Your Problematic Fave: Confronting friends about abuse (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid radical writing by women and gender minorities.

Anne Russell is a public health student with an ongoing interest in the politics of intimate relationships.

A welcome narrative has recently sprung up about how society needs to teach men (and others) not to rape or abuse people, rather than teaching women (and others) to avoid rape and abuse as though it’s an unchangeable fact of life. Many people are aware that this means men have to talk to other men about their abusive/predatory behaviours. However, they often baulk when it comes to actually doing this with their friends and peers, going into denial about their loved one’s behaviour and/or declaring the situation is too awkward or complicated. Dealing with cases of abuse is always a fraught and complicated process for everyone, including for those trying to be a middleman without veering into abuse apologia. The lack of coherent narratives around dealing with queer abuse or women’s abuse of men doesn’t help the overall situation. This is thus a brief, rough attempt at a guideline for how to start trying to hold one’s friends of all genders accountable for their abusive behaviour.

For the most part, abusive behaviour can only be revealed by someone talking about it, creating what many people refer to as a he-said-she-said situation. As such, many people refuse to believe those who talk about being abused, as they believe or want to believe that this information contradicts what they know of the accused person. He’s so kind to his mother, or she’s such a good feminist leader—how could they possibly have been abusive? The denial of this often extends to victim-blaming; surely the abuse must have been provoked by her short skirt or annoying behaviour. People will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid accepting the knowledge that someone they respect, care about or even love dearly has done something terrible, and needs to be told to stop doing it. In a culture that portrays Rapists and Abusers only as people who hide in bushes sporting I Hate Women T-shirts, it is hard to reach the more accurate standpoint of “people we love and admire can do really fucked up things”. Natalie Reed’s analysis of systemic misogyny makes this clearer:

There really isn’t any such thing as “sexists”, “transphobes”, “racists”, etc. There are only actions, statements and beliefs that are sexist, transphobic, racist, etc. And we’re all susceptible to them.

Likewise, sexism is not a social problem that can be located, isolated, quarantined and then eliminated. It is an emergent system of attitudes about sex and gender that derives its power from the bottom up, from all corners of our culture.

Given how common rape and domestic abuse are, the idea that only supervillains commit abuse is simply not true. But while the more accurate narrative of “people we love and admire can do really fucked up things” can be pretty depressing, it can also be a source of hope; intimately abusive people aren’t incurable psychopaths after all! The question does get more complex, though; in each case, you ask yourself, can I continue to love this person while still condemning these parts of their behaviour? What would that love look like? How do I balance it out with caring for the victims of their behaviour, and making sure those people’s needs are met?

Sometimes it’s too unsafe or emotionally hard to work on one’s abusive friends; when an acquaintance who had sexually assaulted my friend showed up at a protest I’d organised, all I could do was cry in a corner and tell a couple of other people about him. However, the Incurable-Psychopath narrative of abusive people would hold that cutting them off completely is the only ethical way to condemn their actions. If and when one is physically and emotionally safe to do so, attempting to hold abusive friends responsible is always, always a good idea. The accountability process will decide whether you want to cut them off anyway—if you want to stay friends with someone who can’t take criticism, who can’t accept responsibility, who lies to you, who promises to change and then doesn’t, and so forth. Some care may need to be taken if the person has been accused of violence or is generally prone to it—confronting them in a public place with support from other people can thus be a good safety measure.

Perhaps at this point it’d be good to list a few initial phrases you might use to confront someone about their abuse, since many people feel awkward or unsure about that step. It is important to note that every friendship is unique, and you may have varying approaches that work for different dynamics.This could include age gaps, power imbalances, cultural differences and closeness of friendships. These prompts are just to start you off, as it’s important to find your own way of communicating about abuse that will be effective within your particular friendships.

  • Hey, can we talk? I’ve been hearing some bad things about your behaviour [towards X] and I’m really not comfortable with it.
  • Hi, your creepy behaviour is making some people feel unsafe, and I think you should leave this event. It’d be good to talk more about this later; maybe we could meet up next week?
  • Hey, I’m pretty uncomfortable about you having a leadership position in this organisation; the way you’ve been treating and talking about women isn’t okay.
  • Mate, it’s really not cool for you to talk about trans women like that, knock it off
  • What is this, I thought I signed up for “lesbian coven”, not “lechbian coven”

At this point the person could apologise and agree to start changing their behaviour. However, they could also go into denial, or become defensive and angry. Either way, it is a very good idea to call in support from one’s friends. Doing this has at least three benefits: it shows a united front against the person’s abusive behaviour, it helps keep everyone’s emotional energy up, and it helps share details and tactics. When a friend of mine told me she hadn’t harassed her ex in a long time, other friends let me know she was lying, which made me better equipped to keep confronting her.

Prioritising the victims’ needs often determines the first step in adjusting to a new sort of relationship with the abusive/predatory person in question. If that person is still a risk to their surrounding population, and/or if their victims still feel unsafe around or triggered by them, keeping them away from group events is very important. It’s a step people are often unfortunately unwilling to take, as at best it’s an awkward process, and will often be met with a lot of resistance from the abusive person and their supporters. However, many people can maintain friendships through individual hangouts like meeting up for coffee or watching films together; if your friendship isn’t intimate enough for something like that, turning that person away from a party should hardly be a major issue. As for their presence in organisations, their value to any group is questionable if, for example, they continually prey on women.

With enough social pressure, an abusive person may feel motivated to apologise and start making amends. As a friend said, a good litmus test of whether a person’s remorse is genuine is whether or not they’ll let their behaviour be named to others; whether they accept that they’ve broken trust and need to repair it. Trust takes time and continuous work to rebuild; trust that the person is truly sorry for their actions, and that they are taking steps to make sure it won’t happen again. Even then, the abused party is under no obligation to forgive them or be around them; recovery also takes time, and victims need to be able to move at their own pace.

Since abuse is a practice, not a personal identity, anyone is capable of doing it. Seeing abuse for the terrifyingly routine event that it is may help demystify the issue, and thus make dealing with it a more routine practice. While doing this is difficult in isolation, it gets easier when there are support networks to maintain it. As a friend said, politics is what we do together; everything else is just survival strategies.

Marxism and the Māori Sovereignty Movement – A Māori communist perspective (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid radical writing by women and gender minorities.

By Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho.

The influence of Marxist theory and particularly Marx’s theory of alienation and capitalist political economy on the Māori sovereignty movement during the 1970’s is important to examine and I would also like to consider the contemporary relevance of these ideas for Tino Rangatiratanga (Māori political autonomy). Marx clarifies the exploitative relationship underpinning the political and economic system of capitalism. The themes of subjugation, oppression and enslavement that are necessary within a capitalist political economy are common to the process of colonisation and the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised and indeed still feature in the contemporary neo-colonial struggle. The arms of colonisation reach backwards and forwards in time, creating a struggle that we as Māori are born into. Our destiny and our legacy is one of resistance rather than acceptance and passive submission.

Capitalism relies on the exploitation of labour, this then leads to alienation. Marx’s theory of alienation is anchored in the positioning of human beings as conscious creative beings. Marx called this uniquely human capacity for creation ‘species-being’. Marx distinguished us from other living beings by our ability to perform ‘conscious’ labour. Through the act of change and transformation of our environment we change ourselves in the process.  In Marx’s theory, capitalism creates and relies upon the construct of alienation. Furthermore, the invention of social class which flourishes under capitalism, relies on the creation of a working class and a ruling class or the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and the proletariat who create profit for the bourgeoisie through their labour. In this economic process, the worker is dehumanised, so much so that they become little more than a means of production, a unit of labour to be bought and sold as capital.

Marx further separated the construct of alienation into four key concepts that together, made a unified theory of labour exploitation. In the process of alienation the worker becomes firstly, alienated from his fellow workers/social relations being subverted into a singular unit of production. Secondly, the individual becomes alienated from the process of creative labour through the commodification of the outcomes of their labour and themselves in the process of creating for another.   Thirdly, the individual becomes alienated from the product of their labour as they no longer own their own creativity or the product of their work, and lastly, they become alienated from their own essential nature or “species essence” (Seeman, 1975).

However, it is important not to conceptualise exploitation as merely an unjust part of the capitalist system. In point of fact, Subjugation and the class struggle are an integral and vitally important component of the capitalist system.  The class struggle is an intrinsic and permanent feature of the political economy of capitalism, as is the use of the police and judiciary to enforce this system against resistance from the exploited and colonisation itself is built on a racist oppressive relationship that produces the alienation of indigenous peoples from themselves. The realities of colonisation and the colonial legacy which traverses generations producing contemporary impacts in the form of pervasive inequities and inequalities has fuelled and continues to fuel indigenous political activism (Fanon, 1965; Walker, 1989).  Memmi (1965) asserted that on realising their oppressed state, the colonised have two choices – rebellion or assimilation. Assimilation requires the absolute rejection and denial of themselves, their indigenous value systems, worldviews and lifeways. In order to assimilate, the colonised must enter in a willing state of self-loathing, despising everything about themselves that hinders their conversion into and emulation of, the model of the ‘coloniser’. Fanon (1965) maintains that after failed attempts to be like the coloniser, the only recourse for the colonised upon fully realising that they will never be acceptable to the coloniser is rebellion. In Fanon’s analysis, rebellion is inevitable as it is in a Marxist analysis. Marx’s theory of historical materialism further informs the indigenous struggles against the artefacts of colonisation. In a contemporary analysis the litany of theft and dispossession of land and resources throughout the indigenous world, ignites the fire of resistance and struggle with the goal being the reclaiming of the power and authority to be self-determining (Alfred, 2005; Churchill, 2002).

An extension on the scholarship of Alfred and Churchill is offered by Rata (2006) who conducts an analysis of the construction of indigenous tribal elites which can be likened to a brown bourgeoisie.  In Rata’s analysis, the resistance to tribal domination, constructs a new struggle which can be understood through Marx’s theory of alienation only this time, the struggle is to be freed from alienation from within the tribal culture and collective (Rata, 2009). This is the internalisation and application of the role of the coloniser to further disempower the colonised. More recent applications of the struggle for self-determination, places this struggle at once as a reassertion of indigenous rights as well as a shifting of the fight towards increasingly powerful Māori tribal leadership. The enemy is identified as one that which resides ‘within’. It is however important to recall the process of colonisation and the development of historical intergenerational trauma which still winds its way through the lives of indigenous peoples today creating a vulnerability that causes blindness to the real source of the struggle. In this new struggle, the capacity to hold on to the underpinning role of colonisation in the dispossession of Māori should never be lost sight of or the potency of the struggle underestimated (Churchill, 2003).

In his book Kā Whāwhai Tonu Mātou, Walker examines the ongoing resistance of Māori to colonisation. The resistance movement took as a component of its early inspiration, Marxist theories including alienation and the exploitation of the ‘worker’ for the benefit of the ‘owner’ under capitalism. Marx provided our predecessors in the resistance movement with a way of understanding the impacts of capitalist expansionism which was a characteristic of colonisation, on the contemporary position of Māori.  The resistance to colonisation is an ongoing struggle as potent for many today as it was when the first colonisers set foot on Aotearoa in 1769.

However, much has changed in the way in which our struggle takes place today. Iwi have become the new elites (Rata 1997) and what was once a clear struggle between coloniser and colonised, has become further complicated with  the coloniser having a brown face as the economics of Treaty settlements are giving them license to look and act like capitalists and crown agents.  The illusion that we are subscribing to is that by adopting capitalism as our modus operandi in the long march towards self-determination, we can secure freedom for generations to come, changing the system from within.  Have we forgotten that capitalism with the attendant greed for land and resources, fuelled colonisation? And now that many iwi have signed ‘full and final’ treaty settlements, the danger is that hard-won resources will not last and future generations will be left with nothing. Capitalism is one of the tools of colonisation and while our ancestors were highly successful entrepreneurs, we were a collective society, whose actions were based on what was best for the collective iwi, hapu and whanau.  It was always with the collective good at the center of the uptake of new technology and ways of trading.

The contribution Marxist theory makes to indigenous struggles for freedom is rooted in Marxist discourse on historical materialism (Hokowhitu, 2010) and the ongoing contemporary effects of historically established economic and political systems which continue to feed inequities in all aspects of Māori lives today (Reid & Robson, 2007). It is the inevitability of the struggle for freedom from the shackles of the powerful that render Marx’s theory so powerful in indigenous human rights movements around the world.

Finding a Future for Women in Green Technology (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid writing by women and gender minorities.

Maria is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a minor in Communication. She blogs about environmentally friendly tips, technological advancements, and healthy active lifestyles.

Today, as throughout all of history, women are paid less than men for performing identical tasks in the workplace. In some instances, they are almost completely barred from entering into their chosen profession. The tech industry is one such example of a space in which where both jobs and prestige are disproportionately held by men. In this field, women continue to face hurdles both securing entry-level positions and gaining the recognition they deserve once they secure a more advanced role.

A number of high-profile cases have drawn attention to tech industry gender discrimination. The best known case may be that of Ellen Pao, who worked for venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Silicon Valley. She filed a lawsuit against her former employer, stating that she was unjustly passed over for promotions, seually harassed, and ultimately fired. Although that lawsuit was eventually dismissed, it continues to draw attention to the more important issue at hand. In another case, former Facebook employee Chia Hong filed a lawsuit against the social media giant for race and gender-based harassment. Female tech workers have repeatedly noted that they are judged for their personality rather than their work performance, which should be a red flag in ANY industry.  

Though small in number, there are several companies echoing these women’s voices for greater equality in tech specifically. An American company, PowerToFly, was launched by a pair of mothers who recognized the need for home-based opportunities for women. The company provides women with networking opportunities and online support, challenging the cultural norms that dictate a working woman’s family life. A non-profit company known as the Ada Initiative also offers support for women around the world interested in open source coding and technology. Beyond it’s efforts at home in Canada, the Ada Initiative has run six AdaCamps in four countries. This feminist tech camp opens doors for hundreds of women each year that may have otherwise stayed permanently shut.

Supporting women’s involvement, investment, and leadership in tech careers is crucial, and this is particularly evident in the “green” tech sector. While there are several big names making corrective action – Lisa P. Jackson, for example, who works for Apple as vice president of Environmental Initiatives, is a former American EPA administrator with a strong track record in sustainability efforts – we are still sorely lacking a diverse representation of sex and race in cleantech decision making. Many people are unaware of the renewable energy options available to them; and while resources like this and this aim to inform, it’s in no one’s best interest to have only a fraction of the world’s voices represented in finding cleaner, “greener” solutions. Other inspirational women of note, such as Nawal Al-Hosany, the director of both the Zayed Future energy prize and sustainability at Masdar, and Sandrine Dixson Decleve, who directs the Prince of Wales’s EU Corporate Leaders Group to promote eco-friendly policies in Brussels, cannot stand alone in making a change.

The problem is not a new one. Historically, the entire tech field has been dominated by men, and it will take more than a several years and a few fresh faces to make up for decades of inaction and missed opportunities. At major research universities, men hold a staggering 86 percent of all computer science undergraduate degrees. And to add insult to injury, the percent of women holding degrees in computer science actually dropped from 37 percent to 18 percent between 1985 and 2010.

As the success of green technology is vital to the preservation of our resources and our planet, the current state of ongoing gender bias has to go. When half of the population is denied access to one of the most powerful industries, responsible for shaping the lives of all the world’s inhabitants, there is more than enough justification for alarm. Technology, when used at its best, can span boundaries of race, class, and gender. Bright minds, male and female, are needed to both recognize and harness its potential to push for better “green” ideas. Climate change does not discriminate – a diversification of both educational programs and the green tech workforce is what the Earth and all future generations deserve.

Organising Against All Oppressions (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid writing by women and gender minorities.

By Kim McBreen.

Talking and thinking critically about our experiences, goals and strategies are important parts of organising.  All of our activism must be consistent with our long term goals, but there are often contradictions.  This article will look at examples of short term approaches moving us further from our long term goals, and alternative paths suggested by US group INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.  Focusing on the experiences of women of colour exposes many contradictions in common approaches, allowing more holistic strategies for dismantling oppression.  

Organising against violence
Whether it is patriarchy, the criminal justice system, colonisation or poverty, oppression is violence.  And these oppressions interact.  When we treat oppressions separately, we ignore that their interactions make some populations far more vulnerable to violence, and we risk contributing to that violence.  For example, when organisations working against family violence lobby the State to bring in harsher punishments, they ignore the combination of patriarchy, white supremacy and classism within the criminal justice system.  The result entrenches existing power structures and actually increases violence against those most vulnerable by increasing their exposure to the State.  Where organisations working against prisons focus on the experience of men in the criminal justice system, they ignore the different experiences of marginalised genders in that system, as well as the need for real community safety and accountability.  Again this only entrenches existing structures of power.  Such organising is both unappealing and dangerous to those who know most about oppression.  

US prison abolition group Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence argue that anti-violence and prison abolition movements must come together to fight all violence:

“activists/ movements that address state violence often work in isolation from activists/ movements that address domestic and sexual violence.  The result is that women of color, who suffer disproportionately from both state and interpersonal violence have become marginalized within these movements.  It is critical that we develop responses to gender violence that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic criminal justice system.  It is also important that we develop strategies that challenge the criminal justice system and that also provide safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.  To live violence free lives, we must develop holistic strategies for addressing violence that speak to the intersection of all forms of oppression” (INCITE & Critical Resistance 2001).

Our communities desperately need strategies that make all of us safer, but our work to dismantle one oppression must not strengthen another.  By bringing our understanding of oppressions together to see how they re-enforce each other, we are better able to tear them all down.  Uniting anti-violence and prison abolition organisations has resulted in a new approach based on building community accountability, and has created a new movement.  There have been several books, huge conferences, and now many organisations tackle violence in a holistic way based on this work.  
Organising against white supremacy
Andrea Smith (2006 and 2010) looked at ways that white supremacy pits communities of colour against each other, giving them a stake in racism.  She identifies three pillars supporting white supremacy in the US:

  1. Capitalism depends on the logic of slavery.  Slavery commodified Black people.  “[T]he capitalist system ultimately commodifies all workers: one’s own person becomes a commodity that one must sell in the labour market while the profits of one’s work are taken by somebody else. . . . [T]he logic of slavery applies a racial hierarchy to this system. . . . Anti-blackness enables people who are not black to accept their lot in life because they can feel that at least they are not at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy—at least they are not property” (Smith 2010).
  2. Colonisation depends on the logic of genocide, requiring Indigenous peoples to disappear.  “[N]on-Native peoples then become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous—land, resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture” (Smith 2006).  Dying is the ultimate disappearance, but Indigenous people are also made invisible when they are not recognised as ‘really Māori’ because they don’t look or behave how we expect.    
  3. In the West, war depends on the logic of orientalism—specific peoples, nations and religions are framed as a constant threat.  Our borders must be protected.  New Zealand supports imperialist wars and frames ‘asian immigration’ as dangerous.  Both direct our attention from ongoing colonisation and other state violence.  

“What keeps us trapped within our particular pillars of white supremacy is that we are seduced by the prospect of being able to participate in the other pillars” (Smith 2010).  This has implications for how we organise against specific forms of white supremacy, such as colonisation, anti-immigration, and other anti-asian, -Māori or -Pasifika racism.  With limited knowledge of others’ experiences, we risk gaining small victories for one group, while entrenching white supremacy overall.  We need relationships and accountability to other communities—solidarity that allows us to “check our aspiration against the aspirations of other communities to ensure our model of liberation does not become the model of oppression for others” (Smith 2006).

Models for Organising

Liberalism has become so normalised, we often find ourselves fighting for a less awful system, rather than for a world we actually want.  There are many ways that our energy is diverted away from dismantling oppression and towards making cosmetic changes to oppression.  

A common pathway for activists is from organising on an issue, to developing an organisation or programme providing a much needed service, that then becomes increasingly dependent on external funding and state support, and therefore respectability.  State funding is dangerous, but so too is support from large philanthropic trusts: “While the [prison industrial complex] overtly represses dissent, the [non-profit industrial complex] manages and controls dissent by incorporating it into the state apparatus” (Smith 2009).  Funders have influenced the direction of movements using grants, leadership courses and career pathways to lure activists into service delivery rather than movement building, and to change the focus of organisations from structural change to individual relief, from revolutionary to reformist goals.  It becomes harder to fight the structures of power when we depend on their money.  

For example, when we see children going to school hungry, a service model would focus on how to get the money to feed the children.  This is a simple solution, but by positioning ourselves outside the community, we risk framing children as the problem and the State as the solution, whereas State and capitalist violence are the actual problems.  A revolutionary model recognises these communities as experts on poverty and State violence.  Who better to dismantle oppression?  We need solutions that meet our immediate needs, and that also move us towards that goal.  This requires community mobilisation.  

“To radically change society, we must build mass movements that can topple systems of domination, such as capitalism.  However, the [non-profit industrial complex] encourages us to think of social justice as a career. . . . However, a mass movement requires the involvement of millions of people, most of whom cannot get paid.  By trying to do grassroots organizing through this careerist model, we are essentially asking a few people to work more than full-time to make up for the work that needs to be done by millions” (Smith 2009).  The service provider model has taken power away from collective organising, and invested that power with funders and service providers.  

Each of these three examples has led to new ways of organising.  Together, they show that those most oppressed have the most effective strategies for dismantling oppression, and that the more we reflect and talk together about our experiences and dreams for the future, the sooner we’ll get it done.

(For further reading, see The Color of Violence, The Revolution Starts at Home, and The Revolution Will Not be Funded, all published by South End Press)

Policing the colonial project of Aotearoa New Zealand (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Policing the colonial project of Aotearoa New Zealand


Sandra Dickson is a Pākehā queer feminist bogan from the Hutt Valley who spends most of her time working to end gendered violence.  She is committed to working in relationships between Tangata Whenua and Tauiwi based on justice, equity and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

In 1997 a government report[1] into police attitudes towards Māori found significant evidence of institutional racism.  Almost one in four police officers had negative attitudes towards Māori and half of the officers reporting negative behaviour said it received no reprimand from supervisors.  Māori officers were significantly more likely to believe Māori were being treated with more suspicion than other ethnicities, but overall:

  • A third of police acknowledged there was a greater tendency to suspect Māori of an offence
  • Nearly half reported police were more likely to query vehicle registration when Māori were seen driving a flash car
  • About a fifth reported police were more likely to ask Māori what they were doing in the early hours of the morning
  • At least two thirds had heard colleagues using racist language about suspects or offenders

It’s useful here to consider what institutional racism means.  It’s not about the intent of individual police officers, judges or corrections staff, though of course that may be racist.  It’s about the patterns of different treatment by an institution because of race.  It’s about differences at every stage of the criminal justice system all pointing in the same direction.  It’s about the impact of colonisation.

“As with all cultures, that of the Police imbues the individuals within it with its core values and its historic ethic. Because of that the behaviour of an individual Police Officer cannot be separated from that of the culture. If the culture is based upon the institutionalised racism of colonisation, then its members will be imbued with, and may even manifest, that racism.”[2]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

Figure 1: Racism and Cultural Violence Wheel, Network Waitangi Whangarei.[3]

In 2007 a government report[4] about the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system confirmed that Māori are more likely to have police contact; be charged; lack legal representation; not be granted bail; be convicted; be sentenced to non-monetary penalties and denied release to Home Detention.  While these “small” perhaps “cumulative” kinds of racism are acknowledged, the report leaned towards concluding that Māori families are more likely to foster environments in which criminality takes place. In sixty pages the word colonisation appears just once, in a quote from another researcher.  It suggested changes were required in other areas:

“the primary domain for government intervention to address disproportionality is argued to reside in the areas of health, social support and education, in order to reduce disadvantage and the problems it confers.”


The acknowledgment from the state that people take up criminal behaviour because disadvantage and poverty are awful and therefore we should be interested in social and material contexts is welcome.  However, it is not acceptable for the criminal justice system to fail to address its own institutional racism by palming off government interventions elsewhere.  We cannot understand the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system outside the context of colonisation.


In the Aotearoa New Zealand colonial project, Māori have been “in the way”, obstacles for the police to overcome, rebels threatening the colonising process.  As colonisation embedded racism into the institutions and processes governing New Zealand, Māori were dispossessed.  This is not about individual police officers, but the systemic, endemic culture of policing in a colonised land.

New Zealand Police are the state enforcers, the sharp end of the colonial project in Aotearoa.  They invade when colonisation calls, arrest when the state needs.  We cannot make sense of a police killing in Taranaki today without the context of the Police invasion of Parihaka and illegal detention of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (Taranaki and Te Ātiawa) and Tohu Kākahi (Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui).

We cannot make sense of the impact of an invasion of Te Urewera in 2007 without understanding the police killing of Tūhoe leader Rua Kēnana’s son during his arrest nearly a century earlier.


The 2007 report into Māori over-representation in the criminal justice system did not examine deaths in custody, taser use or police shootings.  What happens at the sharpest end of the colonial project, when the police use severe or lethal violence?

A recent ten year review by the Independent Police Complaints Authority (IPCA) of deaths in custody found just under half the deaths were of Māori prisoners.  The review argued that processes earlier in the criminal justice system was responsible for the disproportionate number of Māori deaths – that there was no additional (my emphasis) institutional racism.

“The disproportionate number of Māori deaths in police custody reflects the over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system generally. The causes of this over-representation were not within the scope of the review.”[5]


The New Zealand Police Association actively campaigned for the introduction and national roll-out of tasers to increase the force at their disposal in the early 2000s. [6]

“A Taser is a hand-held, electro-muscular disruption device that is capable of incapacitating a person and causing pain through the application of an electrical current. For example, Tasers could be used by police to temporarily incapacitate a violent or combative person during arrest.  It can be used as an immobilisation device or simply as a device for inflicting pain on a person.”[7]

Police figures show that taser use has become increasingly heavily raced in the three years since initial trial, when there was little difference in taser use across ethnicity.  The data is based on rates per 10,000 apprehensions, which controls for earlier institutional racism.



Table 1: Ethnicity and Taser Use per 10,000 Apprehensions

Ethnicity Rate of taser use per 10,000 apprehensions[8][9]
1 December 2008 to 21 March 2010 22 March 2010 to 30 June 2012 1 January to 31 December 2013
NZ European 17 23 50
Māori 16 31 74
Pacific Peoples 18 39 91
Other 20

New Zealand Police are now tasering NZ Europeans three times as often as the introductory period; but for Māori and Pacifica people the rates are about five times as often as when tasers were first introduced.  It’s seems clear that as there is less scrutiny, the police are using tasers more often in general, but also that they feel more able to treat suspects differently based on ethnicity.  Additional institutional racism compounds earlier discrimination for Māori and Pacifica.

ethnicity and taser use

It should be noted that taser use is also heavily gendered.  In the trial period, men were three times more likely to be tasered than women; in the latest period this increased to four times more likely.  Men are eight times as likely to be tasered in the later time period than the early time period.[10]  Although there is no intersectional data combining ethnicity and gender, from these two data sets it’s clear that the police “immobilise or inflict pain” vastly more often on Māori and Pacifica men.

Table 2:  Gender and Taser Use per 10,000 Apprehensions

Gender Rate of taser use per 10,000 apprehensions
1 December 2008 to 21 March 2010 22 March 2010 to 30 June 2012 1 January to 31 December 2013
Male 19 32 162
Female 6 9 42


Examining patterns around lethal shootings by New Zealand Police is more difficult.  Unlike taser use or deaths in custody, there are no public reports with ethnicity routinely recorded.  The best source of data after 1995 is the IPCA reports of deaths involving the police.  Before 1995 the sole information on fatal police shootings is a New Zealand Herald article with one sentence synopses of the 13 killings since 1941.[11]  This article does not include the lethal shootings of 11 Samoans by New Zealand Police shipped to Apia in 1929 during a peaceful demonstration.[12]  It is only possible to determine the ethnicity of four of the 13 the article names through cross-referencing with media and historical records online.  All four are Māori.

Because of these information limitations, I am going to focus on police lethal shootings in the period the IPCA reports cover, from 1995 – 2015.[13]  There were 16 killings, 15 of which have completed IPCA reports. The IPCA is more likely to find no problems with police procedures than to identify concerns, let alone recommend any changes in procedures.  Racism or colonisation is not addressed in any report as a causative factor.[14]

Ethnicity is not identified in IPCA reports or media coverage for four of the 16 people.  This may indicate the people concerned are Pākehā, but there is no certainty.  Ethnicity is noted in passing in several IPCA reports rather than because it is a requirement.  Media coverage sometimes includes ethnicity, most often when family members of the person killed have concerns of racism.  Given these limitations, I could identify twelve of the sixteen shooting victims as men of colour. The fact that finding this information requires trawling through media coverage and reports is significant in itself.

Table 3: Ethnicity of Victims of Lethal Police Killings – 1995 -2015


Ethnicity of Victim Number Percentage
Māori 9 56%
Unknown 4 25%
Iraqi 1 6%
Samoan 1 6%
Tongan 1 6%



Including the use of force and lethal force by New Zealand Police strengthens the case for institutional racism beyond the “small, cumulative” acts already well-documented.  Even if deaths in custody may not provide evidence of additional institutional racism, the use of tasers and police shootings certainly do, particularly when men of colour are seen as a group.  Knowledge of institutional racism and its location in police use of severe and lethal force needs to inform all liberatory political agendas seeking to be intersectional – whether that be discussions of how to respond to gendered violence, attempts to address the criminalisation of people living in poverty or resistance to queer people’s experiences of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.  It also makes clear that any attempts to provide New Zealand Police with increased access to firearms – which continues to be on the agenda of NZPA spokesperson Greg O’Connor – should be resisted by those calling themselves anti-racist.  I hope the information gathered here contributes to further discussion and action.

Dedicated to those targeted by police racism, including family, whānau and communities who have lost loved ones due to lethal violence.

[1] Maxwell G. and Smith C., (1998), Police Perceptions of Māori: A report to the New Zealand Police and Te Puni Kōkiri, Victoria Link Ltd.

[2] Jackson, M., (2000), Steven Wallace: An Analysis of the Police Report, Peace Movement Aotearoa.

[3] This is an adaptation of the Power and Control wheel, developed to contextualise the ways in which domestic violence is experienced by victims.  Sourced from Came, H., (2012), Institutional Racism and the Dynamics

of Privilege in Public Health, University of Waikato.

[4] Department of Corrections, (2007), Over-representation of Māori in the criminal justice system: An exploratory report.

[5] Independent Police Conduct Authority, (2012), Thematic Report: Deaths in Custody, A Ten Year Review.

[6] Buttle, J., (2010), The Case Against Arming the New Zealand Police Force, Department of Criminology, AUT.

[7] Crime and Misconduct Commission, (2008), Facts About Tasers, Brisbane, Australia.

[8] The first two columns are Ministry of Justice figures, accessed at

[9] New Zealand Police, (2014), New Zealand Police Annual Taser Report Number Two.

[10] Figures from sources above.

[11] New Zealand Herald, Oct 23 2008, Chronology of fatal shootings by NZ Police.

[12]   New Zealand Police used a machine gun to disperse the demonstration; in addition to the 11 Samoans killed, another 50 people were injured by gunshots and police batons on “Black Saturday”, 28 December, 1929.

[13] All reports from

[14] These limitations have been addressed in some depth for the IPCA report on the killing of Steven Wallace in Jackson, M., (2000), Steven Wallace: An Analysis of the Police Report, Peace Movement Aotearoa.