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Polynesian Panthers mark 45 years

Monday 20 June 2016 | Published in Regional


NEW ZEALAND – A group credited with fighting racism against Pacific people in New Zealand and putting them on the map politically celebrated 45 years last week.

The Polynesian Panthers marked the occasion with the blessing of a plaque in the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby.

The Polynesian Panther Party was an organisation founded by New Zealand-born Polynesians on June 16, 1971.

The party was explicitly influenced by the American Black Panther Party, particularly Huey Newton’s policy of black unity.

They located the causes of Maori and Pacific Island oppression within the exploitative social relations of capitalism.

The movement was founded in inner city Auckland by six young Pacific islander men – Fred Schmidt, Nooroa Teavae, Paul Dapp, Vaughan Sanft, Eddie Williams and Will ‘Ilolahia.

‘Ilolahi says the group was modelled on the American civil rights movement the Black Panther Party.

“We read the book Seize The Time by Bobby Seale, the chairman of the Black Panther Party, and saw that the content that he was writing about was actually happening to us here in New Zealand.

“So that was the reason we set up, so we had a mixture of ex-gang members and university students and what not.”

Headquarters were established in Ponsonby and the Polynesian Panthers began to organise activities, among them were homework centres for Pacific children, visiting Pacific prisoners and running programmes educating Pacific islanders on their rights as New Zealand citizens.

The movement expanded nationally with chapters in South Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin, as well as a chapter in Sydney, Australia.

The Reverend Wayne Toleafoa soon joined the group and became its ‘Information Minister’.

“You know, it was wrong that we should be addressed as ‘black bastards’ and that kind of thing, so we started to push back.

“I think America is quite well known for its racism but here it was in New Zealand as well. Here we were, the weakest group in society, being victimised and so we had to fight back, if you like.

“And that was the thinking of sixteen year-olds and seventeen year-olds, which is what we were; and we thought we’re doing the right thing.”

The Reverend Mua Strickson-Pua, who attended a homework centre run by the Panthers, says the leadership inspired the urban youth of Auckland.

He also says when the infamous dawn raids occurred, they highlighted the need for the group.

“New Zealand’s history of the way it treated Samoans and Tongans at that time – our people had door-knocking by the police, dogs going through, people having to line up on Ponsonby Road, Karangahape Road.

“If you were brown you were stopped by the police. If you were brown and had no ID, you went straight to the cell.”

As Reverend Toleafoa recounts, this was common treatment.

“I was one of the people stopped on the road by a group of cops on K Road. And I asked one of them why they stopped us and I was asked for my passport, and I thought that’s the kind of thing they did in Nazi Germany, they ask for your passport.

“I said, ‘look, I was born in New Zealand, I don’t usually carry my passport around in my back pocket because I’m not travelling anywhere’.

Auckland University’s Melani Anae also joined the movement and has written a number of books on Pacific issues including works on the Polynesian Panthers.

Dr Anae say they played an important role in asserting New Zealand’s multi-cultural identity.

“Of course the Maori who are Tangata Whenua, that was really embedded in New Zealand identity.

“But we being the first kind of ethnic groups in large numbers that came over from the Pacific, the Panthers kind of set the scene for our Pacific identity and that we had every right to be here and to be part of a society and not be subject to racism and discrimination.”

Reverend Toleafoa says the group ran food co-ops and homework centres and out of their work legal and educational community initiatives were born.

However he says there is still a need for activism and advocacy 45 years later.

“There still needs to be people that look at things like homelessness and not only look at our people but look at all New Zealanders and think ‘why are these people homeless and how can I help them?’

“There’s always going to be things that the Panthers were interested in that all New Zealanders should be interested in.”

Will ‘Ilolahia says he is most proud of the group’s offspring, citing musicians Ladi6, Scribe and Che Fu as well as All Blacks Ben Atiga and Benson Stanely who had parents within the movement.