From the archive: Black Power, Rei Harris and the ban on rape

by Pamela Stirling / 13 July, 2017
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Black Power members Lani with Julie and Peter Nuku with Enoka. Photo/Jane Ussher

It hasn't been easy, but banning rape for Black Power members has meant big changes for the women – and the men of New Zealand's best-known gang.

It still happens. "Course it happens," says Black Power member Denis O'Reilly. "I've seen plenty of instances of a girl being prepared to sort of go with a number of the guys; quite clear about what's going to go down.

"And we've had to intervene, had to stop it. So it's no bloody sainthood we're talking about here." But, he says, "it's been a long, long time since I've seen the bashing and the sort of thing where a woman is beaten up and raped."

Gang rape used to occur, says Black Power president Rei Harris, "on a weekly basis". Some woman, somewhere, would suddenly feel the eyes on her and know that there was no escape.

Blocking (raping), says Harris, "was actually better than having a good time drinking. As far as the attitude towards women was concerned, they were just there to relieve the manhood."

Rape was not a formal part of the Black Power initiation rites – some gangs still require prospects to get their "red wings": to have intercourse with a menstruating woman who may or may not be delighted to oblige – but it was always a reasonably good idea to prove oneself "a dog beyond doubt". "And all the king's horses and all the king's men," says O'Reilly, "couldn't have shifted those guys' behaviour."

So it was something of a surprise when one day Harris proposed that rape be banned. He was taking a major risk. "He founded the gang," says O'Reilly, now manager of the Labour Department's Group Employment Liaison Scheme, "but, I mean, you don't just stay in that position. It's not like being Baden Powell. I've seen people not just try to oppose Rei, I've seen people try to kill him, I mean, literally kill him."

Black Power president Rei Harris.

Many of the members, says Black Power political adviser Bill Maung, "realised they weren't actually all that keen on rape". Some, says Harris, "had been in the position of walking into a block and it was their sister". But there were also members, says Maung, "who just couldn't see the point of being in a gang if you couldn't rape".

There are still chapters, says Wellington Police Gang Liaison Officer Jim Furneaux, who are "a law unto themselves – in fact, whenever one chapter comes to Wellington, Rei always says, 'Christ, I'm off to Hawaii.'" But Harris held the ground on the rape issue; still holds the leadership, despite the fact, as Furneaux points out, that "there are much bigger chapters in Auckland, with all their limousines and motorbikes and talk of helicopters". Okay, says Furneaux, "the days of someone being the leader of a gang simply because he's the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley and can whip the shit out of everybody that comes along, those days are over".

But where does Harris get the authority to push pro-social policies through the Black Power? O'Reilly speaks of the man's personal "karma", and of his ability as a true rangatira "to lead through opportunity". Furneaux, whose job has been cut back to half-time "because the Wellington chapter are just not causing the police a lot of work" (the Black Power still send him a Christmas card, though), talks of the fact that "Rei has always been very politically astute, probably with Bill's tuition". There are women in the Black Power movement who attribute the president's influence to the fact that he is "the man himself, almost a messiah". "I love and respect him that much," says the kaitiaki (marae mother) of the Wellington chapter, "and so does every brother and woman here. A lot of them, if it wasn't for him, they would all be in jail now, or dead.''

"There has been one hell of a change," says one of the wives, as she finishes breastfeeding her infant son and begins suckling the seven-month-old baby girl whom one of the staunchest bros in the place cares for on weekdays while her mother works in a clerical job. "Rei wants this to be a whanau, not a gang." O'Reilly: "The families have changed the whole dynamic, eh? Women are seen now as being the mother, the whaea; as having an aura." It is precisely the reason why Harris wanted the ban on rape: "A power trip like rape never gives you what you want. You need to have a respected partner on a long-term basis and the caring and support of a family."

The resolution formally banning rape was put to the Black Power convention in 1977. It was passed the following year in Tokoroa. Harris wasn't there. He was doing time for rape.

The Black Power president did not, he says, take any part in the incident. He was simply in the house, he says, when five guys took advantage of the services of a hooker, and then rewarded her with a silver coin – a 50-cent piece tossed to her by Harris. The police could produce no incriminating evidence from clothes or body samples. But Harris did not defend himself, refused even to enter a plea. He took the rap. "It would have looked bad among the gangs if I had defended myself."

It was to be one of the last times a Black Power member has been sent down for rape. Harris: "Since 1978 there have been only three convictions for rape – none of them gang rape." But enforcing the ban wasn't always easy. One of the guys is a cabbage now, says Harris, because he tried to stop a block. "There have been numerous times when the soldiers have been very upset because they wanted their needs taken care of and a patched member has said, 'No, Harris says that's it.'"

Denis O'Reilly in 2017. Photo/Tony Nyberg

"Look," says O'Reilly, "we're talking about coming in from the periphery here. This is not a movement built on a strong social basis moving out into the world. This is a movement which has been founded on a culture of alienation because its members were shunned to the outside, and which is now trying to come back in. And it's a hell of a different tide, you know. You're swimming against it all the way.''

What happened to those who did commit rape? The official penalty was "excommunication". In fact, says the kaitiaki, what they often got was "much worse". Maung tells of a young woman who came to the Wellington chapter and said she had been raped by three of their members. "She didn't want to go to the police," says Maung, a former magistrate and district commissioner in colonial Burma. "So we said, 'Right, we'll try them here.' "

Amster Reedy, then a senior teachers' college lecturer who had been teaching Black Power members the Maori language and culture, "got an urgent call to get down there. When I arrived," he says, "there were about 50 people there: social workers, Maori wardens, people from government departments, and the Black Power. It was very tense, very traumatic for those young men.''

Reedy gave an ancient karakia (prayer) and then canvassed opinion at the hui as to what should happen to the offenders. "Some said they should be killed. Some wanted them to have psychiatric treatment. Others wanted them to pay reparation.''

One of the young men's own Taranaki people got up to speak. "This woman was in tears," says Maung. " 'How could you do this to us?' she said. 'We are a proud tribe, we have always walked with our head high and now you make me crawl to these people.' My God, these young fellows were shivering," says Maung.

Reedy quoted an old Maori proverb: man dies for whenua and wahine. "We can kill you for this," he said. Reedy, says Maung, is a "superb orator: his eyes were flashing; he was terrifying". Because there is no specific word in Maori for the concept of rape, Reedy suggested that the men should perhaps be banned from Aotearoa forever. "Let us put them in a boat and send them out to sea with the nose pointing at Australia and if the sharks don't get them perhaps they deserve a second chance.''

But Reedy also quoted an ancient proverb about a chief from Whakatane who, when asked what punishment he wished on those who had tried to take his life, said "Let shame be their punishment." Reedy: "There is no more powerful punishment in Maori society than whakama, shame. It is known that people have willed themselves to death because the finger of shame is pointed at them." Although there is no evidence to connect the two events, one of the young men who stood accused that day later took his own life.

The offenders were allowed to speak. "I have never," says Reedy "seen anyone more remorseful.'' They admitted the rape, said they had been on pills and alcohol but did not, says Maung, use it as an excuse.

Then the girl spoke, says Reedy, and she actually forgave them. "It was the most heart-rending thing; the tears were rolling down people's faces. It had a powerful effect."

Not on Maung. "Like hell you forgive them," he said. One of the reasons the girl had given for her forgiveness was the fact that she had been drinking with them beforehand. Perhaps, she said, it had contributed to what happened. No, said Maung. As he repeatedly tells the brothers: "It doesn't matter if the girl runs naked all the way to your house. If at any stage she is dissatisfied with the way events are going and you continue, then that, my dear chaps, is rape.''

Afterwards, says Maung, "I had a talk with her and asked, 'Why did you forgive them? Because you were frightened?' 'No,' she said. 'For once in my life I felt in control. I had been so helpless and suddenly to have this power. I could afford to feel sorry for them.' "

That young woman, says Reedy, gained a great deal of respect for what she did. Yet under the English system of justice, says Maung, she would not only have faced a degrading court experience, "she would have become a marked woman. She could never go into a pub in Wellington again. She would probably have had to leave the community."

The offenders had to pay $20 a week to the woman from their meagre work skills development programme wages for the next six months. "I have never felt more strongly," says Reedy, "that this is the right way to do things: you have punishment plus rehabilitation. We monitored those boys' behaviour and right from the start there was an immediate change for the better and it simply continued.'' One of the men is at the marae today, a family man now. It was the most frightening experience of his life, he says, to have his mates looking on him with contempt and scorn; "my granny ready to pull my hair". "He has never," says Maung, "been near any sort of offending since.''

"It's bloody powerful stuff, what's going on in the Blacks," says O'Reilly. "I saw a case at Whakatane. This girl from Tuhoe had been raped by two of the Whakatane Blacks and beaten. The Tuhoe chapters arrived all ready to fight it out. So we got the presidents in the meeting house and talked it out. One guy was sort of denying the violence and stuff and then one of the presidents, real sort of slow-looking guy, said, 'Oh, is that when you hit her, bro?' and he said, 'Yeah, yeah, she, bitch, bloody scratched me and I just .. .' Fell right into it, eh? So they went outside on the marae in front of the meeting house and both guys had a member, equal size, equal rank, put onto him and they both got a hiding. And then the guy that used the violence got another hiding from his president and was hospitalised."

The Wellington chapter of the Black Power are now known to be so anti-rape that the police enlist their help in finding non-gang rapists. "We found the chap involved in the Stokes Valley rape a while ago," says Maung. "We sent word that we don't allow rape in Wellington and whoever did this stupid thing should have the bloody guts to front up down at the police station. We said he could take his lawyer with him – the fact that he made a voluntary appearance no doubt went in his favour – but he had to plead guilty. We didn't want that girl going through all that trauma again.''

Things have changed at home too. These days when one of the brothers at the Kensington Street Marae tells a woman to do something, she's just as likely to turn around and say, "Look, you're closest, why don't you do it?" Five years ago, says the kaitiaki, "she'd have had her face pulped for that".

Some of the out-of-town brothers, says the kaitiaki, "are stunned by it, but Rei actually encourages us to speak up for ourselves". "Rei and myself," says Maung, "we make sure the women get as much attention at the marae as the brothers. We don't just treat them as bloody so-and-so's bloody hanger-on. It's not just male chauvinism," he says, not stopping to reflect on how remarkable it is that the Black Power should be accused of that. "It's just that we feel good about having women as part of our movement and we have no inhibitions about expressing it."

But if the rate of change has been rapid, it has also led to definite speed wobbles. When the women started their own Black Power sisters group (only one woman has ever been allowed to wear a patch, although the women do rumble), Harris put his foot down. "I had to stop it. They were so much wilier than the men mentally and were getting into too much trouble." The brothers were getting upset, he says, because their "micks" (mistresses) were being done over in the women's toilets.

''The sisters,'' says Harris, "forgot their own responsibilities. I would go into homes here and find the children there alone. Women should not be a slave in the kitchen, raising children is a joint venture, but they have a role as mothers to make sure the children are cared for by someone. The way I see it, the sisters was just an excuse to keep an eye on us. I told them the better way was to actually spend their time with their partner."

"He's right," says the kaitiaki. "We let it go to our head, thought we knew it all." The worst thing, she says, were the pills. "We were all on rollies [Rohypnol]. It's not a very nice display: on rollies you think you're as staunch as, eh. We were getting into all sorts of trouble with the police."

"Those rollies," says O'Reilly, "God, they're shocking. The guys get on them in prison and then everyone gets hooked. They make you nut off. It’s how you get a lot of these knifings and horrific rapes – those terrible, unexplained crimes where 'man runs amok'." Harris has banned them altogether. "Doing rollies," says the kaitiaki, "is now a head-smashable offence in the Black Power."

But there's less need for them, somehow. "There used to be that much stress," says the kaitiaki. Now the women are moving into their own homes – the Black Power trust pays the deposit and the Housing Corporation lends a 95 percent mortgage. "There is much more respect now for property,'' says Maung. The men are developing work skills; Harris and Maung are trying to establish a youth trade training centre in an old Wellington factory.

Both adults and children are encouraged to get education: "With Rei and Bill's help I've set my son up at Te Aute College," says the kaitiaki, "and they've also helped me get back custody of my little one." The kids are put straight.

When the local dairy was done over by streetkids, the Black Power took up a collection, invited the Indian owners over to the marae and cooked them a special curry, at the same time lecturing the kids on the disgrace they had brought upon the neighbourhood. Now, when the kids go past, the owner says, "Here, have a banana.''

Harris has also encouraged the brothers to take up sport. "League," he says, "really achieves goals for our guys - there's lots of hard physical stuff and competition without punching up."

"Look," says Maung, "the guys are even getting into warrants of fitness. And it's these little things, that give security and self-esteem, which as much as the grand scheme have put an end to all the violence and rape."

Now, before they go to sleep at night, the Black Power women still tuck a knife under the pillow. Still put the baseball bat by the bed. Still wind up the Rottweiler. But it's not the gang members they fear. "We've already had one peeping Tom," says one. ''No one is going to rape me.''

A woman’s view

There were times when I wanted to kill the men who raped me," says Brenda Cheyne. Nine years ago Cheyne, a woman who had always thought of herself as a "nice peaceloving person", was pack-raped by 10 gang members. The anger, she says, lasted for years. "I didn't know what to do with it. At times I dumped it on my family. I was just so angry with men."

Cheyne eventually realised that, for her own healing, she needed to express that anger. "I also needed,” she says, "to find out where those men were coming from." So Cheyne went up to Mt Crawford Prison and gathered a group of men, including gang members, "so we could begin a dialogue".

"I didn't go to prison because they're necessarily any different from the men outside – there have been pack-rapes on university campuses and in war zones – but here, at least, I had a captive audience."

Cheyne was surprised by the men she met in her 18 months of working with different groups. "We actually had something in common. The root of violence is powerlessness and we had all experienced that, myself as a woman in an oppressive society and the men because they had all been at the bottom of the heap in terms of male status."

Many of the men, says Cheyne, had experienced abuse and violence at the hands of the Social Welfare and Justice systems – “and when males experience abuse they generally become abusive themselves". The prison structure, she says, perpetuates violence through its hierarchical power structure and "through all the humiliation that goes on inside". When the men are released, "the pressure is like a time-bomb: the anger these men come out feeling is generally poured out in the form of violence towards the women and children in their own families".

"It is crazy," says Cheyne, "absolutely crazy, for politicians to call for more imprisonment. What we need is to habilitate these men in such a way that the family is kept together, because it's when the family breaks down that the cycle of violence is really unleashed.

"Look, I'm the last person to excuse gang violence, but I know that we as Pakehas have a hell of a lot of it to answer for. It was our dominant culture that destroyed the cultural and whanau supports of these men, that introduced pornography and an image of women as inferior beings. I believe that Maori culture has some of its own sexist attitudes too, but it has been our culture which has so strongly reinforced these things through a sexist and racist education system."

Cheyne, who worked for Rape Crisis for four years, can see "much that is positive", she says, in the work that the Black Power (not the gang who raped her) are doing on the issue of rape. "The tribunals they have set up so that a woman is able to confront the men who violated her, that is the way to healing on all sides."

The comradeship of the gangs could provide the very support system needed to help stop the violence of individual members, says Cheyne. "I met men in prison – big, heavylooking dudes covered in tatts – who just wanted a way out of the violence, a way to stop hurting their families and children. But there were simply not enough resources there for any healing – there was not even a social worker for a long time when I was at Mt Crawford. I think the Maori people would have much to teach us about healing these men, even in prison. But it appears, she says, that "we would rather have violent men going into prison and violent men coming out. What for?" she asks. "To keep the judges in employment?"

This article was first published in the May 14, 1990 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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