Ten years after the police raids on Ruatoki, Rangi Kemara reflects on the anger and activism which led him to be branded a "terrorist".

The story of how Te Rangikaiwhiria Kemara came to be running around Te Urewera with a gun started much earlier than the police investigation which put him in prison.

It began when Hoturoa, the captain of the Tainui canoe, set out for these shores more than 800 years ago.

It began when Hoturoa's descendant Rereahu was born, and when Rereahu fathered Maniapoto, whose final advice to his people was: "Stick to that, the straight-flying cormorant!"

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That's to say, take a fix on where you want to be and charge towards it.

It began when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and when colonisation changed life forever for Maori.

For Rangi Kemara - Ngati Maniapoto and Ngati Rereahu - it began when he was born.

It began at school, when speaking te reo was being too clever and cleverness was insurrection against adult superiority.

It began when he left school for a "working class" job as a linesman only to find unemployment through the economic reforms of Labour finance minister Roger Douglas.

And it began when the welfare reforms of National finance minister Ruth Richardson's welfare hit those recently unemployed.

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First people were severed from job security, and then from what could be expected of life.
"I guess we were demoted from the working class to the bilge class," says Kemara, 49.

His generation had been born into a system which had changed utterly during the 1980s and 1990s.

Rogernomics and Ruthanasia were "unauthorised" changes, he said.

"None of us voted for it. This new system had nothing more to offer us
so we wanted to bring down the government."

This is the early 1990s and Kemara is out of work and on a ship heading for the Pacific, volunteering in disaster relief.

There was a lot of time spent in the Pacific over the following years where he saw, again and again, the impact of colonisation "on our spiritual, physical and mental wellbeing" in nation after nation.

By then, the internet had arrived and Kemara had taught himself computer coding and IT security. It was "a welcome relief" - "a place to get your head down and scream into the void".

In the early 2000s he was back in Auckland and angry.

That was when he met Tame Iti when sitting at St Lukes shopping mall and seeing this "mokoed Maori" walk past.

Tame Iti 'defused' Rangi Kemara's anger. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Tame Iti 'defused' Rangi Kemara's anger. Photo / Alan Gibson.

"He stopped and looked and made the eyebrows and then made a beeline, sat down and introduced himself."

Over the next few months, as they got to know each other, Kemara said he calmed.

"He was good for me ... helped me look for more non-violent means of emancipation. Not every form of insurgency or uprising has to be with violence.

"He basically said, 'bro, you're going to wind up dead'."

So, sure, there was anger, Kemara says

Rogernomics pushed Maori from owning houses to selling and renting, then
Ruthanasia pushed Maori out of home and into garages.

"By 2001, we started to see the maturing of neoliberal policy. Five years later, we started to see families moving out of garages into cars.

"That was one of the main things for me - watching this mature in this country. And there was no political recourse for it.

"Both main parties were retaining the new economic system, tinkering around but not doing anything to change it."

And it kept coming, as it had for more than 160 years.

There was the foreshore and seabed "racist legislation" and the ongoing struggle of Tuhoe to have claims recognised.

Kemara's activism had now aligned with the tino rangatiratanga movement - the fight for self-determination - and he had minor role organising the 2004 hikoi to Wellington and the Tuhoe land hearings.

And also being invited to the rama - the training camps in the bush behind Ruatoki.

"That was quite an honour," he says.

And so, Kemara's presence in Te Urewera had been coming a long time.

"It was a free space. It was a welcome relief from the onerous toll of activism. It had quite a serious, bush-hardening, military-style component.

"But mainly a space to freely discuss ideas within the confines of wananga."

For Kemara, who had spent a lot of time at sea the decade before, "it reminded you what it was life being beyond the 200-mile limit".

"It was a true sense of freedom. It was a wonderful experience for me."
That place "beyond the 200-mile limit" was not safe.

Just weeks after the final rama, he and others were arrested.

Heavily armed police blocked the roads surrounding Ruatoki during the 2007 raids. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Heavily armed police blocked the roads surrounding Ruatoki during the 2007 raids. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Rangi Kemara shortly after his arrest in 2007. Photo / NZPA.
Rangi Kemara shortly after his arrest in 2007. Photo / NZPA.

"Four of us were found guilty of being in possession of pakeha rifles while harbouring Maori thoughts.

"Don't ever explain that to your parole officer. They won't let you out."

What was the purpose of the rama?

Ask them, he says. There were "hundreds" of people who attended.

"Some were of a similar view to me." A core belief.

"Others had completely different ideas - so diverse, away from my views
of the world and my experience."

"The Crown to me at that point really seemed to lack the motivation to take Maori seriously."

The activism happening outside the rama would mean "they would start taking us seriously".

Not so much the rama. "The rama itself to me was a vocational holiday. A bit like IT security. A place where you could scream into the void."

Video evidence presented at the trial of the Urewera Four. Photo / Supplied
Video evidence presented at the trial of the Urewera Four. Photo / Supplied

Police picked up conversations which talked of getting guns, modifying guns, using guns. There was talk of bombs being used and people being killed.

But Iti's protests have always been dramatic, with artistic flair or some tikanga point lost on non-Maori.

The problem, as identified by Justice Rodney Hansen at the sentencing of Kemara and three others on firearms charges, was "the training brought about the heightened risk of putting arms and know-how into the hands of individuals who could not be relied on to exercise the same restraint" as those before the court.

Text messages from some of those attending the camps showed "extreme anarchist views", said Hansen.

By Kemara's description, the "hundreds" of people at the rama included interesting and unusual sorts.

Any protest does - like the anti-Springbok Tour protests and the man who would hang around meetings offering to shoot people with a crossbow.

Among those at the camp was Jamie Lockett, an angry man who had talked violence for years.

He had a well-established anti-government rhetoric of carnage and being the police's worst nightmare before he aligned himself with the Maori sovereignty movement in 2006.

He spoke, so before the rama was captured doing the same by police surveillance - and continues such talk to this day.

"People had their own reasons to be there," says Kemara.

Tame Iti in the dock with Rangi Kemara during their High Court trial. Photo / NZ Herald
Tame Iti in the dock with Rangi Kemara during their High Court trial. Photo / NZ Herald

"It was a very diverse group of people. I'd hung out with a lot of activist groups but never been with one where there was such a diverse view of the world."

And for all the police concern of an imminent threat, there was no specific "terrorist" act identified.

"What they say was imminent, it was the last module of the wananga. It was winding down," says Kemara.

The prosecution described the rama as training camps preparing a "Plan B" in case negotiations between Tuhoe and the Crown were unsuccessful.

Justice Hansen, in his sentencing notes, said that made no sense as Tuhoe had succeeded.

It was "one of the enduring mysteries of this case", he said, "you saw it necessary to have a Plan B at all".

"There is nothing to show any real likelihood Plan B would be implemented and that the possession and use of the weapons would have led to offences of violence against persons or property."

It was described in court as having elements of Dad's Army, the British comedy show satirising a bumbling and inept Home Guard during World War II.

Security experts interviewed by the Weekend Herald point to a lack of counter-surveillance carried out and how intercepted discussions included many from inside vehicles.

Anyone seriously considering forming a militia group would know that is one of the most likely places for a listening device.

"I was certainly aware I was under surveillance," says Kemara. He says he had a sticker under the visor which said: "Warning - this car is probably bugged."

Rangi Kemara was released by the Parole Board after just nine months in prison. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Rangi Kemara was released by the Parole Board after just nine months in prison. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There was talk of violence - although he says the police put the "worst possible spin on it" - but that's all it was.

"There was a lot of talk. The ones who don't talk - they're the ones you've got to watch.

"It was venting and getting all that heinous shit out. There's nowhere else to vent it. And that's what I felt about the rama - it was a good place to vent."

The firearms weren't an unusual part of life in Te Urewera, he says.

It used to be normal everywhere - he recalls shooting rabbits with a .22 rifle as a child, taking the tails to the council where five would get you replacement bullets.

Cycling home, rifle over his back, he would stop at the Mayfair Dairy, put the .22 in the corner and buy an icecream.

"Times have changed but in some parts of the country, it hasn't changed."

Around Ruatoki, a rifle is a tool used to gather food.

The drills were "not as dramatic" as described to court, or shown in video but it was an important part of the rama.

"There was a military style module. The discipline they installed in us as trainees was the same as the discipline instilled as privates in the army."

In his first job as a linesman, all older Maori men were ex-military.

Same in Tuhoe - most kaumatua have a military background, he says. "Maori are heavily militarised people. That's one aspect of it."

The scenario training - ambush, VIP protection - saw the "worst possible interpretation" placed on the rama.

Media coverage helped shape what followed, helped in the case of one media organisation with a tip-off ahead of the raids to have cameras ready at Ruatoki.

Kemara bought ammunition and weapons, with police casting him in the role of armourer for the training camps. He calls it a "fantasy" and the way police use certain terms when targeting criminal gangs.

"They use the same rhetoric to criminalise what they were observing, to put the worst possible interpretation on their observations."

Prosecution documents describe those taking part as "activists" - the repeated attachment to "Maori sovereignty activist" and "peace activist" suggests a negative attitude to those campaigning for social change.

But Dame Whina Cooper of the famous 1975 hikoi was an "activist", as was founding Green Party leader Rod Donald is his campaign for electoral reform.

In the 1980s, the streets filled with anti-nuclear "activists". That nuclear-free policy made New Zealand as a nation an "activist" on a global scale.

Kemara says there's another influence on what took place.

"It sits in the subconscious of the country, I think. It's the belief 'the Maori are coming'.

That somehow we are going to come back and take this place that was stolen from us.

"The imagery of Maori with guns conjures this subliminal fear. It's part of the colonial guilt, I suppose."

John Minto congratulates Rangi Kemara after his acquittal on the most serious charges at his 2012 trial. Photo / NZ Herald
John Minto congratulates Rangi Kemara after his acquittal on the most serious charges at his 2012 trial. Photo / NZ Herald

Where Kemara's path to running around Te Urewera with rifles had been a long time coming, so it too has it been argued that the police raids had also.

Historian and former police officer Harawira Pearless linked Parihaka in 1881 and Maungapohatu in 1916 to Ruatoki in 2007 in a Master's thesis.

Parihaka infamously saw 1600 government troops assault the peacefully resistant Taranaki settlement led by Te Whiti and Tohu Kakahi, who were then imprisoned without trial.

At Maungapohatu, around 60 police sent to arrest prophet and community leader Rua Kenana for sedition carried out an armed raid with ended in a gun battle.

Kenana was found not guilty of sedition but imprisoned for a year for resisting police.
Kemara: "As soon as you have an anti-terrorism unit, you have a squad dedicated to finding terrorists.

"What's that saying? If you only have a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail."

Is Kemara too self-serving in his recollection?

Groups of armed "activists" running around in the bush carrying out military manoeuvres shocked New Zealand, no matter what criticisms might be had of media coverage.

In the end, there were no charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act.

The law itself was criticised as unworkable although has not since been changed.

Kemara: "When (then-police commissioner Howard) Broad approached the Solicitor-General before the raids, he would have promised him the world. What they found on the raids was my rifles and a few other rifles.

They found nothing else.

"There were meant to be bombs and bomb-making kits." It was a 'house of cards", says Kemara, "that they couldn't deliver and could never deliver unless they made shit up".

And that comes back to what the politicians and public were told, what the media were told and what the courts were told.

In sentencing Kemara and three others on Arms Act charges, Justice Hansen said their law-breaking "occurred in pursuit of a worthy ideal" and "involved only a remote risk that it would lead to crimes of violence".

Maori make up 15 per cent of New Zealand's population but 51 per cent of our prison population.

"I wasn't the first Maori to go to prison and I won't be the last," says Kemara.

Rangi Kemara in the dock with co-accused Urs Signer and Emily Bailey. Photo / NZ Herald
Rangi Kemara in the dock with co-accused Urs Signer and Emily Bailey. Photo / NZ Herald

Kemara and Iti were sentenced to prison for two-and-a-half years and released after nine moths inside. Urs Signer and Emily Bailey were sentenced to home detention.

The Parole Board judged Kemara to be of no risk to the community.

The court proceedings ate five years of their lives, then prison a bit more.

Life on bail wasn't easy. He was restricted in movement and getting work was difficult.

"The main thing was getting the basics of life - paying rent, getting food."

The difficulty then in getting work continues now.

"Google is your CV," he says, knowing anyone plugging his name into the search engine is going to be told a different story than that which he would have told.

"Google has thousands and thousands of references connecting me to terrorism. Applying for a job, renting a house - the real estate agents Google you."

His "activism" continues. He's involved in a permaculture project which aims to grow a food forest, targeting poverty. He's working as a part-time office clerk. He shares care with his sister for his elderly mother.

Most significantly, Kemara has become a father.

Through him, she goes back to where it began for Kemara.

Ask him where the rage is, and he says Iti defused it.

Besides, he adds, Maori already went through that.

He talks of the Invasion of the Waikato in 1863 and the nine months of war that followed. That was a collective decision by Maori to fight the Crown.

The conflict saw Maori out of Waikato and was followed by huge land confiscations - a legacy of disenfranchisement and poverty.

Maori withdrew to the rugged King Country hills and the newcomers did not pursue.

"That's the legacy I come from. We never surrendered to the Crown. That's the view I grew up with."

That final battle at Orakau is legendary and tragic. Urged to surrender, Rewi Maniapoto told the British - through an interpreter - there would be no surrender.

From the ramparts, as the end came, the invaders were told: "E hoa, ka whawhai tonu ahau ki a koe, ake ake!"

"Friend, I shall fight against you for ever, for ever!"