Thursday, 16 February 2012

And still in the Ureweras.....

I wrote this back in 2007 and tucked it away in a file. With the trial of the Urewera Four going on I thought it deserved an airing.

Masked, heavily-armed paramilitaries patrolling the Ureweras - it's enough to give one nightmares. In the last couple of decades, similar groups have appeared in almost every country around the world. They're extremely powerful, well-resourced and able to operate at every level of society. They're equipped with the latest in high-tech automatic weaponry, personal armour and communications devices. In appearance, equipment, training methods and ethos they owe more to foreign than to domestic influences.

They are the paramilitary branch of the New Zealand police service.

I don't doubt that a small group of people, fired up by real and imagined grievances, had been dressing up as guerrillas and plotting the downfall of those they see as their oppressors. Very likely it was a good thing they were stopped - for their own good at least.

But, in the political nightmare stakes, those black-clad, anonymous, heavily-armed computer game look-alikes win - hands down.

I recall the images of the police at Orgreave during the UK Miners Strike in the 1980s. Masked, minus their police numbers, brought in from outside the communities they were policing, earning vast amounts of overtime, mocking the striking miners by waving their pay slips at them, they lined up in formation, banging their batons on riot shields before parting to allow the police horses to charge the strikers. Prior to Orgreave, horses were usually used for crowd control and never aggressively and that was not the only seminal change in police tactics.

This was not in response to an external threat, to the spectres of communism or terrorism. It was a calculated use of one part of the armed wing of the State against citizens who were simply fighting for their jobs. Looking back at footage of that time it still seems unreal and it marked a turning point in the way the UK police organised, equipped and trained.

These days the armed units of the police in democracies like ours look exactly like the police always looked in the worst dictatorships. We've got so used to these faceless, black-clad paramilitaries on American TV shows, we've accepted the importation of their style, ethos and methodology without question.

No-one is seriously going to argue that there is a real terrorist threat here but, there are people who want us to believe there could be and they need to nip any emergent threat in the bud. Actually, they want to use political fringe groups to justify the existing hardware, to practise using it and to argue for the funding for more.

Sensible people in the UK have looked on in horror as a Labour government has presided over an erosion of seemingly inviolable rights. Some Americans are slowly waking up to how much of their constitutional rights have been removed. We are seeing a shift in legislative powers and the way the police operate here in NZ.

We have become inured to the fact that we live in a virtual panopticon – which allows the domestic State and its apparatus to intrude into our lives to an unprecedented degree. This comes perilously close to being the stuff of conspiracy theorists but, anyone who thinks that the forces which control the world's economy and the political structures which support that control are benign and have the best interests of ordinary people at heart, is deluded.

The power of even the NZ State, relative to the power of a tiny disparate group of citzens, is immeasurable. Tame Iti may behave histrionically; spitting and snotting at people nd shooting flags are not the actions of a man of intellect, but at least he shows his utterly distinctive face. He's open and honest about his intentions, we all know exactly what his agenda is – and we we all know that his ability to impose it on the rest of us is limited – at best.

Can we say that about the paramilitary wing of the Police? How much do we know about its organisation, its ideology and agenda? A lot less than we know about Tame Iti.

The Ureweras are symbolic in many ways. They were the last stronghold of Maori resistance; Maori who lived there were punished for that resistance. This police action will create martyrs to an old cause.

It is interesting that this has happened in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a disturbed man in Christchurch, which has resurrected the debates about the shooting of Stephen Wallace, and the keystone cops effort in Rotorua. And of course it comes at a time of changes in legislation to grant increased state power in the name of countering terrorism. How convenient that the police should find an armed group with alleged terrorist links. What better way to justify the laws and have a practise with their new toys?

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