Black Power founder Reitu Harris: The last flight of the kahukura

by Denis O'Reilly / 18 September, 2017
Black Power found Rei Harris. Photo/Harris family collection

Black Power founder Rei Harris. Photo/Harris family collection

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A social activist and Black Power member remembers a former gang comrade and urges gang members to foster his legacy. 

Late on a Sunday, my friend and leader was downed by winter pneumonia. Summoned by goddess of death Hine-nui-te-pō, Reitu (Rei) Noble Harris, pensioner, passed into the long night on July 9.

I had the same lurgy at the time and maybe six hours after his death, I woke up, sweating profusely, feeling as if I was drowning, my chest gurgling, my lungs wheezing.

My lady, Taape, called out in her sleep, “go away, go away”. I’ve come to recognise, although not necessarily comprehend, some of the metaphysical realities of the Māori world, and I spoke out into the darkness of our room, “No! I’m not coming with you! What do you want, a spokesman at the Pearly Gates or something?”

Spokesman is the role I played for him for almost 45 years. I’ve been allowed to stay behind to endure this mortal coil, apparently with tasks yet incomplete. This poroporoaki is possibly one of them.

Reports of Harris’s death variously described him as the founding rangatira of New Zealand Black Power and as the gang’s national president. He was definitely the founder of Aotearoa’s Black Power. At times, he was also the unchallenged, authoritative voice of those who gathered under the banner of te ringa kati, the clenched fist: Mana Mangu; Mangu Kaha; Black Power.

Rei Harris with some of his whānau. Photo/Harris family collection

But like most Māori movements, Black Power has a fluid approach as to who holds authority at any given time and in any given place. The question of who leads, when and where, is organic, relational and dynamic. When facing resistance from within, Harris would never assert rank. He’d read the situation and then make the play. If there was dissension, he’d “propose” a solution as if it were an invitation to collaborative action rather than an edict or order.

Among Māori, “kahukura” is a word used as a metaphor for an agent of positive change. It arises from the philosophy promoted by an action programme called E Tū Whānau. This promotes te mana kaha o te whānau (family strength) in the fractured communities on our country’s social edges.

In the natural world, a kahukura is the lead bird in a flock of kuaka, the bar-tailed godwit. In their migratory flight to and from Alaska, the kuaka fly in an arc formation, the younger birds in the middle of the flock, flanked by older members. Positioned at the midpoint of the arc, the kahukura bears the brunt of the wind, but the overlapping wingspans of the following birds create an updraught, buoying and supporting the leader on the epic journey. What a wonderful notion: to be uplifted by one’s flock.

Harris was a kahukura and, at his tangi, a powerfully symbolic act suggestive of his having been forgiven for past transgressions: the women of our movement lifted him from the porch of his ancestral meeting house and carried him to the hearse for his final journey.

Harris’s seminal social foray was to establish Black Power as a defensive alternative to the emerging Māori gangs such as the Mongrel Mob and other established, mainly Pakehā, gangs. These were the days of full employment when a labour force of young Māori men from the provinces and rural communities poured into Wellington to build the motorways and office towers. Harris always worked, generally in the construction industry; being employed was originally a significant point of difference between Black Power and other Māori gangs.

Although diminutive in stature, Harris protected his people. One of the realities of being a gang leader is that you need to win the physical. The daily toil of barrowing and screeding vast amounts of concrete developed a heavily muscled and powerful upper body and he would not be intimidated by the larger men he invariably encountered. When push came to shove, he would turn his lack of height to advantage, getting in close and driving upwards into his opponent’s ribcage with punches of such ferocity that his foe would be virtually asphyxiated and collapse. The sight generally had a salutary effect on any others who may have intended to engage.

Thus, Harris the pacifier became the leader of choice. People felt safe when he was around. The legend grew. Wellington chapter member Eugene Ryder remembers being at an event in the Hokianga attended by Harris. A couple of local Māori kids rode up on their horses. “Which one is Rei Harris?” asked one. Eugene pointed to Harris. “Nah,” said the boy. “Rei Harris is a really big guy. That’s not Rei Harris.”

“Burma Bill” Maung, who died in 2011 aged 91, was a trusted adviser to Black Power. When he appeared on the Wellington scene, he brought a Baxterian ethos mixed with applied Buddhism. Bill formed a cadre of social-change agents around Harris and helped him set ambitions for Black Power. These goals went beyond simply becoming a better class of thugs and sought to create a powerful force for social good.

Harris got political and stood for Matiu Rata’s Mana Motuhake Party. He was at home with other leaders of the day such as Graham Latimer and Rob Muldoon. He became a champion of the alienated and marginalised, misfits, the tribe we call Ngā Mōkai. Criminologists would describe his implicit philosophy as “desistance theory”. We remained more sinners than saints but things improved for the better: for all our failings, Harris led us towards the greater promise for good. We followed him willingly and, on occasions, were ready to die doing so.

Now he’s gone and died instead. How do we memorialise him? How do we encapsulate his legacy? If he were still with us in the midst of the pre-election hype, he’d be prodding me to speak out – as I have – about matters that are important to the people I speak for.

Many years ago, Muldoon told me, “Denis, there’s an election coming up. I’m going to be speaking about gangs, but don’t get too upset: you and I will talk again after I’m back in.” So I’ve been putting some ideas to the leadership of Black Power and I now share them with you, in the hope that we can settle into a more sensible and less hysterical post-election reality.

  • To memorialise Harris, get a marketable skill and get a job. We’re in a building boom. If you can drive a machine, erect scaffolding, wield a hammer or you have some other skill, there are employers crying out for you. We have the numbers and are a potential nationwide workforce.
  • If you want to be a gang member, be a member of a work gang. If we improve  our construction skills, we have the potential to come together and help each other build homes for our whānau.
  • The horticultural industry, too, has a desperate need for a labour force, particularly if it is self-organising. So does the hospitality industry. Why even entertain the thought of crime when through a job or self-enterprise you can earn a legitimate dollar? If it’s legitimate, you get to keep it.
  • To memorialise Harris, if eligible, make sure you are registered to vote and exercise that vote. Make sure three others do likewise. Exercise your rights and influence policy. Look at the policies of the various parties and ask yourself where they line up with Harris’s values of “mana Māori motuhake”.
  • Remember, too, that every right carries a responsibility – that of being a law-abiding citizen. Part of the answer to reversing the criminal policies that see Māori people in jail and returning to jail sits with us in our own behaviours and lifestyles. Control what we can and hammer the system over the balance.

There, my brother, I’ve put it out there. Let’s see who has ears to listen.

Gather together, misfits, I said … and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now. – Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May Reitu Noble Harris rest in peace, content that his legacy will be fostered and come to fruition.

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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