Despite a lifetime of activism and protest, and a couple of arrests, Catherine Delahunty has never been seriously harassed by the police. It’s a privilege not shared by others, she writes.
The SIS started following me when I was 15 because my father was a communist, my uncle was the Solicitor-General of New Zealand, and I was student organiser.
The file, although partially blocked out, has been worth a read. Both the spy and the communist group he infiltrated thought 15-year-old girls with loud opinions should be made to shut up.
So far, though, being spied on since that age hasn’t cost me my freedom or my opportunities for a good and politically-active life.
This is privilege.
I’ve been arrested twice and never charged. The first arrest was in a forest in the 1980s when I was protesting against gold mining in that area. The police put 40 of us in a paddy wagon and we headed off on an unsealed switchback road in the northern Hauraki.
We bumped along in the heat with the dust floating into the back of the wagon. I felt quite sick. When we got to Kapanga (Coromandel town) we were unloaded onto the rugby field and processed under some charge like “disturbing the peace”.
The pine forest hadn’t been disturbed as far as we could see — except for some pine needles with which I attempted to wipe my bum during that long night in the forest. Disturbing for both the needles and the bum.
The police processed each person in a bus they’d parked up. The policeman processing me said: “What pretty blue eyes you have.” I knew I was in no danger apart from being offended by the sexism. My tangata whenua mates were being put through something different. “Empty your pockets.” “Do you have a job?” But at least, in that space, no one got smacked around.
In the end, there were no charges.
The next time was in September 2018, at Karangahake. Five of us were arrested for trespass on a gold-mining company site in the Forest Park, which is public land and an important maunga in Hauraki. We were all Pākehā of varying ages.
The cops weren’t keen to drag us to the police car. I agreed to walk there because I knew that if they dragged me over rough ground, I might get injured — and it takes longer to recover when you’re older.
In the back of the car, I made a few calls until the policeman, very politely, asked me to stop because, officially, when you’re under arrest, you’re not meant to do that. He didn’t ask for my phone.
We drove to a nearby police station where we were offered a cup of tea while they did some paperwork. Then the cop made us an offer which was to let us go home with what’s called a “pre-charge”.
This meant that, if we were arrested again at the same site, we’d get a trespass charge. One protester in our group was disappointed because he’d travelled quite a distance to support the action and was happy to be charged and have his day in court. Personally, I wasn’t keen to waste time or money on any charge, if that was avoidable.
Noting the disagreement vibe, the cop suggested that he’d leave the room so we could “come to a consensus”. Our consensus was that we’d accept the pre-charge offer, and we were soon on our merry way.
This police strategy made sense and they should try it more often — and not just with privileged, middle class, white people.
True to their word, the police did eventually deliver a trespass notice to me after I visited the same site in January 2021. This “trespass” was recorded on a mining company security camera (hidden up in a tree) when I clambered around their gate which blocks off the mine site on the public walking track.
There’s no resolution about whether they have a legal right to have this gate. It’s conservation park land, and their work site is already fenced off. But DOC allows them to hide cameras in the trees and block the walking track.
The trespass notice wasn’t delivered to me within days or weeks of the incident. In fact, it was delivered to me at home one evening, nine months later, because it hadn’t been a priority to do so and it had been ‘’sitting on someone’s desk“.
The notice says that if I return to that site and commit trespass within two years, I’ll be committing an offence punishable by a fine “not exceeding $1000.00 or imprisonment not exceeding three months”. Seeing that the mining company has been inactive at the site since that time, I’ve had no reason to visit.
But, if I had, I’m certain that they wouldn’t have put me in jail for up to three months — and there wouldn’t have been much of a fine either.
Thus, to date, I have no criminal record despite having been in numerous political protests for many years where I could‘ve been arrested and possibly charged. It’s almost as if I have a form of immunity.
This lifetime of environmental action without serious consequences isn’t true for all Pākehā, but we do know from rigorous research that many of us are treated better by the justice system than Māori are.
It leads to a certain confidence as I walk down the street when a police car cruises past. It leads to a tiny flutter if the cops stop me for a possible traffic offence, but at no time have I ever been seriously harassed by the police. I carry this in my body cells and it carries me through privileged encounters with authority.
If a police car slows down near me, I don’t feel that sick anxiety and trauma, or the fear and rage I know others feel.
I can stroll through all kinds of situations with privilege and certainty. When I was younger, male harassment was a problem and groups of young males were a risk. But now, for me, it’s all grandmother-hood and apple pie.
But, even in my cosy bubble, there are occasional reminders of the price of solidarity.
As a member of the solidarity network on West Papua, I have friends in Papua who’ve been tortured and imprisoned by the Indonesian state, for nonviolent action. Their family members have been killed.
The only price I’ve paid so far is that I was put on a list of PEP (Politically Exposed Persons) because, when I was an MP, I occasionally sent small amounts of money to Papuans in exile. It’s inconvenient and wrong, but it’s different from being jailed for raising a flag and charged with treason as my friends have been.
All this sense of safety is an illusion as any student of social history will know. Even the privileged are at risk of serious consequences if they’re associated with Indigenous “troublemaking”. The Tūhoe raids are a case in point.
In this country, Pākehā individuals can be demonised and arrested, but we don’t have dawn raids on white neighbourhoods. However, we don’t forget the 1981 Springbok Tour when there were mass arrests. Or how the police treated protest leaders from all cultural backgrounds fighting free trade summits in Auckland, or standing up for the unemployed.
I often get reminders that, if you’re tangata whenua, you can suffer constant scrutiny and risk prison. The system that protects me puts my friends and their whānau through an everyday stress.
That stress can be a slow killer or a fast killer when they walk down the streets laid over stolen whenua — and they’re never safe.
I walk the same streets under the same justice system, yet it’s not the same.
Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.
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