New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week formally apologized for her country’s historic racist policing of Pacific people in the 1970s.
In an emotional ceremony at the Town Hall in Auckland, home to more than 200,000 Pacific Islanders, Pacific Island community leaders, who had themselves been impacted, pulled a large mat over Ardern in an act of humiliation that in Samoan traditional is necessary when seeking forgiveness.
“I stand before you as a representative of those who did you harm. While no amount of rain can remove the bitter salt from the ocean waters, I ask you to let our spiritual connectedness soften your pain, and allow forgiveness to flow on this day,” she said in Samoan.
“It remains vividly etched in the memory of those who were directly affected. It lives on in the disruption of trust and faith in authorities, and it lives on in the unresolved grievances of Pacific communities,” she continued.
“Today, I stand on behalf of the New Zealand government to offer a formal and unreserved apology to Pacific communities for the discriminatory implementation of the immigration laws of the 1970s that led to the dawn raids.”
Ardern said it’s very clear that the immigration laws of time were designed to specifically target Pasifika people, indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands.
“The statistics are undeniable. There were no reported raids on homes of people who were not Pasifika. No raids or random stops were exacted towards European people,” she said, adding that Pasifika people made up a third of overstayers but represented 86 percent of all prosecutions.
The dawn raids against Pacific Islanders were carried out late at night or early in the morning, with the intention of finding, convicting, and deporting visa overstayers.
Joshua Liava’a, a young Tongan policeman who witnessed the dawn raids, said he felt like a “Jew in the German Army” during the Holocaust.
“You have two policemen walking in and without saying anything they pull your blankets away from you and if you’re naked they say, ‘Get up, put something on’ and they stand there looking at you while you shyly jump around trying to have something to cover yourself,” he said.
“If you take your time, they grab you and throw you into the lounge … the language is the coarsest most obscene language you can use like ‘F- get up you black bitch, put something on … whore.’”
New Zealand Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito Sio, who stood beside Ardern at the press conference when she announced the apology, said he remains traumatized from a dawn raid on his home.
“The memories are… of my father being helpless. We bought the home about two years prior to that and to have somebody knocking at the door in the early hours of the morning, with a flashlight in your face, disrespecting the owner of the home, with an Alsatian dog frothing at the mouth …wanting to come in,” he said.
Dr. Melani Anae, who became a Polynesian Panther as a teenager and continues working to this day to improve the lives of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand, said the dawn raids were “the most blatantly racist attack on Pacific peoples by the New Zealand government in New Zealand’s history.”
The apology was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Polynesian Panther Party, which was founded to fight the discrimination against Pasifika people.
Anae, who is now an associate professor of Pacific studies at the University of Auckland, told the New Zealand Herald that the apology would start the healing process, but more practical measures are needed.
“Those horrific stories are still causing intergenerational trauma and harm. This apology will go some way to start the healing but there needs to be practical measures that accompany that apology for the healing to truly begin,” she said.
Minister Sio said he hopes the apology will allow Pasifika people to move forward.
“I do not want my nieces and nephews to be shackled by that pain and to be angry about it. I need them to move forward and look to the future as peoples of Aotearoa,” he said, using the Maori name for New Zealand.
Ardern announced that the government will incorporate the dawn raids into the school history curriculum, provide $3.1 million in scholarships to Pacific students in New Zealand, and support for Pacific artists and historians to create work that details the reality of the raids.