Sometimes we can’t see the big beats of history until long after they’ve happened, writes Tainui Stephens, who’s lived through a few of them.
I first felt real time history on May 25, 1978. I was a student, and working as a barman at the South Pacific Hotel in central Auckland. Every morning, the public bar would fill up early with workers from the nearby wharves and the post office.
They were all hardy characters. Not all of them were coherent. One was an Irishman called Bubbles. He was called that because when he ordered his whiskey and beer chaser, all he said was “Bubbles!” While I poured his drink, his creased face would light up as he watched the bubbles in the whiskey bottle rise to the top.
Then there was Ted, an elderly Aussie bushman who always sat in the middle of the room with an eye on the doors at each end of the bar. If he saw one of his bosses walk in, he’d run out the other door. Ted had the habit of flashing his nuts at all and sundry after his third or fourth jug.
They were a fun bunch and made a lot of noise.
On that day in May, the clamour in the bar and the desperate orders for beer and bubbles faded from my mind as I watched the pub’s television. The small grainy screen showed the eviction of peaceful protestors from Ngāti Whātua land at Bastion Point. A phalanx of police and army personnel removed the people and destroyed their buildings, gardens, and marae.
After 506 days, the controversial occupation had come to an end. I watched sadly and wept. No one else in the bar noticed the events unfolding on TV, and occurring only a few kilometres down the road.
If they had, I doubt they’d have realised that the actions of the state would require utu — not in terms of “revenge” but as a reciprocal measure. The bigger the action, the bigger the response. You do this, I do that. History is an eternal game of tit for tat.
I was in Germany in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall, the hated Soviet symbol of a divided Europe, came down. Since 1961, the 43-kilometre wall had split the city. I knew we were witnesses to one of the big beats of history as I and thousands of people chipped away at the concrete structure with hammers and picks. The guards standing atop the wall did nothing.
Their Communist Party bosses, in an effort to quell widespread demonstrations demanding democratic reform and more freedoms, had offered to loosen restrictions on travel to the west. But a protest march of half a million East Germans was not in a mood to apply for visas.
With caution, and their hunger for a new future, they forced their way through the border to West Berlin. Moscow saw the writing on the wall and offered no resistance. The Cold War was over. East Germans poured through the growing gaps in the slowly crumbling edifice. They came on foot or in their dinky mass-produced cars known as Trabants. There was an air of jubilation and reunion everywhere as we watched the tides of history change before our eyes.
The pure joy masked an unspoken awareness that whatever was going to happen next for the divided country wouldn’t be easy. This was serious stuff and I understood my privilege at being present. I also took home bits of the Berlin Wall as Christmas presents. The bag was bloody heavy.
During a September night in 2001, I remember having a dream that I was flying. No big deal. Such airborne dreams happen quite often (for most people, apparently). When they do, I often realise that I’m in a dream and go along for the ride. It all dissolves away as I wake up.
In the dream, I’m flying around Manhattan and head straight into the World Trade Centre. I woke up, knowing that I’d been dreaming. The only theoretical question lightly on my mind, was whether the skyscraper would have toppled over sideways with the force of the presumed crash. Then I turned the TV on, and saw the skyscrapers falling straight down. That was 9/11.
The actions of the Al Qaeda operatives that day were a horrific protest against American imperialism: 2,977 people died, and 25,000 were injured. This was a terrible beat of history. This single terrorist attack, the deadliest ever, meant the world would not be the same again.
And neither was I, after that dream.
All of us are now living through one of biggest beats of real time history. For most nations around the planet, 2020 has been a shit of a year. The Covid-19 pandemic has infected more than 70 million people and killed, according to the official count, 1.6 million so far. It has brutalised economies and health systems. Our mighty species has been laid low by a bat.
The response of the world’s leaders to the global crisis has varied. The best have kept their people relatively safe. The worst have allowed their people to suffer and die. It comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve watched the presidency of Donald Trump that the rich and powerful US is among the worst hit. It leads the world for the total number of Covid deaths (at nearly 300,000 and counting), and new infections there show no sign of abating.
The thing about the big beats of history is that they’re often signs or reminders that we must now reimagine the society we live in. Momentous history requires momentous change.
Survivors of war know full well the uncertainties of building a future that just has to be better than what they’ve been through. The fall of the Berlin Wall led eventually to the reunification of Germany. It was a painful process, but today Germany is a prosperous and influential nation.
New Zealand could never have remained the same after the Bastion Point eviction. There was far too much injustice to ignore, and far too much outrage to do nothing.
Over the decades, and after long battles for redress, Ngāti Whātua now have impressive resources and dreams with no limits. They have sophisticated governance structures that use Indigenous values and knowledge to meets the needs of their people today, and tomorrow. That’s utu.
At this point in history, thanks to the internet, we can connect to most people everywhere on earth. We have a greater capacity than ever before to collaborate as a species. It might be our last chance.
In the wake of this difficult year we must ask ourselves: How will we reimagine new and safer ways to live? How will we care for our environment? How will we contain conflict when online disinformation pollutes the discourse between communities and nations? How will we vanquish the racism and sexism that drags us down?
The best answers must start with the values we cherish. New Zealand and the world should pay attention to one small but brave stance of our prime minister. In the wake of Aotearoa’s recent instances of massacre, natural disaster, and a global pandemic, Jacinda Ardern delivered necessary tough measures to deal to a crisis.
Then, and uniquely, she made kindness a political talking point. Any act of kindness in such toxic troubled times, oddly enough, is revolutionary. People are hearing the call. This is a historic moment. Utua te kino ki te pai.
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