Terrorism? No, Ganja: The Military siege of another Māori community

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Two Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) were at the scene of a police stand-off near the community of Kawerau this morning.

The incident apparently began when a marijuana-spotting helicopter was fired upon from the ground. Police subsequently raided a rural house, and four officers were shot. A day-long stand-off began, and the NZDF was called in this morning.

This is certainly not the first time that the military has been called in to assist police with an operation – and in that same area. Operation 8 raids in and around Rūātoki were also attended by NZDF, possibly members of the SAS. The siege of Jan Molenaar’s home (also Māori, also a Cannabis raid) was attended by the Defence Force’s LAV.

Under what authority is the military acting when they are deployed in a civilian context? Are they authorised to shoot to kill (or more likely crush someone)? While the police are already at pains to say that they have done well working with Māori communities, the willingness to call LAVs smacks of American commando-style policing where battering rams and paramilitary units are widespread.

That style of policing is emblematic of the racist war on drugs – both here and in the US – and it is at the heart of what is going on. Across the board, there is a consistently uneven targeting of Māori for drug offences. The NZ Drug Foundation notes, “A succession of reports show Māori are affected significantly more than Pākehā by our drug laws.” That is putting it lightly: “A 2003 study found that, on the basis of equivalent usage, Māori experienced Police arrest for cannabis use at three times the rate of non-Māori.” Many rural communities, particularly Māori communities, have few employment options. Growing marijuana is one of the few options for survival.

As well as being arrested more often, Māori are consistently over represented in the country’s prisons for drug convictions.

Instead of painlessly embracing the hard lessons learned by the US’s 35-year- long drug war: “that decades of a punitive approach have not deterred drug use, and in fact have caused more harm,” New Zealand’s politicians seem content to continue a failed model. It is, after all, filling up the prison beds in the privately run Serco jail in South Auckland at a time of overall falling crime statistics.

The Kawerau story must be understood within the wider context of a racist war on drugs, not of violence towards police. Until those with power seek to address the fundamental issues: the failure of the “war on drugs,” the lack of jobs and housing, widespread racism and discrimination against Māori, we will see more military sieges in Māori communities across the country.

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