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Polynesian Panthers

In this article, we learn about the Polynesian Panthers, and the many ways they used activism to support and raise up Pasifika communities in Aotearoa
a gold and enamel lapel pin in the shape of a flag. The flag is blue featuring a lunging black panther
© Te Papa. All rights Reserved

As we saw in the last step, there were layers of Pacific peoples’ resistance to events surrounding the dawn raids. Neighbourhoods created warning systems, schools had codes to hide students. But it was the organised resistance of the Polynesian Panther Party that gave these communities a real voice and presence that demanded to be heard.

“The Panthers gave voice to a sector of society that no one gave a shit about.”
– Hone Harawira
Like Ngā Tamatoa before them, the Polynesian panthers were inspired by the civil rights movements rising up in the USA, particularly the American Black Panther Party. They even adopted the signature black berets and leather jackets of the movement. They made contact with the Black Panthers, who sent them some guidance on community programmes, which the Polynesian Panthers promptly took to Australia and shared with Australian Aboriginals who were working to set up an embassy.
A white mannequin head wears a black felt beret with leather edging. In the centre is a round blue enamel pin featuring a black panther. Beret with Polynesian Panther Party badge, Designed by Tigilau Ness; 2021; New Zealand. Gift of the Reverend Alec Toleafoa, 2022. Te Papa (FE013657).

Who were the Panthers?

The Polynesian Panthers grew out of a core group of young co-founders in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, including Paul Dapp, Will ’Ilolahia, Vaughan Sanft, Fred Schmidt, Nooroa Teavae and Eddie Williams. Many others joined in those early days, most of them high-school students. Chapters eventually opened around Aotearoa New Zealand, and even in Sydney Australia. Members included a range of Pacific peoples (and some Māori and other allies), driven by a strong feeling of injustice.
”Here we are, the weakest group in society, we’re being victimised and so we have to fight back, if you like. And that’s the thinking of 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds, which is what we were, and we thought ‘we’re doing the right thing”.
– Will ‘Ilolahia on the birth of the Polynesian Panthers, Radio New Zealand, 18 June 2016.
According to Panther Melani Anae, “The movement’s rules were simple but strict: no possession of narcotics or being under the influence of alcohol during movement time; no possession of guns, weapons or harmful devices; no using the name of the movement in public for self-glory; and there was equality between men and women.”

What did the Panthers do?

The Panthers had organised a few years before the dawn raids, basing themselves in the heart of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Pacific community on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road and supporting their community with housing and education, as well as resisting police discrimination. Their intentions overall were to overcome racist policies which were hindering equitable access to quality education, health, housing and a variety of other social conditions. As one Panther Wayne Toleafoa put it:
”To many young Polynesians like myself, the only way forward for us as a migrant people was ‘self-help’. We would have to stand up for ourselves and our people, and not wait for others to do it for us… The Panthers provided the platform for us to do just that.”
While the group did organise typical protest activities, their kaupapa (purpose) was built on freedom through self-determination. This encompassed such wide-ranging initiatives as:
  • Setting up organised homework centres for local children and teens
  • Organising a visitor shuttle to Paremoremo Prison (many families didn’t have cars to visit their whānau (family members) in prison), and to support inmates while incarcerated and upon release and reintegration
  • Advocating for civic improvements (like safe pedestrian crossings)
  • Advocating against unhealthy homes and predatory landlords
  • Organising community events like street parties, Christmas parties, and performances at retirement homes
  • Organising and leading community meetings and speaking at schools
  • Partnered in the set-up of a local food co-operative.

Panthers response to the dawn raids

Pacific peoples had long felt targeted by the police. Picked up, beaten, arrested and often left without legal aid. As this ramped up in the lead-up to the dawn raids, the Panthers organised practical responses. With the help of lawyer David Lange (who would go on to become Prime Minister of New Zealand), they put together and distributed legal aid pamphlets.
These pamphlets explained to Polynesian citizens their rights when it came to the law; under what conditions an arrest was lawful, what you were and weren’t compelled to tell the police, and how to access legal defence.
They also set up the Police Investigation Group (colloquially called the PIG Patrol). They would follow police on their rounds and act as witnesses, hoping to dissuade officers from acts of brutality or harassment.
A legal aid pamphlet made by the Polynesian Panthers in the 70s. It features a heading reading 'Legal Aid' and acircular logo with a stylized panther insides. The other text is Samoan and reads, "CENTRAL HEADQUARTERS 315 PONSONBY ROAD, AUCKLAND 2. PHONE 764-830. AWHINA A TE TURE FESOANI FA'A LE TULAFONO TAUTURU NO TE PAE TURU LAGAOMATAI HE FAKATUFONO TOKONI FAKALAO" Cover of Polynesian Panther Party Legal Aid book, Wickham, David, fl 1968-1995: Papers / Polynesian Panther Party, Ref: 95-222-1/09-02. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22915866
There was also a military wing, for Panthers who were willing to put their bodies and liberty on the line for their political goals. One aspect of this, in direct response to the dawn raids, was the ‘reverse dawn raids’. Panthers would gather outside the homes of members of parliament such as the Minister for Immigration, and mimic the experience of a raid – spotlights and loudspeakers yelling for occupants’ passports in the dead of the night. Once they had their targets awake and staggering to the door, they’d pile into their cars and run.
Later, this military wing would coalesce again in opposition to the apartheid-era Springbok tour. Then, they called themselves the Patu squad, and many found themselves bloodied and in trouble with the law for their clashes with police and pro-tour rugby fans. The Panthers were also involved in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Other opposition to the dawn raids

The Panthers weren’t the only group to rage against the dawn raids, opposition to the raids came from church groups, unions, Ngā Tamatoa, Māori and Pacific community groups, and anti-racist groups.
One such group was CARE (Citizens Association for Racial Equality), who organised many protests and managed to convince the British crew of one cruise ship tasked with deporting a group of Tongan overstayers to refuse to sail with them aboard in protest.
Amid the reverse dawn raids by the Panthers, and rising opposition from other groups – including from within government and the police force itself – the dawn raids were called off.

Crown apology

Calls for an apology for the dawn raids heightened in the early 21st century. Former Prime Minister, Helen Clark acknowledged in 2002 that:
”The dawn raids were shameful, because in essence they set out to pick up anybody who didn’t look like a Pākehā [non-Māori] or palangi [non-Pasifika] New Zealander. They swooped on people who were Māori, they swooped on many Pasifika people who had absolutely lawful residence in New Zealand, may even have been born here…”
This was formalised with an official apology by the Crown in 2021 after young Pasifika activists and the Polynesian Panthers put forward a petition for one. Then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was covered with an ifoga, a traditional Sāmoan woven mat used as a symbol of ritual apology as she delivered the apology. As part of this announcement, the government also introduced resources teaching the dawn raids into schools, and millions of dollars of funding towards scholarships for Pasifika students. You can watch the apology and some responses to it in this short video.
The response from within the Polynesian Panther movement to the apology was mixed. Panther Alec Toleafoa responded with gratitude, saying:
“Thank you for listening to the voices, as much as the silence, of the people most deeply affected…You have the heartfelt thanks of the Polynesian Panthers for this incredible moment.”
Another sentiment was that of Panther and University of Auckland Associate Professor Melani Anae, who believed it was a starting point with more work required, said:
”All they were to us were gestures. They have to go much further than they do before we can expect real change,”

Unfortunately, dawn raids were back in the headlines in early 2023, as it was revealed that some dawn raiding had continued, even in the immediate lead up to the Crown apology.

Once a Panther, always a Panther

The Panthers continue in their fight today to ensure equal justice, access, and opportunity for Polynesian people in Aotearoa New Zealand. In the early 2000s they launched an educational programme, ‘Panthers Rap in schools’, to share their kōrero (stories) and address the injustices that still face Māori and Pasifika people in Aotearoa New Zealand today.

Their current kaupapa, or purpose, is summarised in their new three-point platform:

  • To annihilate all forms of racism (peaceful resistance against racism)
  • Celebrate mana Pasifika (Pacific empowerment)
  • Educate to liberate (a liberating education).

Just as it has always been, their goal remains to ‘overcome racist policies which were hindering equitable access to quality education, health, housing and a variety of other social conditions.’

In the next step, we will look at how Aotearoa New Zealand was divided in 1981 by a different kind of discrimination; the apartheid regime in South Africa, and how it connected with the national sport to divide the country from the ground up.

Further reading

Excellent Polynesian Panthers (2010) full length documentary by Nevak Rogers, niece of founding Panther Will ‘llolahia. An inside kōrero (conversation) with key members of the organisation.

Polynesian Panthers continuing the fight 50 years on – video

‘All power to the people’, chapter by Melani Anae in Tangata o le Moana, Te Papa Press, 2012

Once a Panther podcast series featuring original panthers reflecting on their activism

Interview with Panther and senior lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, Melani Anae, on the past, present and future impact of the work of the Polynesian Panthers

Polynesian Panthers, what you need to know

Interview with a high school teacher on how she uses the Polynesian Panthers and the dawn raids in her history teaching

Polynesian Panthers 45 years on

© Te Papa. All rights Reserved
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The History of Protest in Aotearoa New Zealand

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