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Urewera Terror: epic fail

datePosted on 06:01, March 21st, 2012 by Lew

Whatever your opinion regarding the Urewera Terror raids, you have to admit that the Police and Crown Law have failed.

The so-called “Urewera 4” were convicted on about half of the least-serious charges brought, and the jury was hung on the more serious charges of participation in an organised criminal group. The defendants may be retried on these latter charges, and they may yet be found guilty. But the paucity of the Police and Crown Law operation is pretty clear regardless.

Let’s put this in context. The Crown sought initially to lay dozens more charges against many more people than the four who eventually stood trial; leave to bring charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act was not granted, and most of the other charges were dropped after the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence upon which they were founded had been illegally obtained. A year of fancy intensive surveillance; an extreme and unprecedented police assault on an unsuspecting community, including violent treatment of old people and children; four and a half years of lawyering comprising the most expensive trial in New Zealand history, held almost as far from the homes of the defendants as is possible; leaks and publicity tactics designed to bring about a de-facto trial-by-media — and the best they convict on is Arms Act offences such as about half the adult male population of rural New Zealand would be guilty of at some time or other? This, we are supposed to believe, is Aotearoa’s finest at work.

Not only did they fail at the nominal objective of securing convictions, they totally failed at the personal, punitive motive of punishing Tāme Iti and shaming him before his people. Iti has been literally the face of Māori activism, at least since Hone Harawira took the institutional path, and it is impossible to see this trial as anything other than utu for his temerity in escaping conviction for previous acts of defiant political theatre, most notably shooting a flag at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in 2005. By going in loud and heavy, attempting to show them uppity Māoris who was boss, the Crown set themselves an ambitious target: they had to actually show who was boss. By failing to convict him on the serious charges at a canter, they failed. Tāme Iti is now a celebrity. His mythology is greater than his deeds, except inasmuch as resisting such a legal and ideological onslaught with dignity is a significant deed in itself. He has, in the view of a significant minority of the population, been victimised by the system, and that victimisation provides proof of Crown oppression he had previously struggled to demonstrate. For the rest of the population, Iti represents a brown, tattooed bogeyman, an object of fear, and of loathing that ranges from mild to virulent depending on who you talk to. Iti isn’t standing for office, he doesn’t need to be loved by 50%+1; he just needs to engender fervent support among an active minority, and vague feelings of unease in the rest. Notoriety differs from fame only in its polarity. The Police and the Crown have granted Tāme Iti this sort of fame. He should probably thank them for it.

As if the particular and the personal weren’t failures enough, the Crown also failed at the strategic project of redefining “activism” as “extremism”. Despite all the preceding factors weighing in the Crown’s favour, that a heavily-vetted jury was split indicates that they have failed to blur this crucial distinction, and failed to reframe left-wing and Māori activism* as a threat to civilisation, rather than a legitimate expression of dissent in an open society. This suggests that, in spite of years of Police infiltration and surveillance, of decades of stigmatisation and propagandisation of groups from Ngā Tamatoa to Ploughshares to SAFE, in spite of the better part of two centuries of official attempts to elide the gulf between dissent and insurrection, the public doesn’t really buy it. The jury — and, I would suggest, the people of Aotearoa — quite like and value that distinction and although it is been somewhat eroded, there it remains.

For that finding alone, and regardless of the result of any retrial, yesterday was a good day.


* Māori and leftist because, let us not forget, the Right Wing Resistance are free to continue with their training camps and their pseudo-secessionist projects, unmolested.

16 Responses to “Urewera Terror: epic fail”

  1. TerryB on March 21st, 2012 at 10:03

    “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”

    An epic fail indeed.

  2. Pablo on March 21st, 2012 at 10:32

    Well said.

    I am not surprised at the firearms convictions but am surprised at the hung jury on the conspiracy charge. I would have thought acquittal was the obvious decision, but then again I did not see all of the evidence presented to the jury. Even so, to call these four people a criminal organization is a bit rich.

    I am particularly concerned that the High Court allowed the (illegally) obtained video and audio evidence garnered under provisions of the TSA to be admitted even though no charges were brought under the TSA. That smells of double jeopardy and quite frankly has the appearance of justice perverted for political reasons.

    TBH, the whole thing looks like a vendetta.

  3. helenalex on March 21st, 2012 at 10:52

    Why do you keep bringing up the police non-harassment of white supremacist nutters as if it’s a bad thing? Do you really want the Crown doing what they’ve done with the Urewera 4, ie give them a whole lot of publicity, turn them into martyrs for anyone who sort of agrees with them, and probably fail to convict them on anything substantial? I would hope the police are keeping an eye on them in case they ever decide to do anything serious, but unless they have real plans the police are right to let them remain in deserved obscurity.

  4. Eric Crampton on March 21st, 2012 at 11:00

    +3 confidence in NZ justice system; -2 confidence in that prosecutions are independent of political pressure.

  5. Lew on March 21st, 2012 at 11:56

    Helenalex, I’m not sure where you get that from. To quote myself the last time I brought the topic up:

    “To be clear, though, I’m not calling for them to be hauled before the police either — clearly a bunch of deluded hoodlums with purity issues poses no meaningful threat to our civilisation or the safety and security of its inhabitants. I just want leftist and indigenous political groups to be accorded the same degree of tolerance as those who would re-implement the policies of arguably the most brutal regime in modern history. Seems a small ask, really.”


  6. Shelley on March 21st, 2012 at 12:40

    I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. That the trial was hung is not a great surprise and is proof of your own commentary on the prevailing attitudes toward Tame Iti and how he presents to the wider community, especially outside of the Urewera. I confess I have neither heard nor read of any media coverage of Tame Iti’s efforts to steer Tuhoe youth away from the far more insidious influences of gangs that seriously corrupt their society. I guess that is not so synonymous with the perception of a disenfranchised extremist.

    I found your reference to Tame’s reinforced “celebrity” status (notoriety) to be particularly relevant. Some interesting parallels to that other notorious “rebel” Te Kooti. I await developments with keen interest.

  7. Jude on March 21st, 2012 at 19:10

    Nice analysis Lew. A weird sort of victory for your average-tax-paying Jo or Jim though – when you consider the enormous abuse of the public purse that 5 years of litigation at varying appellate levels has wrought. The Nats will probably have to sell some more assets just to cover the Court costs. Enough jibes.

    Not to nit-pick, but the Supreme Court didn’t jettison the covert surveillance evidence purely because it was obtained via illegally through trespass, or in breach of the NZBORA, but rather, because it did not pass the s30 Evidence Act 2006 balancing test. Sure, illegal acquisition and breach of the NZBORA are highly-influential in this test, but they are not determinative. The fact that the evidence was available for use against the Urewera 4 was because the SC felt that the mischief in obtaining it did not outweigh the potential significance and seriousness of the offending at stake (the s45(1)(b) Arms Act and the s98A Crimes Act 1961 charges).

  8. zed on March 21st, 2012 at 22:04

    “Tāme Iti is now a celebrity. His mythology is greater than his deeds, except inasmuch as resisting such a legal and ideological onslaught with dignity is a significant deed in itself. He has, in the view of a significant minority of the population, been victimised by the system, and that victimisation provides proof of Crown oppression he had previously struggled to demonstrate.”

    I agree, but this is only in the eyes of that oppressed minority. While the verdict may have been favourable to the defendants I suspect that in the long run they will lose.

    What surveillance footage that was released which that defendants had attempted to suppress will damn them in the court of public opinion. I suspect they will find it hard to find decent employment or travel overseas given their convictions although what impact this may have on Iti’s acting career is unclear.

    Personally I can’t really take Iti that seriously. He is physically unimposing to say the least and this is the most charitable description I can think of.

  9. Lew on March 22nd, 2012 at 09:02


    I didn’t characterise it as a victory — my preference was for no such charges to have been laid, and no money spent. But given that, the outcome is a pretty good one. Thanks for the clarification regarding the evidence, but my purpose wasn’t really to deal with the technical details.


    I’m not suggesting they will be better off in typical mainstream material terms, but by emphasising that I think you misunderstand the life and motivation of a dedicated activist. These people (or at least, those of whom I know) don’t really work straight jobs or aspire to mainstream social status. They don’t really care about public opinion. You’re right that overseas travel may be more difficult, though.


    I think that comparisons to historical figures like Mandela and Te Kooti are fanciful, but they’re also inevitable in cases like this. I noted that Iti’s mythology exceeds his deeds (this is a pretty handy marker of celebrity), while both Mandela and Te Kooti (and other historical figures to whom the Urewera 4 may be overzealously compared, such as Te Whiti o Rongomai) are distinguished by their deeds being greater even than their considerable mythology. It may be that in time they earn such a place in Aotearoa’s history, but they most certainly have not earned it yet (and I’m sure that, despite some excitable supporters, none of the Urewera 4 would dream of claiming so).


  10. helenalex on March 22nd, 2012 at 16:30

    @Lew: Ah, fair enough. I saw your footnote and remembered you’d mentioned this before, but not your clarification, and was too lazy to go and check that you hadn’t written anything like that. My apologies.

  11. midi on March 29th, 2012 at 10:03

    Well, …for sure, epic FAILs on every angle! So, …If or when an uprising starts and yous head out to over-turn the Government, please don’t hesitate to call or email me and my buddies. We’ll be there with our patu’s blazing, Kia kaha! thank you, have a great day to you all. chur :)

  12. […] Labour Government stands accused of driving the entire police investigation and prosecution.  Lew makes the point that Māori were specifically targeted here and that, for example, “the Right Wing […]

  13. Geoff Fischer on February 19th, 2016 at 19:19

    Lew wrote: “let us not forget, the Right Wing Resistance are free to continue with their training camps and their pseudo-secessionist projects, unmolested” to which HelenAlex replied “Why do you keep bringing up the police non-harassment of white supremacist nutters as if it’s a bad thing?” and I agree pretty much with both points of view.
    The real concern is with those eminently rational and well-connected groups who were trained in the use of modern weaponry by the New Zealand Defence Forces through the 1990s. We don’t need to worry about a bunch of Christchurch skinheads wielding sawnoff shotguns. We do need to be ready to defend ourselves against a well-armed, well-trained and militarily effective colonist militia.

  14. Exkiwiforces on February 22nd, 2016 at 00:21

    Geoff who are these “eminently rational and well-connected groups who were trained in the use of modern weaponry by the New Zealand Defence Forces through the 1990s”?

  15. Geoff Fischer on February 22nd, 2016 at 07:53

    They were young bankers, lawyers, landowners and others belonging to groups with connections to the ACT and Roger Douglas-era Labour parties.
    The context was that a particular class of “movers and shakers” had successfully introduced a free market economic regime and were anxious to prevent any possibility of a return to economic regulation and what they regarded as excessive levels of trade union influence. Rightly or wrongly they believed that military training would help them to achieve their goals, and by chance there were people in the NZDF who sympathised with their political position and were willing to lend a hand.
    These groups could have been incorporated into the Territorial Forces, except that they considered themselves a cut above the territorials, and in any case their object was to strengthen their own independent groups and not to lose themselves in an amorphous mass of apolitical territorials.
    I don’t know if the military training programme is still current. If it is, I am sure that it is being conducted more discretely than it was twenty years ago.

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