Huey Percy Newton was a revolutionary African-American political activist who did his best to correct what was described as the ills of the American society at the time and fought for the end of the oppression of people of color in the country. He and fellow student Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966 to fight police brutality against the black community in Oakland.
The party took on a militant stance coupled with the burgeoning pride associated with the black power movement. The Panther Party became infamous for brandishing guns, challenging the authority of police officers, and embracing violence as a necessary by-product of revolution. The Panthers were not just about being menacing, however, as the group introduced a series of goals such as fighting for better housing, jobs and education for African-Americans. These plans were laid out in the Panther Party’s “Ten-Point Program.”
Six young New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders were inspired by the works of Newton and his party and in 1971, they created The Polynesian Panther Party (PPP). The PPP was a revolutionary social justice movement formed to fight racial inequalities carried out against indigenous Māori and Pacific Islanders in Auckland and New Zealand as a whole.
Pacific Islanders is a term used to describe the Indigenous peoples of Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia). During the 1950s when New Zealand’s economy was not in good shape and needed workers, thousands of Pacific Islanders arrived. Over time, the color of the population changed in inner-city Auckland. The city was no longer all-White and this bothered people and authorities. Soon, Pacific Islanders faced issues such as racial profiling, redlining, disproportionate incarceration, and segregation in the sports world, according to this report.
Six young Maori and Pacific Islander men, namely, Fred Schmidt, Nooroa Teavae, Paul Dapp, Vaughan Sanft, Eddie Williams and Will ‘Ilolahia took notice of what was happening and founded the PPP on June 16, 1971, inspired by the American Black Panthers. The group was specifically inspired by the book Seize the Time by Bobby Seale of the American Black Panther movement. According to Stuff, the book’s central philosophy guided the PPP’s three-point platform — peaceful resistance, Pacific empowerment (identity work) and educating New Zealand about systemic racism.
“Initially it was the literature of the Black Panther Party in America that we got attracted to – the work they were doing in America, and when we read the books deeper we found out that the problems they were complaining about were the exact problems that we were seeing in New Zealand, so we decided to do something constructive and formed the Polynesian Panther Party,” Will ‘Ilolahia, who was the party chairman, said
With their black uniform and berets adopted from their peers in the United States, they seemed to be a threat to the White middle-class in New Zealand, however, their movement centered on community work, as stated by Stuff.co. The PPP set up its headquarters in Ponsonby, a suburb of Auckland, and started to implement its program through community organizing and direct action.
“What was it all about being a Polynesian Panther? Standing up on behalf of our people, being good to your neighbour, don’t take no s… and stop this racism,” ‘Ilolahia was quoted by Stuff.
Indeed, acts of community care by Newton and his Panthers in the U.S. served as an inspiration to the Polynesian Panthers movement to serve the Polynesian community through grassroots community initiatives and of course protest of injustices. Some of its activities included youth programs intended to inspire community initiative and discourage gang integration, prison-visit programs, homework centres and tutoring for Pacific children, and free meal programs and food banks for families.
The PPP also kept aggressive police force accountable and organized legal aid for those unjustly evicted or fired or people who have lost their visas or under threat of deportation. All in all, it led programs that educated Māori and Pacific Islanders on their rights as New Zealand citizens. Within a few years, the PPP which was made up of former gang members, revolutionaries, university students and radicals expanded nationally with 13 chapters including its chapters in prisons and in South Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin.
From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, special police squads conducted raids on the homes and workplaces of Pasifika overstayers throughout New Zealand usually at dawn. Over-stayers of Pacific Islander heritage were disproportionately targeted in these raids even though the majority of people overstaying were from the UK, Australia and South Africa, per this report.
In response, the Panthers organized “counter raids” outside the homes of government ministers, chanting around their homes with megaphones.The PPP’s actions helped to stop the dawn raids and the group even went on to successfully campaign for a state apology.
The Polynesian Panthers may not be very much alive today in New Zealand but their legacy as liberators can still be felt.