘Ilolahia at the Otahuhu community centre in Auckland, New Zealand Photograph: Apela Bell/The Guardian

In 1976, the PPP conducted “counter raids” on politicians’ houses in the early hours of the morning using megaphones and bright lights, which helped end the Dawn Raids policy.

“We used direct action and turned their tactics back on themselves,” remembers Will ‘Ilolahia, founder of the PPP.

More recently, the PPP have been leading a groundswell of support for the New Zealand government to apologise for its actions during the Dawn Raids era.

“We are seeking formal recognition of an era of blatant racism from the New Zealand government, so that we can be sure that it will never happen again,” said Dr Melani Anae, a founding member of the PPP.

Backing for the apology has come fast and strong from the Green party and younger voices like Benji Timu, who last week drafted an open letter to the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, which has seen widespread social media engagement.

“As a Pasifika man, I see myself as a beneficiary of the Panther movement, and so writing this letter actually came from a place of trying to make things right and rewrite our history,” said Timu, the executive director of a production company focused on telling Pasifika stories.

Benji Timu stands outside Te Oro community centre in Glen Innes, Auckland.
Benji Timu stands outside Te Oro community centre in Glen Innes, Auckland. Photograph: Apela Bell/The Guardian

So far the government has been tight-lipped on whether they will make such an apology, releasing a statement that they are “receiving advice on this and at this stage it would be inappropriate to comment further due to these ongoing discussions.”

Aupito William Sio, the minister for Pacific peoples, has agreed to meet with a core group of PPP members to discuss the apology, but Toleafoa suspects the government may worry that an apology would open the floodgates to other demands.

To make it easy for the government, Toleafoa is keen to keep their requests simple.

“We’re not talking about compensation, we’re working for something that’s restorative and healing, and future-proof,” he said. “We want to see the compulsory teaching of the Dawn Raids and racism in our educational syllabus.”

Beyond better education, the loudest demand was at the heart of Timu’s open letter: a better pathway to residency for existing Pasifika overstayers in New Zealand.

The most recent Immigration NZ research into the number of overstayers in New Zealand in 2017 shows those from Samoa and Tonga make up at least 4,000 of the more than 13,000 current overstayers.

For ‘Ilolahia, the issue is one he sees in his community every day, where Pacific Island overstayers raise families and contribute to the economy for decades, while also living in fear that they’ll one day be deported.

“These people are paying their taxes, having kids that go on to be All Blacks, and at the same time they’re not even being recognised as New Zealanders,” said ‘Ilolahia.

Timu, too, knows how hard living as an overstayer can be. When pressed on his experiences his voice becomes tight and careful, knowing that one misspoken word could put someone close at risk.

“I do have some family members that have been affected by that. Having to live in fear, feeling like the government doesn’t really want you here,” said Timu.

In July last year, ‘Illolahia and the Tongan Advisory Group presented a petition to parliament, asking for pathways to be provided for overstayers to gain permanent residency on compassionate grounds. The petition was scheduled to go before the select committee last month, but ‘Illolahia hopes that an official apology will help spur more immediate action from the government.

However the government decides to proceed, the legacy of the Dawn Raids will continue to be passed on through generations of New Zealanders.

Hewett is now in his 50s, but his memory of that early morning in 1974 is as clear as day. He and Timu both share memories, decades apart, of seeing police and feeling a jolt of fear, a collective feeling of “what have I done?”.

“I think it’s impossible to look at the Dawn Raids as an isolated event,” said Toleafoa.

“The same ideas, the same philosophies that created the oppressive policies way back then, they’re present today. Unless we do something now, they’ll be in the future as well.

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