It’s tough being a revolutionary when you need parental permission to leave the house. That’s how it was for many of those who, 45 years ago in Ponsonby, Auckland, formed the Polynesian Panthers. Fashioned after the militant Black Panther Party in the US, the Kiwi Panthers were mostly New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders. And young. A mix of former gang members, university students, and high school students. Their chief aim was to fight the racism and discrimination that pervaded every level of New Zealand society in the 1970s. But while their activism was praised in many quarters, it was often kept secret from their parents, as Melani Anae writes.
I was 18, and in my first year at university when I joined the Panthers. I snuck out of home to attend their very first meeting, which was at Fred Schmidt and his sister Etta’s place. Etta and I were friends. I lived a few houses away in Home Street, Grey Lynn.
We often joke about it. There we were, a group of girls with what we thought were gang guys, thinking we were pretty staunch — and then being really inspired by Will ‘Ilolahia and the talk that was going on about revolution. Next minute, Etta lets out a yell: “Quick, everybody! Get out of here. Mum and Dad are on their way home!” We skidaddled out of there.
That was June 16, 1971.
My parents had no idea I was a Panther. I couldn’t tell them — they wouldn’t have understood. I had to sneak out to attend Panther meetings and events. When asked where I was going, I said I was going to youth meetings. That was the case for most of us.
My father had come to New Zealand from Samoa in 1951, and worked at a paper bag factory on Richmond Road in Grey Lynn. My mother and older siblings followed shortly after. My dad purchased a villa in Grey Lynn. His boss loaned him the deposit and Dad paid him back through his wages.
Out of a family of eight kids, my youngest brother and I were the only New Zealand-born kids. My mum did sewing outworker jobs for Sleepyhead Bedding originally, and then for various fashion houses after that.
At the time, inner-city Auckland — Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay — were slum areas and home to the first Polynesian settlers who had migrated to New Zealand in large numbers in the 1950s.
As a New Zealand-born Pacific Island kid growing up in Auckland, the malaise that a lot of us felt was fuelled by the overt racism we experienced and saw around us — in our neighbourhood, at school, at work, in the streets, and in the media. That culminated in the Dawn Raids of 1974 and 1976.
Most of us experienced personal racism. For me, it was being first to the shop counter but always the last to be served by Pālagi shopkeepers. And, at secondary school, never being picked for answers by the teachers, even though I had my hand up the longest.
When Alec Toleafoa, another Panther, was 15, his teacher threw a sixpence on his desk and told him to buy a Herald and look for a job, because he’d never make it at school. The principal at the same school (Mt Albert Grammar) told Tigilau Ness to cut his afro, even though there were Pālagi surfer boys there with long hair. When he said no, he was expelled despite being a top student. That’s when he joined the Panthers.
Racism was all around us. Walking down K’Rd, we’d see cops harassing Pacific Island youth with afros. Alec’s brother, Wayne (who, like Alec, is now a minister) was stopped on the street by a group of cops and asked to produce his passport. He was born in New Zealand; of course, he didn’t carry his passport around in his back pocket.
The boys were called “black bastards”, “dumb coconuts”, or “bungas” on the rugby fields. We had racist landlords refusing to rent houses to Pacific people. We used to ring them up and secure accommodation for people because we didn’t have fobby accents.
It wasn’t easy becoming a Polynesian Panther. Not everyone was accepted. There was a trial period when you became an “investigator”. You had to prove yourself. You were judged on how committed you were, and your ethics and approach.
As Polynesian women — girls really (we were only 17, 18 at the time) — to attend that first meeting, let alone join the Polynesian Panthers, was already revolutionary given our cultural roles and responsibilities. Unlike our Palagi peers, our world wasn’t one of independence, choice, boys, fashion, holidays, and the like. It was dedication and commitment to ‘aiga. It was family, church and school — and in that order.
If our parents had known about our covert operations, we would have been disciplined severely. But, to be honest, we didn’t stop and think about what we were doing. We just knew that something had to change in our hood. Our parents’ generation didn’t have the skills and nous to deal with the Palagi administration. And the respect they had for the administration was misplaced.
So it was up to us — the youth. Most of us were 17, 19. Many were still at high school. We had to become mediators between our parents, families, communities and the state. And we had to protect them.
We worked with, and supported, others who mirrored our ideals, to get things done. Like-minded groups such as Ngā Tamatoa, the People’s Union, HART (Halt All Racist Tours), ACORD (Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination) and CARE (Citizens Association for Racial Equality).
We got petitions circulated and signed, like the one that established Māori as an official language of New Zealand. We delivered community newspapers in Ponsonby to raise funds for our work. Held fundraisers. Visited old folks’ homes. Set up the Paremoremo Prison visits, and provided transport so families could visit their kids. We set up New Zealand’s very first homework centres for Pacific learners.
Our PIG (Police Investigation Group) kept a watch on police harassing Polynesians. We formed the TAB (Tenants’ Aid Brigade), before there was any official tenancy protection in the country. We published New Zealand’s first legal aid booklet, with the help of our lawyer, (future Labour prime minister) David Lange.
And we successfully campaigned to get traffic lights installed in Franklin Road and Ponsonby Road, because Pacific kids were being killed while crossing the road.
We worked hard to put an end to police brutality leading up to and including the Dawn Raids — and to overcome the racist policies which we saw as hindering fair access to quality education, health, and housing.
Our main enemy was (and perhaps, still is?) the media, and racist attitudes about who we were as Pacific peoples. So we had a minister of information (Wayne Toleafoa) whose job was to challenge the negative stereotypes in the white press, which portrayed us all as rapists and violent criminals. (There were Pālagi rapists and criminals, too — why focus on us?)
My claim to Panther fame was connecting our group to the Black Panther Party in the US. That happened after my first year at varsity. Because I’d passed all my papers, my father and oldest brother, who worked for Air New Zealand, shouted me a trip to the US to visit my aunt and uncle in Compton, Los Angeles. When Will ‘Ilolahia heard I was going, he gave me an assignment — to make contact with the Black Panthers.
I was scared stiff. I waited till my very last day in the States before I gathered up enough courage to make the dreaded phone call. I got through to a Black Panther’s sister, I think, and she was very gracious. I told her about how our group supported them and that they had a Polynesian chapter in Auckland, New Zealand. When I got back to New Zealand, a parcel of material and resources arrived.
I was one of the few women in the Polynesian Panther Party. Another was the inspirational Miriama (Ama) Rauhihi, who became the first paid Polynesian Panther community worker. She married another Panther, Tigilau Ness. Their son is the musician Che Fu.
The women in the Panthers provided the balance for the male leadership. Often we were successful in persuading the male leadership to choose more conventional strategies — petitions, say, rather than their more aggressive approaches. The boys back then were moving out of an environment of violence against everyone, including women.
But I always felt that I had been treated like a sister. What outsiders may have perceived as male chauvinism back then was actually the intense protection our male counterparts showed towards the women, which is a dominant theme in our Pacific cultures. The feagaiga in Samoan culture, for example, which speaks to the special convenant between brother and sister. Our roles tended to reflect that. We girls always cooked the pots of chop suey, taro, and corned beef for the community activities, and the boys always ensured our protection in the rough times during demonstrations and protest marches.
The Polynesian Panther Party disbanded formally after the Springbok Tour in 1981. But, as we say, once a Panther always a Panther. We still adhere to the fundamental Polynesian Panther Party platform. To annihilate all forms of racism. To celebrate mana Pasifika identities. To teach the youth that the strongest form of protest is success — and that education is the key to unlock that success. Educate to liberate was our motto.
What I’m most proud of is what we achieved at so young an age. We let wider New Zealand know that we weren’t going to tolerate being pushed around any longer. And we set the platform for what most Pacific youth now take for granted. Without a doubt, the Polynesian Panthers started the revolution for the recognition of the burgeoning Pacific presence in New Zealand.
Today, the Panthers are inspiring a new Pacific generation. A group of us (Will ‘Ilolahia, Tigilau Ness, Alec Toleafoa and me) have been giving seminars to South Auckland secondary schools about the Panther experience for several years now. The feedback from students and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re seeing the birth of a new generation piecing together our history as Pacific people in this country.
As Panthers, we continue to work within our own fields — education, arts, religion, sport, music, police and other professional occupations — to improve the negative position of our Pacific people in Aotearoa.
One of the questions we always get asked is: “Should the Polynesian Panthers be reactivated?” I say: “No need.”
Pacific youth are already making changes in their own way, based on our Panther platform. A vivid example of this is I, Too, Am Auckland, a video project in which Māori and Pasifika students at Auckland University discuss their experiences with everyday colonialism and racism.
The Polynesian Panther story is the story of Pacific in New Zealand, and also the story of New Zealand becoming more aware of its real self.
Undoubtedly, the Polynesian Panthers will go down in history as consolidating Pacific peoples’ identities in Aotearoa, validating our place in this country, and providing the inspiration for social justice outcomes for new and successive generations of Pacific youth.
Lupematasila Misatauveve Dr Melani Anae is a senior lecturer and director of research of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland. She edited Polynesian Panthers: Pacific Protest and Affirmative Action in Aotearoa New Zealand 1971-1981, with Lautofa (Ta) Iuli and Leilani Tamu.
© E-Tangata, 2016
More of the Polynesian Panthers story
The Polynesian Panthers was established in Auckland in June 1971 by six young Pacific Island men: Fred Schmidt, Nooroa Teavae, Paul Dapp, Vaughan Sanft, Eddie Williams and Will ‘Ilolahia. In 1972, it became the Polynesian Panthers Party (PPP). It was explicitly modelled on the American civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party.
For more on the Panthers’ story, see this documentary by Nevak 'Ilolahia: Polynesian Panthers.
For a comprehensive history and interviews with Panthers and friends, check out Polynesian Panthers: Pacific Protest and Affirmative Action in Aotearoa New Zealand 1971-1981. Here's a taste of some of those interviews:
Vaughan Sanft, foundation Panther
“We were a group of guys watching things that were happening around Ponsonby. I believe it was a time of awareness to see what was actually happening with younger people: younger people getting picked up; held in police stations and detained without any sort of advice at all. And the next minute you hear that person is in a borstal or something like that. So we formed a group and tried to change the way things were happening.
“I think the older generation had the feeling that eventually it would come right. People of our age weren’t that patient. It was time for change and it needed to be done then. I think worldwide this was starting to happen and we were just people of the times.”
Wayne Toleafoa, Panther number 29 (Panthers’ minister of information, now Presbyterian minister)
“New Zealand in the 1970s was certainly not the United States, but it was also not the harmonious society that many older Pākehā wanted to believe it was. If you were Māori or a Pacific Islander, you soon learned that you were not regarded as an equal by many Pākehā.
“It was not until I attended secondary school that I began to notice the racist jibes — ‘black bastards’, ‘nig nogs’ and so on ... As well as being demeaning, their jibes indicated the poor quality of the relationship between many Pākeha and Polynesians and the gap between fact and myth.
“The quality of this relationship is clearly illustrated by the National Party’s  election campaign advertising, in which an angry, threatening Pacific Island male (with floral shirt and afro hairstyle) grasped a broken beer bottle in his hand — an inaccurate but popular image of the Pacific Islanders (and Māori) among many Pākehā. The infamous Dawn Raids too created a climate of mistrust between Pacific communities and wider Pāhehā society. They left me and many other Pacific Islanders with a sense of vulnerability and aloneness.
“To many young Polynesians like myself, the only way forward for us as a migrant people was ‘self-help’. We would have to stand up for ourselves and for our people, and not wait for others to do it for us. ...
“What made it easy to join the Panthers was that it was Ponsonby-based. Ponsonby of the 1960s and 1970s was something like Mangere or Otara of the present. ... There was the feeling of being ‘at home’ in Ponsonby, although I remember laughing when I overheard two Pākehā bus drivers refer to the Ponsonby bus route as ‘the Congo run’. That comment was indicative of what many Pākehā thought of Ponsonby back then. I was a native of Ponsonby and proud of it.
Mere Meanata Montgomerie (Dunedin PPP member)
“My grounding in [the] PPP was in Auckland at the end of 1971, in my seventh form year. One of the motivating reasons for getting into PPP was ... an incident of racism by a landlord. At the time we had Fijian-Indian friends staying at home, and I (with my good English) rang around to try to find accommodation. When I mentioned their name, Singh, or my own surname M E A N A T A the response changed to, ‘Oh, I have someone already looking at it’, or something more derogatory.”
"I joined the Panthers because at the time we were constantly getting hassled by police and being stopped for petty little reasons so the Panthers opened the opportunity where ... we could sort what really was going on at the time. At the time I was involved in setting up the legal aid book and organising people who had to go to court or needed lawyers and things like ... free legal aid."
David Lange: Panthers’ legal adviser 1971-76 (prime minister 1984–89)
The Panthers were “effective in a couple of ways. First of all, at the time when the legal aid system was appalling ... there was always an assurance that someone from the Panthers would get you a lawyer — that was a great benefit. Second thing was that it had an approach to society-building and status-building merely by members [being] within the Panthers and working with it. So quite significant community leadership persistence, outside of the traditional lines of status in Pacific communities, came about through involvement with the Panthers.”
Roger Fowler, Co-ordinator of the Ponsonby People’s Union (1971-1979)
“During the Muldoon years police intimidation continued in other ways, with the racist bullying tactics of the newly formed Police Task Force, which travelled in large convoys of paddy wagons and staged heavy-handed displays of force. We worked closely with the Panthers and CARE (Citizens Association for Racial Equality). The Police Investigation Group (PIG) patrols were formed because of the Police Task Force. Convoys of police paddy wagons and cars would descend mainly on bars in great numbers and would provoke people into situations. They picked on bars frequented by PIs and Māori and 70 percent of arrests were PIs. There was distaste in the community.”
Joris de Bres, member of CARE, and former Race Relations Commissioner
“I can think of one instance, at a Church service at 64 Crummer Road, all of a sudden the doors were knocked in and the place was swarming with police, officials and dogs. They asked for passports. There were 18 that didn’t have them, including the priest. They were taken to Mt Eden Prison. ... I felt great shame at it.
“There were some ghastly statements by cabinet ministers, that you can identify PIs because they stand out ... In the second round of registers, they were going to crack down on people and this started the random checks. The figures I recall were more than 1000 people were stopped and less than 20 were found. Māori were stopped. The ministers said that if you don’t look like a New Zealander, then you better carry a passport.”
Robert Ludbrooke, lawyer and a founder of the Grey Lynn Neighbourhood Law Office
“The 1970s saw a coming together of four separate movements that sought solutions to the disadvantages encountered by Māori and Pacific peoples under the monocultural justice system of Aotearoa New Zealand. This partnership sought to address the social injustice and racism, imposed on the largest Polynesian community on the Pacific rim. The idea of ‘cultural diversity’ in such times of post-colonialism and ethnic intolerance was inconceivable."
Nigel Bhana, Indian Panther
“Auckland was the most racist place out. Especially against Polynesians, and this was the biggest Polynesian city in the world. ... The newspapers loved us just if we did anything wrong.”
“When Polynesian Panthers got their house behind the police station (Redmond St), we actually had people staying there full-time. A lot of people were coming out of prison, especially Māori men coming out of Paremoremo ... they had nowhere to go.
“Panthers and People’s Union used to send a bus up [to Paremoremo Prison] every month. We didn’t even know who we were going to visit. Get passes. Go up to ‘Pare’. Visit prisoners that had no one. You didn’t even know them. And just sit there. Rap away. Just talk to them and that. And when they come out of jail, they knew they had a home. ... Not just Paremoremo, but Waikeria where my age group was; young offenders. We would go down to Waikeria to visit; take magazines, books, chocolates ... whatever.”
“... It wasn’t a nine-to-five job or whatever. People used to ring up the Panthers at 2 o’clock in the morning or someone’s house and say: ‘Excuse me. I’m down at the Central Police Station. Can you get me a lawyer? I need bail.’”
Fuimaono Norman Tuiasau
“It was at a time of great economic, social and political change throughout the Western world. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, liberal and radical politics spread across Europe and the Americas. Major events around the world threw up issues, heroes and paradoxes. The Vietnam War was a catalyst for many. ... We all identified with Muhammad Ali, for example, when he refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War; especially with his reasoning, ‘No Vietcong called me a nigger.’ ... South Africa’s apartheid regime continued to shock and bewilder us ...
“In Auckland, challenging society and the community attitudes and beliefs in regards to Pacific people is what I remember about my time with the PPP. ... We were being radicalised from all quarters and extremities. But part of our radicalisation came about as Pacific youth and leaders, trying to make sense of Pacific Island cultural issues and practices in the new Pacific urban environment. This was a monumental task. ...
“Like the children of other immigrant communitities settling and adjusting to their new world, we were always walking a fine line between supporting our Pacific parents, Pacific languages and cultural practices, and challenging our communities through our own experiences; seeing and bringing new ways of thinking and doing things to our communities. I remember when we were challenged by the Pacific churches about poverty; we were labelled as Fia Palagi [wannabe Palagi] communists.”
“The issues we were dealing with were so varied, complex and exciting. Yet with the personnel we had (many of us were just secondary school students), what we achieved was quite remarkable.”
“The members of the Panthers have gone on to good things: teachers, lecturers, ministers. I am a musician. ... We haven’t all been killed off as revolutionaries. Our main aim was then and is still now equality and a more peaceable Aotearoa. So until that happens we will always be going.
“When Bastion Point happened we were ready to take on the Army. There was a military wing of the Panthers. We were ready then ... If we had gone the way of the hotheads we could have been different. A big plus for passive resistance. I felt that they [the Police] were just doing a job. They weren’t all ‘pigs’. It was the government. So we thought we’d target the government — the heads. Not the soldiers. Bill Birch, minister of immigration.
“For myself, they [the Europeans] were my heroes. Because they didn’t have to do it. They had a conscience — Tom Newnham, David Lange, Oliver Sutherland, ACORD (Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination). They copped flack: ‘nigger lovers’.”
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.