Throughout the 1970s, Pacific people and families across Tāmaki Makaurau were awoken at dawn by police squads sent to track down illegal overstayers and deport them. Known as the Dawn Raids and enforced by both Labour and National governments, this deportation programme actively discriminated against Pacific communities, since the majority of overstayers at the time were from Australia, Great Britain, and South Africa.

In this blog, Dr Andrea Low (Associate Curator, Pacific) discusses the role of the Polynesian Panthers and their activism against the Dawn Raids.

The Polynesian Panthers

Advocating change

The Polynesian Panthers

Founded in 1971, the Polynesian Panther Party was started by a group of six young men: Fred Schmidt, Vaughan Sanf, Nooroa Teavae, Eddie Williams, Paul Dapp and Will ‘Ilolahia. Taking inspiration from the Black Panthers in America, the group were influenced by the writing of Bobby Seale, leader and co-founder of the Black Panthers, in particular his book Seize the Time (1970). 

The Polynesian Panthers were young; a mix of urban Pacific and Māori activists all in their late teens. Some, like Alec Toleafoa and Melani Anae, were still at high school. Activated by their response to issues of racism, discrimination and housing, they worked to empower the voices of people affected by inequality and innovated many community organisations taken for granted today. The Tenancy Tribunal, a cornerstone of rental agreements between landlords and tenants grew out of the tenancy rights activism of the Polynesian Panthers. They established food co-ops, homework centres, advocated for language inclusivity, and provided legal advice. In one well known action, the Panthers slow walked the intersection at the top of Franklin Road after a school child was killed at the crossing; traffic was held up for hours as the Panthers protested and demanded that traffic lights and pedestrian crossings be installed.  

The black leather jacket seen in Tāmaki Herenga Waka Stories of Auckland belonged to Semi (Sam) Vete, a member of the Polynesian Panthers. AWMM. 2020.5.1. More information ›

Their headquarters were above what is now the ASB on the corner of Ponsonby and College Hill and the late Miriama Rauhihi Ness was their first full-time worker. A plaque installed on the street in 2016 commemorated 45 years of the Panthers and this year also saw their 50th anniversary celebrations coincide with the Panthers demand for a state apology for the damage and hurt inflicted by the Dawn Raids of 1973-76.  

Instituted by Prime Minister Norman Kirk’s Labour caucus, the Dawn Raids were continued by Robert Muldoon’s National government who promised to ‘get tough’ on law and order and immigration. The notorious raids took place in the early hours of the morning or late at night when police would enter homes to convict and deport so-called ‘overstayers.’ Dragged out of their homes and sometimes schools, individuals and families were routinely demeaned and physically abused by police. NZ Police were also instructed to stop people in the street and ask for evidence of their right to be in the country, but the people they targeted in both tactics were overwhelmingly Pacific despite Pacific people making up only one third of those overstaying their visas. The remainder, made up of British, Australian and South African nationals, were not subjected to the same treatment. 

Dawn Raid Entertainment is a record label based in Papatoetoe. These t-shirts were sold at Ōtara markets to raise funds for the label. AWMM. 2003.115.1. More information ›

As Dr Melani Anae has said about the raids, they were: ‘the most blatantly racist attack on Pacific peoples by the New Zealand government in New Zealand’s history’. Famously the Polynesian Panthers made retaliatory raids on the homes of National Party ministers Bill Birch and Frank Gill. They also provided legal advice to victims and through their Ministry of Information, went on speaking tours, put our press releases and published a newspaper, Panther’s Rap running a campaign to counter the bias in the press and official government statements. 

Adopting the uniform of their brothers and sisters in the US, the Polynesian Panthers wore leather jackets and berets. Island shirts located the protest movement in the South Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand. A catch cry of the Panthers is ‘once a Panther, always a Panther’ and the work that those young activists from 1971 engage in today is just as vital as it ever was.  

The formal apology for the Dawn Raids is scheduled for Sunday 1 August 2021.

University of Auckland Bic pen, donated by Dr David Williams. Dr Williams 'stole' the pen from the University of Auckland and insisted he be prosecuted in an act of solidarity with 17-year-old Niue man Iki Toloa. AWMM. 2015.52.1. More information ›

Further reading from the Museum Library