Historically, the peace movement has been focused on global issues of nuclear disarmament, land mines, cluster bombs, and of course, war – primarily the wars of others. New Zealand’s peace movement has much to be proud of in this respect. It has made sustained and significant contributions to these struggles, not only domestically, but also in the international arena, including the landmark 1974 International Court of Justice ruling that banned atmospheric nuclear testing and a 1996 World Court decision vis-a-vis the illegality of nuclear weapons. Throughout the 1990s, there was a successful campaign targeting Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor; today, there are ongoing local campaigns that seek to target the military occupations in Palestine and West Papua.
While all of this work is important for global peace and security, there is important work to be done here at home; it cannot be ignored by anyone who is genuinely interested in genuine peace and justice. We refer, of course, to the continued struggle against New Zealand’s brutal colonial practices that are perpetrated through the two main institutions of “legitimate”, i.e. state, violence domestically: the police and the prison systems.
We know the statistics: New Zealand imprisons its indigenous population at a rate that is at least three times higher than that for non-Māori; further, the system is demonstrably racist at every step from arrest to conviction to sentencing. You only have to visit your local court to see that those prosecuted are overwhelmingly brown. Clearly, something is seriously wrong with the criminal justice system in Aotearoa.
You may legitimately ask, what does crime and punishment have to do with the peace movement?
It is the people and institutions with power in our society that determine what we define as “crime”. By way of illustration, the deaths of those 29 men at the Pike River Mine weren’t labeled “murders” and no one was punished. Interestingly the spokesperson for the miners, Bernie Monk, called the mine entrance a “crime scene” – and indeed it is – in an attempt to illustrate what had actually happened. The total Pike River management failure to adhere to safety standards and to provide a safe, adequate workplace went unmentioned and unpunished.
As another example, consider how we deal with drugs and alcohol. In NZ alone, alcohol causes between 800-1000 deaths per year and alcohol-related harm has been estimated to cost $5.3 billion per year; meanwhile, it is legal and acceptable to sell as much alcohol as the market can be stimulated to demand. By contrast, the possession of any amount of cannabis is totally illegal, despite its medically demonstrated therapeutic effects.
As a further illustration, consider fraud: in this case, the way in which crime is defined and dealt with unevenly. There is an estimated roughly $2 billion a year in tax fraud –largely practiced by those who have income to hide, i.e., white collar crime, while benefit fraud — by comparison — is thought to be about $80 million, roughly 1/25th of the former. Tax fraud costs every person in NZ about $1500/year, compared to $5/year for benefit fraud. Tax fraud by any measure is a far greater social harm, yet those convicted of benefit fraud are much more likely to go to prison, and experience ongoing social opprobrium.
By the State’s definition, it is not a crime that the nation’s indigenous people have been systematically robbed of their lands, resources, culture and language. It is not a crime that they are subjected to a system of social control that they did not create and did not want, while their own functioning system was destroyed. It is not a crime that Māori are more likely to die earlier, be less educated, be poorer, receive worse healthcare, be imprisoned and live in substandard housing. In the same vein, it is not a crime to profit from exploiting the work of people for a minimum wage on which they cannot survive, nor is it a crime that 250,000 children live in poverty.
Crime is what the powerful say it is. This is not to say that all “crime” is subjective. Rather, it is to say that the greatest social harms in our society are not defined as “crime” and typically are not punished at all. In his seminal book that is now in its 11th edition, The Rich get Richer, and the Poor get Prison, Jeffrey Reiman explains how society has been conditioned to see individual acts of immediate harm as the most serious crimes, while widespread, long-term, systemic social harm with the same effects (death or injury for example) are not treated as crimes at all. This is because typically the latter are done by people with power, while the former are (largely) done by the disenfranchised, the powerless.
So if most major crimes aren’t being punished, what are the institutions responsible for “crime” control and punishment doing?
The police and prison system are, along with the military, the legitimate forces of violence in New Zealand. This means that they are legally empowered to commit acts of violence against the people of New Zealand and in the case of the military, against others. This power potential ranges from arm-twisting and pain-compliance techniques to the act of “tasering,” to that ultimate act of violence, killing. In a democratic society, it is understood that some violence is necessary to keep the peace, but such “necessary” violence should be proportional. Typically, those three state agencies define “proportional.”
Historically, what that “proportional” violence has meant in the NZ reality is the invasion of lands, the killing of women and children, the burning of houses and possessions. The police, court and prison systems were essentially founded to execute the will of those with power, i.e., the confiscation of resources by any means necessary. The police for example, were initially founded as the Armed Constabulary in 1867. They were formed to subdue Māori, to destroy their resistance to the theft of their lands and resources. Today, the police, court system and prisons as designed and run by Pākehā continue to serve the same functions.
The token funds given as Treaty settlements are intended to act as reparation for the gaping wounds left by colonial pillage and plunder. In fact, they have the precise value of a band-aid for a gunshot wound.
The stark reality of NZ’s incarceration numbers contradicts the State’s promise of equality before the law: overwhelmingly, our prisons overflow with Māori. This systematic racism isn’t some imaginary idea; it is a documented fact that even the NZ Ministry of Justice and Department of Corrections admit. At every single step of the criminal justice system, it is biased against Māori. Why is it racist? Because it is a system designed to protect those who came to colonise, the Pākehā, and those who committed the most massive widespread criminal act – colonisation. Today, it continues to serve and protect those who benefit from that colonisation, at the expense of those who were here before their arrival.
We am not suggesting that we should do nothing about people who cause individual direct harms in our community like rape, murder, child abuse, etc. Rather, those social harms should not be dealt with as in the past (arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning people), because if anything, those ways are actually causing more problems – and more crime.
Make no mistake – this is war. It is the continuation of a long war. Cloaked in the language of crime and punishment, it is easy to dismiss the horrific violence, lasting wounds and trauma being inflicted upon Māori. There can be no real peace and no justice while the structures of violence and racist repression that keep people from living a decent and free life continue to exist.
So as the prison population tops 10,000 and the government plans to invest $1 billion into building a new facility to add more “capacity” to the failing prison system, we must urgently confront this profoundly unjust and violent system that is so disproportionately terrorising Māori.
This year, Auckland Peace Action will stand alongside our friends and allies in No Pride in Prisons to call for an end to the prison-industrial complex. Please join us on the streets in Auckland in February to work for peace – March for justice on Saturday, 11 February at noon from Aotea Square & say 10,000 TOO MANY.