Māori issues

SOUL searching fireside after gaslighting at Ihumātao

On Tuesday night Steph Tawha stole a moment for herself to sit fireside at Ihumātao and reflect.

As the person given the mana to deliberate with police for the Save Our Unique Land protest group she couldn’t shake her devastation following Monday night’s stand-off with police. 

Officers from all over Auckland had been called from their regular duties to move in on the dozens of protesters remaining at the site after dark and just before nightly prayers.

The five-hour stand-off that ensued has been well-documented and seen widely on social media.

The police reinforcements, which some estimate to be around 100, were met head-to-head with allies of the protest movement who flocked to the scene in droves once videos from the scene emerged.

It was tense, ugly and intimidating for police and protesters alike with allegations of poor conduct from both sides. 

Counties Manukau Police superintendent Jill Rodgers, who ordered the operation, said they were acting on information direct from protesters about intentions to break past the police front line and onto the Kaitiaki Village. 

She strongly denied the operation was an overreaction, that it inflamed the situation or that SOUL leader Pania Newton was pushed to the ground (despite there being video footage of it). 

Police were verbally abused, spat at and shoved, said Rodgers.

SOUL protesters said they were manhandled too and they had no intention to break the police lines. They were confused and intimidated by the sudden escalation. The trust was gone. 

From negotiations to chaos

Fireside, Tawha couldn’t help but feel hurt and betrayed. Were the police gaslighting her in front of the nation?

Before Monday night she had spent the day negotiating with a commander about how both sides could reduce the footprint of the protest. Just her, no one else.

Resourcing two weeks of occupation was taxing for each group and with complex unresolved issues still ahead it was clear they needed to work together to sustain their efforts. 

Both were keen to reduce the number of officers at the scene, reach agreements about vehicle access and ease tensions following an incident on Sunday when protesters saw police officers carrying guns at the site.

As part of reducing that footprint Tawha asked if mana whenua could move their presence to the Kaitiaki Village -  an area for which they’ve been served eviction notices by Fletcher Building.

Many school groups had bookings to do tours of the stone fields in the coming weeks and SOUL was keen to continue the educational kaupapa there, she said.

“He said he’d talk to Fletchers, and I said we’d have to talk to our people - that was it.”

A decision was made to halt the talks for the day until both negotiators could consult their respective parties.   

With a cold night ahead Tawha turned her energy towards making popcorn and sausages for the people left on the frontline who couldn’t leave for dinner at the nearby marae. 

As the kernels began to pop the police reinforcements arrived in formation. 

The Mangere Bridge School principal says she was shocked and scared for the protesters and police officers, many of whom she had taught.

Some of them are so young and I could see the terror in their eyes that night. I just thought, ‘our people are terrified, your people are terrified’ - why are we doing this to them? It’s not okay.

“We expect more from our police force than that. Why didn’t they stop and talk to us rather than storming us?”

What a difference a powhiri makes

It’s important at this point to be clear that Tawha is keen to move on from that night and move forward. 

And so are police.

Yesterday afternoon she stood by deputy commissioner Wally Haumaha as he addressed media following several hui between police and SOUL representatives. 

Monday night's operation was based on a misunderstanding, Haumaha said.

When Newsroom contacted Rodgers to see if she had changed her position she said she stood by her previous comments.

Haumaha announced police numbers at Ihumātao would be reduced, the number of Maori wardens would increase and assured mana whenua that Monday night’s events wouldn’t be repeated. 

"We have arrived at a good point to prevent any miscommunication that may have occurred in the past and so to avoid that we have appointed somebody to come along and sit alongside the organisers that are here and continue to work together along those lines," he said.

"Protests organisers have also given an undertaking that there will be no attempt to re-occupy the area currently fenced off and subject to the eviction notice which was served on 23 July."

A positive result for two hurt parties who had been at odds 24 hours earlier, achieved through a tikanga approach.

Tawha said on Tuesday night SOUL invited Haumaha for a powhiri. Turns out he was already on his way. 

“We had the powhiri and then we just went into a portacom and laid it all out on the table - about how we felt, about how difficult it’s been and how upset we were and they just listened. And we felt they really listened.” 

Haumaha was invited to the protest site so he could see more than secondhand images and videos.

“My position to him was, ‘We’re not your normal protest. We’re actually a whanau operation and if you came through and experienced what a lot of people are experiencing maybe you’re not going to be so fearful that we’re gonna charge the land or try and overtake’.” 

“We wanted to show him we’re a really well performing operation. We might look like we’ve just got gumboots and swannys and y’know - but we’re all educated people.”

Tawha shared her frustrations about negotiating with officers who weren’t decision makers and threats from police for things like moving a marque 10 metres so the Kiingitanga wasn’t sitting in the rain.

Haumaha knows it’s not everyday the Kiingitanga comes to the party and when he does, you must manaaki him - it’s the Māori way.

Tawha said Haumaha has been instrumental in bridging the divide and the promise of dealing with a group of his senior Māori officers that are familiar with tikanga has gone some way to alleviating the tensions.

“If the boss comes down from Wellington and says, ‘We’re here and we’re going to go public saying we’re supporting you,’ - I think that has gone some way to relieve our anxiety."

Keep warm and carry on

The front-line is reset and Ihumātao returned to a carnival-like atmosphere with families bringing blankets and pillows out for a screening of Moana in Te Reo Māori.

There was singing, story-telling, candy floss and popcorn and Tawha found herself fireside once more.

"I was just re-setting why we are here - that the Government can't treat people like this. We're not a bunch of criminals, we're a family fighting for our rights - and people have the right to come and support us."

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