11 Dec 2019

Ngā Taonga Sound Archives: The 1984 Queen St riot

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:38 pm on 11 December 2019

Last Saturday marked the 35th anniversary of one of New Zealand's worst riots.

On December 7, 1984 Auckland's Queen St was the scene of fighting between young people and police, which ended in 120 arrests and over a million dollars' worth of damage to cars and looted shops.

In today's visit to the Sound Archives of Nga Taonga Sound & Vision with Sarah Johnston, we will hear about the cause of the riot - and the aftermath.

Johnston says the riot began with a free rock concert in Aotea Square which was organised by a local radio station. It was a concert, held to mark the end of the school year, was called ‘Thank God it’s Over’.

“It was a sunny afternoon in Auckland, there was about 10,000 people there but, significantly, quite a lot of them were drinking alcohol. Everything was fine until there was a power outage at the start of DD Smash’s set, the third act to perform.

“This upset some of the crowd and there were a few people who were watching from the roof of the nearby post office and they started throwing cans and urinating on people below and the police got a bit upset and it all deteriorated from there.”

In a radio report from the time, a police officer said the crowd got upset when an arrest was made and started pelting the police with bottles. The police decided to call the concert off, which only escalated things further. People were soon smashing windows along Queen Street.

The concert organiser, Barry Everard of 89FM, said the police approached him demanding that he stopped the concert.

“I said there were 10,000 people out there who were enjoying themselves and I was concerned at their reaction. It’s important to note that the audience and ourselves were aware that a substantial number of the most familiar and favoured songs from this group were still to come,” Everard said at the time.

“At this stage, I indicated to the band to stop and come off stage. The band came off and our announcer went on and said ‘I’m sorry people, but the police have told us to stop the concert’. Almost immediately, violence erupted.”

The frontman of DD Smash, made his views to the police perfectly clear, Everard said.

Johnston says the riots took place only a couple years after the 1981 Springbok tour, so young people’s relationship with police may have been at a low ebb.

“Once they saw police in riot gear, things got very ugly. A number of police were injured, cars were overturned, there was looting of Queen St shops.”

In the general melee, some innocent concertgoers were targeted by police.  Marist Brother and teacher John McKenzie submitted a complaint after he and a group of his pupils were set upon, as they were heading home, a block away from the concert.

He described what happened to him:

“This policeman grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said words to the effect of ‘I don’t care, we want you to move’ and threw me on the ground. When I was on the ground, I was hit in the back by a baton or a boot and my reaction changed completely. I became extremely angry then and as I was getting up, I saw one of the other boys being hit by a baton. He was only quite young, a fourth former. That angered me even more.”

The Marist Brother jumped up and demanded to know the policeman’s number.

“He was quite happy to tell me, he even told me his name. He didn’t seem perturbed at all. Then someone shouted out, ‘that’s a Marist Brother you’re hitting’ and maybe that had some effect on the policeman because at that stage they ran off.”

A commission of enquiry was set up to look into the cause of the riot and the role of alcohol particularly came under scrutiny. Johnston says there were also socio-economic factors in play. Around 40-50 percent of those arrested were young Maori and Pacifica unemployed people.

Maori artist Emily Karaka, who worked with street kids in Auckland, told the enquiry she was not surprised they used the guise of the concert to enact violence on the police who they felt had victimised them for a long time.

“I think society can’t help but ask for what happened that night. Those children are really victimised a lot of the time,” she said.

Johnston says the Queen St riot led to legislation that gave local bodies greater power over alcohol licencing so they could declare areas and events no-alcohol zones. It also led to the introduction of age ID cards for purchasing alcohol.

“A lot of the liquor stores that were blamed for selling alcohol to underage concert goers, said ‘how are we supposed to tell their age’.”

Most famously, the authorities attempted to pin the riot on the lead singer of DD Smash, the young Dave Dobbyn. This was due to a comment he made on stage right at the beginning of his set when he saw the police in riot gear at the back of the crowd.

It was alleged he said, “I wish those riot squad guys would stop wanking and put their little batons away.”

Dobbyn was acquitted of the charge of inciting a riot, but it nonetheless cost him in several ways.

“Between the police and insurance companies trying to nail somebody, I was the fall guy, I think,” Dobbyn said.

“It cost me a lot of time, I kissed one of my records goodbye and I couldn’t play live for a long time. It was really traumatic, actually.”

Concert-goers memories of the riot are here.

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