Chris Trotter: A civilisation in which the law may be broken with impunity ...
... will not remain a civilization very long
It requires a considerable imaginative effort to understand the behaviour of the Christchurch Mongrel Mob. Commandeering Christchurch hospital carparks. (Having first “commandeered” a number of road cones.) Intimidating hospital staff and patients. Revving their guttural motorcycles at all hours of the day and night. Why would anybody do that?
Hospitals are generally considered to be places of refuge and sanctuary: institutions where all kinds of aggressive, anti-social behaviours likely to impede the treatment and recovery of patients is strictly forbidden. Even in the midst of a full-scale armed conflict like that currently devastating Ukraine, an attack on a hospital is treated as a particular heinous war crime. To interfere with the treatment of those suffering from injury or illness: acutely stressed and vulnerable human-beings; indicates a truly disturbing level of depravity. Who could do such a thing? More to the point, who could allow such a thing to be done?
These were certainly the questions uppermost in the minds of those who heard the reports of the Christchurch Mongrel Mob’s behaviour on RNZ, and/or read about it in the press. Not simply: “What sort of people behave like this?” But also: “Why were they allowed to get away with it?”
Hearing of these crimes, and considering their location, most New Zealanders’ first assumption would be that the Police were called to the scene and the perpetrators arrested, charged, and detained. To live in a civilised society is not to anticipate that there will be no criminals and no crime, merely that those who break the laws which make civilisation possible are held to account. A civilisation in which the law may be broken with impunity will not remain a civilisation very long.
And this is, of course, the profoundly disturbing aspect of the behaviour of the Mongrel Mob at Christchurch Hospital – that they were not held to account. Those forced to endure the inconvenience, the intimidation and the disruption waited in vain for decisive action on the part of the hospital administration – and law enforcement. All manner of assurances were given; all kinds of excuses offered; but the behaviour did not cease, and it perpetrators continued to walk free.
It does not help that New Zealanders have witnessed similar scenes before: instances of city streets and highways being “commandeered” by motorcycle gangs who have used their temporary control of these public spaces to intimidate (and in one shocking incident viciously assault) other road users and members of the public who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now, law enforcement may object that those engaged in such behaviour were later summonsed for their infringements. All well and good, but the public expects – and has every right to expect – that clear breaches of the law, not to mention “the peace”, are confronted as and when they happen. Because, if law enforcement extends no further than issuing summonses after crimes have been committed, and refuses (out of fear or lack of resources) to intervene as crimes are taking place, then the public’s faith in the Police will be shaken to the core.
Law enforcement’s inaction is dangerous for another reason. When the motorcycle gangs take over the streets and the highways, and the Police response is not to require them to observe the rules of the road, but to request that alarmed members of the public exercise patience and forbearance – what is the message being sent?
It is a message of weakness and fear. It is a message which reassures organised criminals that they possess more coercive power than the Police. It is a message that says: if there is nothing to stop gangsters taking over the streets and the highways, then there is nothing to stop gangsters taking over a hospital’s emergency department.
What’s next? If hospitals are no longer off limits to criminals, if medical staff can be intimidated and frail patients frightened out of their wits with impunity, then why not apply the same methods to witnesses, lawyers and judges? If the Police will not intervene to protect our hospitals, then what reason do we have to suppose that they will intervene to protect our courts?
Are those in command of the New Zealand state even willing to ask these questions? Or, are our politicians and public servants committed, instead, to a policy of appeasement? Certainly, there appears to be a general reluctance on the part of the state’s coercive instruments to exert their powers against individuals and groups who depict themselves as the victims of colonisation and white supremacy. Māori and Pasifika have learned that charges of historical and institutional racism have the effect of Kryptonite on the superpowers of the white settler state.
One has only to consider the messages embedded in two recent New Zealand historical dramas “The Panthers” (2021) a television series about the rise of the Polynesian Panthers and the infamous Dawn Raids of the 1970s, and “Muru” (2022) a cinematic “response” to Operation Eight and the Police raid on Ruatoki back in 2007. The viewers of both productions can hardly avoid the conclusion that the colonial state is the historical enemy of brown New Zealanders, and that its coercive instruments cannot be trusted to treat Māori and Pasifika people equitably.
To aggressively assert the powers of the State in the manner of Rob Muldoon in 1976, or even of Helen Clark in 2004, is no longer seen by public officials as a clear-cut issue of protecting the equal rights of all citizens by the equal application of all the laws. As currently interpreted by state actors, te Tiriti o Waitangi interposes all manner of caveats against moving decisively against the sort of behaviour on display by the Mongrel Mob at Christchurch Hospital.
Were any New Zealand government – Labour or National – to embark on a rapid build-up of the state’s coercive forces, sufficient to suppress the anti-social behaviour of criminal elements, there would be an outcry. Such a policy would be denounced as irredeemably racist. Its critics would demand to know against whom our beefed-up Police, Corrections, SIS and NZ Defence Forces were intended to be deployed. Would these overwhelmingly white bodies of men and women be unleashed against Pakeha? Or, would they, instead, be held in readiness against the nation’s most exploited, marginalised and institutionally oppressed citizens – Māori and Pasifika?
In confronting these vexed issues, the observation of the British poet, W.H. Auden, contained in his eve-of-war poem “September 1 1939” is, once again, confirmed:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at bowalleyroad.blogspot.com