Denis O’Reilly pays tribute to his friend Wiremu ‘Knockers’ Allen (Ngāti Kahu from Matangirau in the Far North), a former state ward who became president of Black Power Auckland.
Love is the answer to the dark voices
Of the demons that trouble us when youth has gone,
Saying, “You fool, you have had your day
And wasted it.” The spirit of a spring morning
When the wind moves gently over the grass
Is enough to tell us that the stone at the door of the tomb has
I have seen the boulder lifted
From the back of the tribe. I have heard their singing voices.
I have felt their hands like the wind on the grass
Stroking my cheek, when it seemed all hope had gone.
—J K Baxter
On Friday morning, we lifted the beautifully carved kāwhena containing the mortal remains of our brother, Wiremu “Knockers” Allen, and a horde of willing pallbearers took him in loud procession from his home and clubrooms at Ihumātao in Māngere to the nearby Makaurau marae.
The air was rent with the sound of haka — “Toia Mai”, “Ka Mate”, “Ringa Toa” — accompanied by the trumpet-like revving of motorcycles, the vibrations of which would surely have seen Jericho’s walls crumble to dust.
In this brief journey, Knox was transported from the noa — the mundane and sometimes corrupted space of gang life — to the sacred space of the marae cloaked in the tikanga of Tainui. Knox was one step further on his return to his mother, Papatūānuku.
The protracted illness that led to his death was that silent killer of Māori men, Hepatitis C. If it’s diagnosed early enough, Hep C can be easily treated. But Māori men don’t check themselves for treatable diseases. And that may well be because many Māori men don’t love themselves enough to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Knox was the president of Black Power Auckland MG. MG denotes that his chapter rode motorcycles. In January this year, I joined him and perhaps 150 others at Maraetai for his last ride, while he still had the capacity and strength to ride his beloved Harley.
In the last months of his life, supported by his devoted wife Donna and his whānau, Knox received palliative care at home. A little marquee was set up outside his home, and most days and certainly every evening, a group of friends and followers would gather to kōrero and sing and, when he felt well enough, to give him company.
Frequently on weekends, delegations of his brotherhood, and other rōpū as well, from various parts of Aotearoa, would flock in to be with him and to say goodbye. He found these visits uplifting. He would be visibly buoyed.
One Saturday, some months back, struck by some metaphysical prompt, I spontaneously flew to Auckland to be with him. There was a team of young Black Power tradesmen, carpenters, and builders, fabricating a ramp and deck handrail for him. He had previously stumbled getting out to his deck. These young men were still working late into the Saturday night. It was an act of love.
Love? We are in an age of moral panics around illicit drugs, gun crime, rangatahi ram raids, car theft and juvenile disobedience, all conflated as the prevailing folk devils of “gangs”. Where does love fit into it? Let me tell you as if a parable.
In August, I sat with Knox in his chapter’s clubrooms. There’s a section of wall with the photographs of members who’ve been greeted by Hine-nui-te-pō and have travelled into the long night. I asked Knox: “Bro, before you join those faces on the wall, what message do you want to give to our whānau for the future, when you’re gone?”
His response was circuitous. He said he was worried about our rangatahi. He knew that they had parents, but it seemed they were effectively fatherless. “Ngā Mokai,” as Baxter put it. Knox said he felt that he was “their father, their mother, their grandfather, their grandmother. I walk that talk. What nana used to do.”
And in that “nana” reference, Knox conjured up the memories of Betty Wark and Anna Tia, those loving whaea who, in the 1970s, brought the practice of aroha to the streets of Auckland.
Knox spoke of Whina Cooper who, he said, repeatedly told him and his fellows that as parents, “we are responsible for what our kids see, hear, and do”. He told me that there’s a belief that “old people talk in riddles, and you must work it out for yourselves. Well, these kuia never talked in riddles. They were straight to the point.”
Knox told me of his upbringing in Māngere. It was a stable household with the regular practice of a spiritual life and attendance at church. He conceded that as a child he was mischief, but he still didn’t really know the reason why he was taken into the care of the state at Kohitere Boys’ Home.
It made him wonder if his parents, specifically his dad, didn’t really love him. These were in the days where a misguided state convinced parents that a bit of “correction” was for the best.
Took the children away
The children away
Snatched from their mother’s breast
Said this is for the best
Took them away
The welfare and the policeman
Said, “You’ve got to understand
We’ll give them what you can’t give
Teach them how to really live”
Teach them how to live they said
Humiliated them instead
Taught them that and taught them this
And others taught them prejudice
At Kohitere, Knox was set to work in the forestry. Part of the “wages” was to be provided with an intoxicant — a mind-altering substance called nicotine, in the form of tobacco. This became one of his lifelong addictions.
At Kohitere, there was no spiritual life. Knox was used to going to church and being brought up with karakia. In all of his time incarcerated at Kohitere, he never experienced karakia. Instead, he was physically disciplined, stripped naked and beaten with a leather strap.
Two staff members administered the beatings. He asked: “Why did they need two men? We were just kids. It was like they got a buzz off it.” Knox described this outrageous treatment as being: “Scary. I never got treated like that at home. Our parents never treated us like that.”
That experience haunted him throughout his life. As an adult, Knox initiated, on behalf of the Black Power, a collaboration with Moana Jackson in preparing a Black Power claim to the Waitangi Tribunal. This mahi morphed into the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care.
Here’s the rub. Aotearoa’s two major Indigenous gangs came out of the “boys’ homes”. Knox told me: “I had no desire to be a gang member, no desire at all. None of that stuff.” Predictably, as the pattern became undeniable, Knox went on to not only become a gang member but a renowned leader.
Knox was feared and respected in equal measure. He served serial terms of imprisonment. However, age, maturity, the influence of a loving partner and the presence of children, even in a rapscallion’s life, tend to soften and heal. The pattern of offending slows, and finally desists.
Knox began to develop a political consciousness and he supported Te Pāti Māori. He loved Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. Perhaps influenced by these extraordinary leaders, his social consciousness grew and he became determined to “walk the talk”.
And here comes that love thing again. Knox told me that day in August: “If we can’t love ourselves . . . I never got any of that.” And then he turned to his next generation of leaders, instructing them to treat the rangatahi well. “No need to muscle or intimidate them. Treat others as you want to be treated. Walk it. Don’t just say it.”
Ah, this is the legacy of Wiremu Knockers Allen: an immortality project in which his conceptual self will live on through the values that he has sowed among te whānau o te ringa kati: Te aroha, Te whakapono, Te rangimarie.
On Wednesday night, in the clubrooms, I watched Knox‘s members prepare and carve his kāwhena. They were hurting, and their grief was channelled through the steel of the chisel to a physical manifestation of their love, and respect.
These behaviours are far from the caricatures of our gang whānau presented by poll-absorbed politicians and shock jock commentators. Stuff them all. We will focus on love.
Aroha ki te tangata. Aroha ki te whānau. Love you, brother Knox. Farewell. Haere, haere, haere atu ra. OG. D.
May Christ have mercy
On us when we die
The tribe of Ngā Mokai
Who can do nothing well
May he keep us out of hell
Denis O’Reilly is a writer, social activist and consultant (email@example.com)
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