Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Things I wish I'd known 6 years ago—talk from Never forget: October 15th solidarity tour (Wellington)

These are my notes from a talk I gave at the Wellington leg of the Never Forget: October 15th Solidarity Tour on Oct 19th.

I want to start by remembering the violence of the state on and around October 15th, 2007. I know many whānau were hurt and are still carrying that pain. That’s not the focus of my talk, but it is what brings me here. I need to thank the organisers of this event. I think it’s a great idea, and I’m really stoked to be invited to contribute today. It’s really good to have an opportunity to reflect on all of the bullshit that has happened since that day in 2007, when so many people were fucked with, and so many people were hurt.

I also want to acknowledge the people who have agreed to be part of today—there’s some amazing speakers after me, and I’m looking forward to hearing them. Because I’m first up, I figure I can be a bit more personal and reflective than later speakers. So I want to start by reflecting on the immediate aftermath of Operation8 on the political scene in Wellington that I was involved in. I want to talk about things I wish I had known six or so years ago, and how that might have changed how I behaved. Then I want to talk about tino rangatiratanga, and finally about my understanding of solidarity now.

Six years ago, I wish I had been clear on the boundaries between being a friend, and the political work of solidarity. There is a difference between loving and caring for my friends, and being in solidarity with them. Not being clear on those boundaries between friendship and politics made a messy and painful time more stressful than it needed to be. And more importantly, it meant that I wasn’t as good a friend or as good an activist as I could have been. To support my friends, I thought I had to defend them as having done nothing illegal. I was terrified that anything I said could be used against them, because of my closeness to them, so what I said in their support was completely apolitical. If I couldn’t say anything politically useful, just concentrating on being a friend would have been a more effective use of my energy. And not having the inevitable fights that working together under stress brings would have allowed me to be a better friend.

I wish I had been clearer about the connections between Operation 8 and my political beliefs. Not making those connections clear contributed to not knowing how to respond politically.

I wish I had made more time to talk with people about all the different questions and feelings we had, and maybe continue to have.

I wish I had taken more time to talk with people about our politics and what had happened.

All of the silence around what happened, for fear of making things worse, meant that it was really hard to untangle all this stuff. It fed the stress and frustration and made it harder for me to work with people, and to do anything that felt effective. I needed to wānanga, to work stuff out with people who shared some of my values and beliefs. Instead it felt like we were working as a bunch of individuals together, making statements that many of us probably didn’t understand, or had quite different understandings of, or actually didn’t agree with.

I need to know where my values differ from those of the people I am working with, so we aren’t just guessing and censoring ourselves. For example, the group in Wellington that I was involved with that was doing political response to Operation 8 included people from a mix of political backgrounds, but we didn’t talk about our politics, because it felt like there wasn’t time. But it felt important to organise, and try to get more people on board. Instead of taking time to find out where we all agreed, or educating ourselves together so we could make stronger statements, we watered down our politics to make it more palatable to more people. So a lot of the statements we made as a group ended up being really liberal and not consistent with my beliefs—and possibly not consistent with the beliefs of most of the people in the group. It was a wasted opportunity for doing something real.

I wish I had been more self aware and more humble. Our voices weren’t the most important or the most informed. Our skills and contacts could have been put to different uses. There were other people who could have used the attention better than us, and I wish I had put my energy into supporting that to happen.

It wasn’t until years later that I realised we were trying to make lots of different arguments or stories about what Operation 8 meant all at the same time. We needed to untangle those arguments, which would have taken time. Because the strand that was being lost in the confusion, is the one that is the most important, most challenging and most compelling argument—that Operation 8 was an act of colonisation. To make that argument, we need to make colonisation and tino rangatiratanga front and centre. Instead, it was getting overwhelmed by arguments that seemed easier to sell. I think it’s really important to think about the stories we put more energy into telling and why they are easier—what are they challenging, or more importantly, what aren’t they challenging?

I reckon there were 4 main arguments that we were using—which I’ve written about before. I think it’s important to untangle them and think about these separately whenever we are potentially talking about colonisation, because otherwise things seems to fall to a liberal human rights argument. So I’ll briefly talk about each of them here.

There’s the keystone cops argument—Operation 8 didn’t really mean anything, police are just fucking idiots. This argument is tempting, because, for one, it’s usually true that police act like idiots, and it also feels good to name that and mock them when they’ve been violent arseholes. What this argument neglects is that police are acting for the Crown, and it’s no accident that their ineptness is only ever violent when it suits the Crown. Those patterns aren’t hard to see.

There’s the liberal argument, that the state is over-reaching its legitimate power—it’s using the war on terror to expand its power and encroach on our civil liberties, police and anti-terror units need to justify their existence, etc. Again, this is compelling, because it’s true, and it’s easy to sell. But what if I don’t believe the state has any legitimate power? This argument doesn’t challenge the state at all, it doesn’t challenge the status quo.

There’s the anarchist argument, which does challenge the status quo—it starts from a recognition that the state is inherently abusive, it is all about controlling us, and it will use any tool it needs to keep us in line, whether creating fear through propaganda or through physical violence, or whatever. And it will demonise anyone who questions its legitimacy. This argument tends to ignore the importance of culture and history. It tends to overlook that some peoples have more legitimate claims to power than others. It doesn’t challenge us to think about where we are and how we got here.

The final argument, the one that I think got most lost, is the colonialism argument. That, as Moana Jackson has said, whenever indigenous peoples question their dispossession, they are defined as a threat and met with violence. It’s not that we weren’t mentioning colonisation, it’s that we weren’t saying anything beyond mentioning it.

When you look at what happened with Operation 8, when you look at where it happened, at which communities were targeted in which ways, and how liberal politicians positioned themselves—it’s really clear that racism, and fear of tangata whenua rising up, were absolutely central. For example, Helen Clark’s media statement about activists training to use napalm is all about that fear. Operation 8 was a colonial act. To respond to that, it’s really important that we know where we stand on colonisation, and legitimate responses to it, whether by tangata whenua or manuhiri.

On that note, I want to explain where I’ve got to with thinking about colonisation and tino rangatiratanga, or mana. The rest of my talk has nothing to do with Operation 8, but is more general.

Lots of really on to it people have made some simple statements about tino rangatiratanga or justice that speak to me. Patricia Monture-Angus is a Mohican woman, and she talks about justice as being the ability to live as a responsible person in her territory, as a Mohican woman. That’s really similar to Whatarangi Winiata’s definition, which is being able to survive as Māori. These are statements about the ability for tangata whenua to live according to their laws on their lands.

And this leads to my favourite statement about tino rangatiratanga, Ani Mikaere puts it simply that tikanga is the first law here and it’s the only legitimate law here. That’s because law comes from whakapapa—we can’t remain Māori and cede the responsibilities of our whakapapa.

If you can accept that, then questions of solidarity become simple too. I support tangata whenua making decisions that are right for them. It is their decision what they do in their rohe. That’s tikanga. Likewise I have no problem with tangata whenua defending their people, or whenua, or moana from the violence of colonisation, which comes in many forms.

The most inspiring talk I’ve heard in years was Dayle Takitimu talking about Te Whānau-ā-Apanui’s defense of their rohe from deep sea oil drilling. It’s not hard to support that. But the way these actions are portrayed in the media sometimes makes it hard to understand what’s going on. I don’t know if you all have been following the Mi’kmaq defence of their territory from gas exploration which was all over indigenous media yesterday—I was really distracted by it (background information here). The Reuters headline was “Police arrest 40 as Canada shale gas protest turns violent” and their article starts by talking about protestors setting police cars on fire, and throwing molotovs at police. The story could have been about indigenous people defending their whenua from exploitation, and the Canadian state’s violence against them. I didn’t look it up, but I imagine Canadian media were even more slanted. We know the media generally focus on the ‘violence of protestors’ and hardly ever talk about the real issues, which in this case, is the violence of colonisation and the ability of indigenous people to make decisions about their land.

The state has done a great job of making sure most people don’t understand colonisation. Our education system is pretty shocking when it comes to our colonial history and critical analysis. And our media don’t fill that gap. This means that some of the most important solidarity work that needs to be done is education and changing the conversation. The more people, from more diverse backgrounds that bring colonisation into the conversation, the harder it is to ignore.

So I want to finish by saying a few words about solidarity.

My understanding of solidarity now requires that I know myself—I need to be clear of my beliefs. Because solidarity is about interdependence, it’s about connections and relationships. It’s not charity—it’s about my relationship with you, and it’s about the relationship between my struggles and yours. So that also means I don’t have to completely agree with you and all your choices to be in solidarity with you. If I believe in your liberty, your self-determination, then by definition, I don’t get to determine what that means, or how you get there. We all need to understand that solidarity with any indigenous people requires accepting the legitimacy of those people’s decisions. And solidarity certainly doesn’t mean I have to claim to be you—we are not all Zapatistas or Ngāi Tūhoe. My struggles are not the same as yours. But they are connected.

My solidarity may mean simply making those connections clear, whatever they are—it might be western cultural imperialism, or colonisation, or capitalism. Understanding how your cause contributes to my cause. It may mean using whatever privilege I have, to open a space for you to talk about your oppression. By making those connections, we come to know the systems of oppression better, we expose them to more people, and eventually, we win together.

On that note, I’ll finish, thanks again for the opportunity to speak.


  1. Anonymous2:45 p.m.

    I tend to agree with most of this. Far from attracting people by trying to moderate the political message, one of the reasons I, and I think others, didn't get involved in October 15th Solidarity actions was because I could make neither head nor tail of what the group's politics were. It didn't help that when I asked a member of the group about the apparent discord between the group's actions and one of its slogans, they laughed and told me they didn't feel I could expect them to be bound by something that was just a slogan. Naive old me thought it was our enemies that employed phoney rhetoric.

    I would disagree, however, that solidarity is about interdependence. If you are professing solidarity with somebody, you should also accept the right of those you are in solidarity with to reject the relationship. Or to redefine it and seek mutual agreement on whether to continue the relationship. Interdependence would hamper that possibility. For me, its another reason why political work should be carried out in formal structures - ideally solidarity relationships should be formalised so both parties have a clear understanding of their commitments. At very least, anybody claiming to be in working in solidarity witrh somebody else needs to have enough structure in place to make it possible for the other party to communicate with you, and to be able to be critical, or even condemnatory, of the work you are doing.

    Jumping up and declaring yourself to be in solidarity with somebody who hasn't been given the opportunity to accept or reject your solidarity is tantamount to announcing "I'm in solidarity with you whether you like it or not".

  2. Anonymous2:46 p.m.


    And just a comment on your description of the 'anarchist argument' -" It doesn’t challenge us to think about where we are and how we got here."

    I would say it certainly does. My family came hear essentially under the auspices of the British Empire - one of the most vile and power-crazed institutions to ever blight the planet. It would be hard for me to maintain a critique of power without considering that my birth and citizenship here rest on something I fundamentally oppose.

    I agree some anarchists have acted as though declaring yourself to be an anarchist gives them a "get out responsibility for colonial injustices free card" but they are missing the point. So are the ones who are too scared to do anything about colonisation in case they say or do something wrong (I went to a painful meeting some years back in which every possible activity related to addressing colonisation - the point of the meeting - was opposed as each might lead to us doing something wrong. We could only agree to have another meeting, which never happened - thank God).

    I think the problem with both these attitudes stems from increasing individualism in anarchist thought and from the increasing influence of academia. Individualism encourages people to avoid structural analysis and fail to understand the forces at work in society, and instead focus on the faults and supposed responsibilities of the individual. Academia privileges analysis over action (nothing personal, Kim). Put them together and you get a stultifying mix of criticism, guilt and irrresponsibility and nothing useful gets done. Colonisation isn't the fault of individuals, past or present, nor is it something that individuals can ignore just because they weren't personally responsible for instituting it. It is a collective concern that we can only sort out collectively, and people should address it because it needs to be addressed - not because they were responsible for it. When the toilet's blocked, the best course of action is to unblock it - not to go around trying to find out who to blame for the blockage.

    Seems to me anarchist groups did quite a lot of practical anti-colonial work back in the 90s, in the last ten years that's largely stopped happening. Lots more theory now though, much of it coming from social democratic roots, rather than anarchism, but that's another story...


    Sam Buchanan