19 Apr 2021

The lasting, shameful legacy of the Dawn Raids

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 19 April 2021
A selection of images from the 1970s, the era of the dawn raids, by photographer John Miller, as part of the exhibition.

A selection of images from the 1970s, the era of the dawn raids, by photographer John Miller, as part of the exhibition. Photo: RNZ / Moera Tuilaepa-Taylor

Nearly 50 years after the police started a crackdown on Pasifika people in Auckland, people are opening up about their experiences of the Dawn Raids for the first time.

"I don't think there is any Pacific family who was not touched by the Dawn Raids or the random checking in one way or another," says Reverend Alec Toleafoa.

But the shame of it has kept many silent.

"There are Pacific people who find it difficult to stand tall ...because of that, to live a full life carrying this burden."

Today Toleafoa tells The Detail about his own experiences as a teenager living in Ponsonby in the '70s, being randomly checked by the police as he walked down the street, detained without reason and abused. The raids and random checks, he says, were "state sanctioned racism, state sanctioned terror".

He also talks of the role of the Polynesian Panthers Party helping Pacific communities survive, and the legacy of the Dawn Raids today.  Toleafoa is part of a collective that is negotiating an apology by the government. 

He has also been part of the Polynesian Panthers group touring Aotearoa with a Dawn Raids exhibition.

"Even today it is extremely difficult for people to come forward and tell their story," says Toleafoa. "One of the enduring effects of the Dawn Raids is the sense of shame, the sense of shame that they were labelled as overstayers and illegal.

"Stories are surfacing as recently as a fortnight ago where, at the age of 20, a young Pacific person experienced the Dawn Raids, and since that time they've never been able to tell anybody about their experience and they've lived with that in silence."

After World War II, Pasifika workers were encouraged by the government and businesses to migrate to New Zealand. They were attracted by job opportunities, money and education for their children.

But by the early '70s New Zealand faced two economic shocks - soaring oil prices and Britain joining the European Economic Community.

As unemployment grew so-called overstayers became scapegoats. The Labour Government set up police taskforces and in March 1974 the Dawn Raids began in Auckland.

After just a few weeks they were scrapped but the next National Government picked up the policy with more draconian measures. 

"It was a horrible, horrible time," says Joris de Bres, a former Race Relations Commissioner who is part of the push for an apology. For a short time in the '70s de Bres was a reporter but he also was active in the Citizens' Association for Racial Equality (CARE) and other campaign groups.

"You had immigration policy and you had discrimination in terms of applying the law. You had government and businesses' complicity in encouraging people to come to New Zealand and turning a blind eye when their permits expired. Then you had a turnaround  when jobs became more tight, when there was an economic downturn."

Both Toleafoa and de Bres took the stories of the Dawn Raids and random checks to, in particular, The Auckland Star and The Dominion. Their efforts included the publication of names of people who had been randomly stopped.

"This was in the face of denials by the government, denials by the police that there were random checks on Pacific and Māori people happening," says Toleafoa.

Telling the stories to the media was important "in terms of the ultimately moving public opinion and putting pressure on the government", says de Bres.

Along with an apology there are calls for better pathways to residency for Pasifika people, the teaching of Dawn Raids as part of the school curriculum,  and steps to speed up the process of lifting people out of poverty.