By Ogonna Nweke
In the 1970s African American activism was echoed in New Zealand influencing the creation and activism of both Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers- local Māori and Pasifika radical activist groups[i]. 50 years later these trends continue with protests across New Zealand sparked by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter (BLM) has become an issue of national political contention.
According to Professor Robbie Shilliam, New Zealand was and continues to be shaped by racial discrimination with processes such as the colonial dispossession of Māori, and the racial discrimination and exploitation that met Pasifika peoples upon their immigration as labourers from South Pacific islands[ii]. One example of the way these processes continue is via the criminal justice system where Māori and Pacific communities are overrepresented at all levels of the criminal justice system from prison to police apprehension[iii].
It must be acknowledged that New Zealand and the United States have distinct racial histories and trajectories and are not pure parallels. However, the presence of criminal justice overrepresentation reflects a similar sense of racial discrimination where 56% of the USA incarcerated population is African-American compared to them being 32% of the US population[iv]. Because of the similarities such as in criminal justice systems, marginalised communities have looked to each other at the global level for solutions and solidarity, and New Zealand activists have been inspired and influenced by Black activism in responding to and resisting racism in New Zealand. Black Lives Matter is the modern iteration of transnational activism that reflects the shared historical connections between disadvantaged groups.
One historical connection between African-American activism and local activism comes from the Polynesian Panthers. Their name is a direct and localised reference to the African-American civil rights Black Panthers. One of the founders of the Polynesian Panthers Will ‘Ilolahia, directly echoed this connective sentiment when he said that they, “were inspired by the work [the Black Panthers] were doing in America, and when we read the books deeper [sic], we found out that the problems they were complaining about were the exact problems that we were seeing in New Zealand.”[v]. From this shared experience, the Polynesian Panthers incorporated the Black Panthers’ community activism ethos and instituted a Black Panther influenced programme of grassroots activism such as organising prison visit programmes and sporting and debating teams for inmates; providing a halfway house service for young Pasifika and Māori men released from prison; running homework centres; offering interest-free “people’s loans”, legal aid, and food banks that catered for 600 families[vi]. In some ways, these forms of activism connected the Polynesian Panthers with the legacy of the Black Panthers.
This example suggests that even before the current iteration of Black Lives Matter, there was a shared experience of racial understanding and activism between New Zealand and the USA, which can ground discussions of Black Lives Matter into a shared international goal of racial justice.
The fact that Black Lives Matter has become an international agenda reflects the increasingly transnational mode of activism where crises and international issues are not localised to individual nation-states. They spill over into the international arena. “Shared futures” is a term used to describe how in this era of globalisation movements like BLM elicit solidarity movements, as these issues highlight domestic problems including Māori overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.
During the Auckland and wider New Zealand protests, there was strong indigenous and ethnic minority presence with mana whenua (people of the land) and rangatahi (young people) showing loud support for the kaupapa (issue) of Black Lives Matter. This support was again due to the recognition of the shared connections and issues that marginalised identities within Aotearoa New Zealand face with Khylee Quince and Katey Thom highlighting that the wero (challenge) of institutional racism within Aotearoa[vii] is an agenda for continuing the activism sparked by the Black Lives Matter marches in New Zealand.
The Black Lives Matter movement has the ability to inspire and support the activism of organisations advocating for national and racial justice on a global scale[viii] through creating a structural framework on which to base activism for the future. As Black Lives Matter activists have emphasised, the problems that contribute to racial injustice such as colonisation, racial bias and systematic disenfranchisement are not exclusively within the borders of the United States: they are global scourges. Addressing them requires a global effort,[ix] and through the activism framework established through issues like Black Lives Matter other marginalised groups can seek solidarity and build towards a better future highlighting the shared futures of communities shaped by racial bias.
One example of this global-local relationship that displays the shared future within the New Zealand BLM context has been the recent ‘Arms Down’ campaign, which responded to concerns about racist policing directly applying the killing of George Floyd within the New Zealand context[x] and sought to ensure that New Zealand police would not militarise through carrying arms. The success of the Arms Down campaign suggests a potential international nexus in issues like criminal justice that may link to international movements like Black Lives Matter.
[i] Richard S. Hill: Maori and the State: Crown-Māori relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa, 1950-2000 (Victoria University Press, 2009, Wellington)
[ii] Robbie Shilliam: The Polynesian Panthers and The Black Power Gang: Surviving Racism and Colonialism in Aotearoa New Zealand (2012) in Black Power beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement edited by Nico Slate
[vi] Robbie Shilliam: The Polynesian Panthers and The Black Power Gang: Surviving Racism and Colonialism in Aotearoa New Zealand (2012) in Black Power beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement edited by Nico Slate
[viii] Arelle Binning: How Black Lives Matter Has Influenced and Interacted with global Social Movements (MA thesis, 2019, CUNY)
Ogonna Nweke is a law and politics student at the University of Auckland.