BY MICHAEL TUCKER
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - "We are going out the way we want to go out and the way our people came in-with integrity and under our own custom," Henry Bennett, a leader of the Whanganui River Maori tribes, told reporters May 17. The next morning, before dawn, 250 Maori land protesters marched out of Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui, ending their 79-day land occupation.
Maoris and supporters occupied the gardens February 28 to press their demand for the return of the two-and-a-half-acre public park area near the center of the city. The demonstrators erected tents and buildings, built a wooden fence, and renamed the site Pakaitore, the original Maori name for the area.
The land fight has dominated politics in this country and inspired Maori occupations and protests in other centers.
The decision to end the occupation followed a High Court injunction declaring the Wanganui District Council to be the owner of the gardens and ordering the land occupants to leave. The injunction had been sought by the District Council with the support of the government.
Three leaders of the protest were named as defendants in the case. They declined to be represented in court, explaining that the land claim is a political matter to be settled by the government, not a legal issue.
The injunction was served on the protesters May 17
"We were forced to leave, and it shouldn't be lost on anybody that we upheld our dignity," protest leader Ken Mair told a press conference in Wanganui May 18 following the end of the occupation."In no way were we going to allow the state the opportunity to put the handcuffs on us and lock us away."
The police were reported to have up to 1,000 reinforcements ready to evict the land occupants. Wanganuís Kaitoke prison had been gazetted as a "police jail" to enable its use as holding cells. The police eviction preparations were code-named "Operation Exodus".
A week earlier, on May 10, up to 70 cops in riot gear had raided the land occupation in the middle of the night, claiming the protest had become a haven for "criminals and stolen property" and "drug users." Ten people were arrested on minor charges including "breach of the peace" and "assault." Throughout the occupation there has been a strict policy of no drugs or alcohol on the site.
Protest leaders denounced the raid as a dress rehearsal for their forced eviction and an attempt to provoke, intimidate, and discredit the land occupants.
"They actually got one of our young men and were very rough with him," occupation leader Niko Tangaroa told reporters. "His face was rubbed into the ground, and he was abused, and a gun was put to his head. They said, 'Don't move nigger, or I'll blow you away.' That was witnessed by others who were around."
Throughout the 79-day occupation, the land protesters faced almost nightly harassment and racist abuse by the cops. A Wanganui church minister announced May 22 that he intends to file a formal complaint unless police acknowledge claims made against them. He said he had witnessed police circling their cars outside the gardens and abusing occupants as "niggers" and "black bastards."
The police have also led a propaganda barrage against the land occupants, portraying a large section of them as "criminals" and "gang members." This has been echoed by the Wanganui District Council and politicians.
A meeting to demand eviction of the protesters was held in Wanganui May 14. It was addressed by Ross Meurant, a member of parliament and leader of the Right of Centre Party. The meeting attracted 300 people, well short of the 1,000 expected by the organizers. Meurant, a former commander of the police riot squad, denounced Maori rights fighters as "self-serving and malicious."
The decision to end the Maori occupation of Moutoa Gardens was debated by participants at a three-hour meeting May 17. At 3:45 the next morning the occupants gathered and began dismantling tents and buildings and the surrounding fence. Bonfires burned across the site.
At 4:50 a.m., the same time they had entered the gardens 79 days earlier, the protesters began their march to a meeting place several miles away. Over the next few days, a team continued to dismantle the meeting house and other buildings that had been erected during the occupation.
"Every step of the way has been worthwhile as far as we are concerned," Niko Tangaroa told the May 18 press conference in Wanganui. "Pakaitore is our land. It will remain our land, and we will continue to assert that right irrespective of the courts."
The protest leaders vowed to continue their fight, including through further land occupations. "As long as the Crown [government] buries its head in the sand and pretends that issues of sovereignty and our land grievances are going to go away- we are going to stand up and fight for what is rightfully ours," Ken Mair declared.
The chairman of the Whanganui River Maori Trust Board, Archie Tairoa, reported that local sub-tribes had already given full support for the "reoccupation of those areas of land wrongfully taken from them." Moutoa Gardens, he said, "is but a small part of some of those areas."
Whanganui River sub-tribes have claims for the return of 186,000 acres of land before the Waitangi Tribunal, a judicial body that hears Maori claims on land and other resources unjustly taken away.
A number of other Maori occupations that began in the wake of the Moutoa Gardens occupation are continuing.
Michael Tucker is a member of the United Food & Beverage
Workers Union in Auckland.
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