People Power: This is where the Ihumatao protest now rests. On the ability of the protesters/protectors to muster sufficient support to make the government intervene. The story they have to tell, if related firmly and courageously, and without resort to violence, is utterly compelling. It is enough to ensure that, just for a moment, the colonisers are forced to gaze upon the world they have destroyed; and acknowledge the brutal injustices which that destruction entailed. To make this government understand that colonisation isn’t something that happened in the past, it’s something which is happening right now.
IHUMATAO is not about the law. The law is what makes the Ihumatao protest necessary. Ihumatao is not about colonisation. Ihumatao is colonisation in action.
What is happening right now at Ihumatao is about the New Zealand state not knowing how to deal with Maori. According to the State’s version of events Ihumatao is a done deal. It’s about private property and the rights of private property owners. It’s about all those institutions supposedly dedicated to protecting the rights of Maori saying: “It’s out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do. Everything that’s happening here is happening within the law.”
It’s always been this way. Go all the way back to 1863, when the Maori people who lived at Ihumatao were declared rebels and the colonial government sequestrated their land. That was within the law. And when their land was parcelled-up and distributed to Pakeha farmers? That, too, we are told, was within the law. And when their sacred mountain was quarried away until nothing was left of it but a hole in the ground? Also lawful. Because the law affirms that the Pakeha landowner had a perfect right to dispose of his property as he saw fit. Everything that has happened to the people of Ihumatao has happened in accordance with the laws of the New Zealand state. Except, of course, when a private business allowed thousands of litres of poisonous dye to flow into their sacred river. That, apparently, was not lawful. Not that declaring it illegal restored the river to health.
So what do you do? When the seizure of your lands, and the selling of them to strangers, and the destruction of your mountain, and the relentless impoverishment and marginalisation of your people, is all declared to be legal and above board? When there is nowhere to go, and no one to turn to, for protection. When even your elders have lost the will to go on fighting. What is there left for you to do?
This is how colonisation works. It changes your world. It changes the people in charge of your world. It affords you less and less space to move about freely in your world. It limits your right to make decisions affecting your world. And it goes on doing this until, bit by bit, year by year, your world disappears. That is the whole point of the colonising process. To replace one world: the world belonging to the people who were there first with another; the world belonging to the people who came later. This new world is the colonisers’ world, and it serves their needs – exclusively.
The most important thing to bear in mind when you’re thinking about colonisation is that it hasn’t stopped. It can’t stop. It has to keep operating in the present just as forcefully as it operated in the past. The legal title to Ihumatao, determined in the 1860s, cannot be restored to the land’s original occupiers except by securing the intervention of the very same legal system that sanctioned its confiscation. And, surprise, surprise, we discover that no legal mechanisms currently exist for the Ihumatao protesters to secure that intervention.
Which still leaves the fundamental question – “ What is to be done?” – unanswered. Clearly, the solution does not lie in a courtroom. But when has it ever for the victims of colonisation?
What is taking place at Ihumatao is occurring in a political space that is, essentially, outside the law. What’s unfolding there is a ritual of challenge and response. The protesters are saying: “This development must not proceed.” Demonstrating its power, the state has sent in a hundred or so police officers, saying, effectively: “Or you’ll what?” The only practical answer of the protesters is the one they have already given: “Or, we’ll surround this place with so many people that you’ll have to call in hundreds of police and soldiers (just like you did at Bastion Point) to move us on. And the political consequences of applying that level of force will be devastating for the government.
It is only in this political realm: a place of power where the law is irrelevant, that the issue can be decided in favour of the protesters. The government and, to a lesser extent, the Police must, accordingly, be compelled to calculate the political consequences of using the force needed to permanently clear the Ihumatao site. They must contemplate the way in which the legal system that big developers (in this case, Fletchers) rely upon to make and keep their profits is likely to be used by the protesters. Persons arrested must be brought to trial, and trials can easily be transformed into embarrassing political theatre.
That’s where it rests. On the ability of the defenders of Ihumatao to muster sufficient on-the-ground support to make the government intervene. The story they have to tell, if related firmly and courageously, and without resort to violence, is utterly compelling. It is enough to ensure that, just for a moment, the colonisers are forced to gaze upon the world they have destroyed; and acknowledge the brutal injustices which that destruction entailed. To make this government understand that colonisation isn’t something that happened in the past, it’s something which is happening right now. The Ihumatao story is powerful enough to turn the age-old question around. To make it no longer “What can we do?”, but “What are they going to do?”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 26 July 2019.