Ideasroom

Time to dismantle our rotting house

The US isn't the only country with a broken criminal justice system that works to criminalise and destroy the lives of black and brown families. Dylan Asafo puts forward two ways NZ could lead in dismantling systems of white supremacy. 

If you were to imagine a society without racial oppression, what would it look like?

In many community organising spaces within the US, these are the sorts of questions often posed in meetings of activists and change-makers coming together to seek justice for their communities. Attendees then break up into groups, discuss the society and world they want to live in and draw pictures and write stories of the systems they want to dismantle and build to make that world possible.

While it may seem like a silly and stupid exercise to take part in, the point is to get activists to imagine a life for their communities beyond their current realities of racial violence and systemic inequality. Opportunities to imagine their society or the world in this way not only provide collective healing and joy, but they also remind change-makers that they always need to be brave and ambitious in their pursuits for liberation, especially in times when it seems like every step forward will be followed by two steps back.

One of the main inspirations for this type of exercise is the book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D. G. Kelley, in which Kelley draws on the work of intellectuals and artists of the African diaspora to observe that:

[T]he catalyst for political engagement has rarely been misery, poverty, or oppression. People are drawn to social movement because of hope: their dreams of a new world radically different from the one they inherited.
Our imagination may be the most revolutionary tool available to us.

Right now, Aotearoa is being shaken by news of the protests taking place in response to the police’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While there are no doubt a lot of New Zealanders being critical of these protesters, there are many of us standing and protesting in solidarity with the protestors and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

In needing to be careful not to co-opt, de-centre and misappropriate the black struggle, for many peoples of colour in Aotearoa this solidarity comes from having a deep understanding of the pain, exhaustion and anger that comes from constantly having your humanity denied by the white supremacist state. It comes from appreciating the life and joy that black culture gives us and the world, too often without any acknowledgement, compensation and any sense of reciprocity in everyday acts of appropriation. It comes from generations of failed promises of a so-called democracy that ensures equality and justice for all, regardless of race, colour, creed, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and disability status.

And perhaps more specifically, it comes from experiencing a broken criminal justice system that works to criminalise and destroy the lives of black and brown families.

In needing to be careful not to co-opt, de-centre and misappropriate the black struggle, for many peoples of colour in Aotearoa this solidarity comes from having a deep understanding of the pain, exhaustion and anger that comes from constantly having your humanity denied by the white supremacist state.

Our criminal justice system, especially our policing structures and prison institutions, have always been designed to oppress Māori, as well as other groups of colour. Our nation’s history tells us how police and prisons were key tools of colonisation in enabling the mass theft of Māori land and the installation of the white supremacist system of capitalism to promote the socioeconomic domination of white settlers.

And our nation’s present tells us of the reality of violent neo-colonisation by police and prisons, in which 66 percent of those shot by police in the last 10 years were either Māori or Pacific, and 51 percent of the prison population are Māori and 12 percent are of Pacific descent.

Therefore, in this time of global revolution, the need for us to imagine an Aotearoa without racial oppression feels greater than ever. In undertaking this task of radical imagination and freedom dreaming, it is critical that all of us in Aotearoa take the opportunity to learn (or re-learn) the following two lessons that Māori, black and other peoples of colour have been trying to teach the world for years:

Lesson One: Abolish police

As the baseless Armed Response Trial and recent unnecessary police shootings of only Māori and Pasifika people have made clear, our policing structures and practices deliberately target Māori and Pasifika communities.

But the problem with police isn’t just a few bad racist cops or an illogical trial programme with racist American origins and purposes. The problem is the entire structure, which has a deep and pervasive culture of white supremacy and toxic masculinity. Unfortunately, this isn’t a culture that is recent and easy to improve - it’s one that has been built and reinforced for centuries to the point it has become permanent.

We have to get away from the idea that locking people up is acceptable. A new prison is estimated to cost $1.5 billion. If we spent that money on health or education, what outcome would we get? We would expect it to make a positive difference. If you ask people if they expect a larger prison to make a positive difference, they can’t really say yes.

As prison abolition group People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) argue in expressing their long-term demands for police abolition:

The issues with the New Zealand Police, however, cannot be merely addressed through reform. Contrary to popular sentiment, the New Zealand Police does not engage in these violent and racist practices because of a couple of ‘bad apples’. As outlined in the Policing Act 2008, the functions of the New Zealand Police include “keeping the peace”, “maintaining public safety”, “law enforcement”, and “crime prevention”. The police serves to maintain a capitalist social order and its racist, colonial dimensions. When it is ‘keeping the peace,’ it is engaging in class war. When it is ‘maintaining public safety,’ it is maintaining the safety of the privileged few at the expense of criminalised populations who are deemed unworthy of saving.

To put it another way, one cannot expect to renovate and live comfortably in a house that has rotten foundations. Thankfully for us, policing structures are not the only way we can keep people safe, and we are perfectly capable of reimagining and building new systems to prevent and address harm. In Aotearoa, we’re blessed to have a rich body of indigenous wisdom and knowledge in tikanga Māori that can guide our imagining of an Aotearoa where police aren’t disproportionately targeting Māori and Pasifika daily.

We’re also fortunate to have Te Tiriti o Waitangi in our country, as well as brilliant Māori scholars, like Professors Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu, working hard to build a Tiriti-based constitution that will help our nation’s leaders find ways to discuss, plan and implement these new systems that will keep all of our communities safe. Furthermore, Aotearoa can only gain from learning from the transformative ideas of black and indigenous police abolitionists in the US such as peace circles. Of course, this will involve sharing our own ideas for alternatives to police in continuing our relationship of solidarity in our efforts to dismantle white supremacy as a global enterprise.

Lesson Two: Abolish our prison system

Abolishing the police must be done alongside abolishing our prison system.

While we have all been led to believe that prisons are the only way to keep ‘dangerous’ people away from society, we must unlearn this lie. The prisons of today don’t merely keep ‘dangerous’ people away – they systematically seek to destroy families of colour for generations as they have in Aotearoa since colonisation. Like police, there is no prison reform possible that can completely eliminate the innate inhumanity and racism of prisons. The rotting house must be dismantled, and a new system needs to be built.

While figuring out the particulars of a new system will not be easy, several scholars and groups have already done incredible work in imagining an Aotearoa without prisons with tikanga Māori and Te Tiriti at the centre. This includes the work of Māori thinkers (such as Professors Jackson and Tracey McIntosh), activist groups (such as PAPA and Just Speak) and advisory groups (such as Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – The Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group).

Like police, there is no prison reform possible that can completely eliminate the innate inhumanity and racism of prisons. The rotting house must be dismantled, and a new system needs to be built.

The need for people in Aotearoa to take prison abolition seriously is best captured by Professor McIntosh, who poignantly argues:

New Zealand must show global leadership in this area. Prison abolition brings a broad range of perspectives, from the radical direct-action activist to those operating from a faith-based perspective. Many big social upheavals seemed overly idealistic before they happened; the end of slavery, votes for women, same sex marriage, but now they’re the norm.
...
We have to get away from the idea that locking people up is acceptable. A new prison is estimated to cost $1.5 billion. If we spent that money on health or education, what outcome would we get? We would expect it to make a positive difference. If you ask people if they expect a larger prison to make a positive difference, they can’t really say yes.

Here, McIntosh makes clear the unique role we in Aotearoa can potentially have in leading the way for black, indigenous and other groups of colour in the US and beyond for prison abolition. While any social justice-minded lawyer will tell you that New Zealand’s current legal and political systems are fundamentally flawed, our potential to lead the world in abolition comes from having a more progressive government (at the moment) and somewhat weaker barriers to radical constitutional change than in the US.

Of course, these two lessons propose radical out-there ideas that have and will continue to encounter strong opposition from New Zealanders (politicians and community members alike) who subscribe to and benefit from the white supremacist structures of police and prisons.

But for many of us, especially people of colour in Aotearoa, we know that we owe it to our ancestors and the generations who will come after us to be bold, courageous and revolutionary. Therefore, as we imagine, dream, protest and fight for a better Aotearoa, and face barriers to change that seems impossible to overcome, let us always be inspired by the words of legendary black American activist, Angela Davis:

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.

*The author holds a Master of Laws from Harvard University, specialising in Critical Race Theory and minority rights.

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