'Tough lady' minister breaks up mall fight

By Claire Trevett, Vaimoana Tapaleao

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett waded into a maul of about 30 young people outside a shopping mall to break up a fight.

Ms Bennett was about to enter West City in Henderson about 4.30pm on Saturday when she saw 30 or so youngsters aged from about 11 to 17 in Catherine Place.

Four or five of them, mostly females, were fighting - "fists flying, blood, it was full on" - while the rest were egging them on, she said.

When one fight ended, another would begin, and others would join in.

"So I leaped in, as you do, because it was all starting to get really, really aggressive. There I was, wagging that finger in faces and telling them to back off, go sit down. I was really angry.

"It was pretty intense. They were going for each other and it was going to brew into what I thought would be a lot of young people involved. Someone was going to get hurt. So I was fiery - there's no two ways about it."

Ms Bennett said a retailer had locked their shop, protecting the elderly people inside.

"They so feared for their safety that their way of dealing with it was to lock their doors, and I don't blame them for looking after their own safety.

They said they had seen it brewing all day. They said they had seen it brewing all week."

Travel consultant Eunice Matanibukaca said she was heading home when she heard swearing and yelling and saw girls "fighting, punching each other".

"I saw Paula coming. I could just see in her face that she wanted to get to them. She just looked so angry, like she wanted all the kids to go - she just went into mum mode."

Ms Matanibukaca said Ms Bennett headed straight towards the girls and physically forced them apart, before telling the crowd to move along.

Shop owner Vivian Wang also praised the "tough lady" who stopped the fight.

Ms Wang said the area was popular with youngsters, who were at times aggressive.

Ms Bennett said it all lasted "a few minutes". A shopkeeper told her he had called the police. As one group was beginning to move away mall security arrived, and a few minutes later the police also turned up.

She said none of the fighters hit her, but she got called some juicy names. "It was language I wouldn't use - and I'm a Westie."

Ms Bennett said she intended to work with the Waitakere City Council, police and her ministry to try to address the issue. She had contacted Mayor Bob Harvey's office to discuss it and wanted youth workers to visit the area for "a more casual conversation" with the young people.

Mayor Harvey told the Herald he had once broken up a fight and knew it could be frightening.

"I applaud her. It might not seem so wise in the cold, hard light of day - someone might stab you; you don't know what they've got - but you just can't let those things happen."

He said he believed the council was doing all it could to keep the area safe. As well as "an MP who wades in and stops fights", there were two youth centres nearby - one run by the council and the other by the Harawira family.

Maori wardens visited the area and there were school holiday programmes, although he believed the young people involved in the fight "are not the kind of kids" who would take part in those.

Local police, who were called to the incident, declined to comment yesterday.

Ms Bennett said she would try to find a solution, perhaps a wider range of holiday programmes. "This wasn't something new. A lot of them were really young and it quite alarmed me how young they were. The question is, do their families know where they are?

"We're not talking about them hanging out for an hour. We're talking about them hanging out for many hours over lots of days."

- additional reporting by Vaimoana Tapaleao

- NZ Herald

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