Denis O'Reilly: This much I know

By Sarah Daniell

Denis O'Reilly is a social activist and former gang member.
Denis O'Reilly is a social activist and former gang member.

I came to the Black Power as an act of community service. I had trained to be a priest and was imbued with the whole Paolo Friere South American liberation theology, social justice, worker-priest, servant-leader thing. When I presented myself at the door of the whare of the Black Power they accepted me unconditionally even though I am Pakeha. I experienced a sense of belonging, whanau, and unconditional love. I didn't stop being anything - a son to my parents, brother to my siblings, a member of my faith, a Treaty partner, a committed New Zealander. Mind you, later, it has cost my whanau dearly in terms of being labelled and having suffered prejudicial treatment by officers of the Crown, especially the police.

The greatest myth about gang life is that it's all about crime. I can't talk about all gangs but for the Maori gangs it is essentially an association that creates a sense of whanau as an antidote to social alienation.

As a child I dreamed that I would make adifference and help address injustice and champion the cause of the underdog.

I'm shocked beyond my frame of reasoning every time a man harms a defenceless child in Aotearoa. I just don't get it: what part of being a man leads Kiwi men to do this?

I need to apologise to my wife, Taape Tareha, on a daily basis for frequently being a self-centred myopic arsehole oblivious to anything other than my most recent cause. She keeps me grounded and has been a loyal partner even though I have dragged her through unbelievable crap. She is wahine toa.

In terms of dramatic interpretations, the film Dark Horse captures the quintessence of the gang experience and the conundrum faced by a gang father (Ariki) in how best to protect his son (Mana). He reasons that as no one cares a shit for whanau like them the best thing he can do is to ensure Mana carries a patch - it is an act of
misdirected love. In the end, however, whanau values prevail. I think that this movie should be shown in every prison in the country with a facilitated discussion on the topic of "what do you want for your whanau?"

I seldom experience fear, apart from when I cradle an infant.

Young New Zealand men are generally not evolved and are on trainer wheels when it comes to their views on women, as evidenced by roast busters. I take some comfort that, led by women such as Taape, I was part of a movement within the Black Power that stood against the behaviour of what was effectively pack rape, which, to my everlasting shame, I participated in. I do not know if my strong stance against "the block" assuages my guilt, but I do know that this practice is now uncommon and looked poorly upon even by those on the absolute social periphery.

True leadership is a contextual concept and within that a behaviour. Take a natural exemplar, the kuaka or bartailed godwit, which at this very time of the year, is contemplating a long flight, in a flock, from Aotearoa back to China and the Siberian steppes. The lead bird, the kahukura, takes the brunt of the wind, but the dynamics of the overlapping wings in the flowing formation creates an updraught and the leader is buoyed. That's a lovely notion that leadership is defined by followship, and the act of followship creates an uplift. After a time the kahukura drops back and another takes its place. So this intimates that we all have a responsibility at times to lead and at others to follow. As humans we all have feet of clay so I won't curse someone by identifying them as a living embodiment of leadership but, as his spirit is still around us, could I nominate the late Dr Ranginui Walker as a kahukura exemplar?

I would like us stop glamorising the unwarranted accrual and conscious display of wealth.

Denis O'Reilly is a social activist and former gang member.

- Canvas

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