Hone Harawira has learned a great deal since he launched Tai Tokerau Border Control in a bid to prevent the potential spread of Covid-19.
"We have learned heaps from how other whānau, hapū, iwi and communities have stepped up to protect their people around Aotearoa. We have shared with others, we have given advice to whānau who didn't know where to turn, and we have taken advice from people who gave up trying to turn us around," he said.
And he learned something about how Māori are perceived by some New Zealanders.
"'Who the bloody hell do you Māoris think you are?' was one of the more polite comments we got," he said. "Foul language, racist abuse, swearing behind closed windows, the fingers, calling on the wrath of God to strike us down, deliberately speeding up as they came through the checkpoints, sneering, bowling over the cones, nearly running over our people — we had it all.
"We just turned them back and wished them a happy day."
Checkpoints had been designed to protect the people of the North, Māori and Pākehā, by stopping people at the border and turning back those who posed a threat to "our people's" health and wellbeing.
"We didn't ask our iwi for permission — most of them would've said no at the start — but right from the first meeting on March 23 we worked with the police Area Commander, Inspector Riki Whiu, his iwi liaison officers and local police, and while the relationship hasn't always been perfect, it has always been open, honest and consistent," he said.
"The first major checkpoint at Waiomio went extremely well thanks to the police commitment of resources and personnel, and the publicity generated from that saw other communities either take up the challenge to do something themselves, or ask us for assistance.
"There were issues about the manner in which the checkpoints had been set up and run originally — entirely understandable given everyone was a volunteer, we'd had no training, we had to gather our road safety resources, we had no PPE, and our initial presentations to the public left a lot to be desired. But after considerable and persistent advice and encouragement from iwi liaison officers, cones and road signs from whānau with traffic management connections, a number of whirlwind tours to talk to people about what to say, how to say it and who should be talking, and the eventual provision of PPE from iwi, police and unnamed sources, we developed some excellent checkpoint teams delivering a similar message of protection and safety, right across the North.
"Sure there were complaints, but given the level of racism that exists in Northland, and the fact that all the checkpoints were kaupapa Māori-focused, Māori-led and iwi-supported, it will surprise nobody to know that the complaints came almost exclusively from Pākeha offended that Māori would dare to stop them from travelling out of their level 4 zones."
Matt King and other National MPs complained about vigilantes, gangs and illegal roadblocks.
"They attacked the police for daring to work with us, they have maligned iwi for daring to support us, they've attacked the credibility of volunteers who have put themselves in danger and worked long hours day after day to keep their kuia and kaumātua safe," he said.
"And they never once mentioned the fact that their own constituents, who were doing all the complaining, were consistently breaching level 4 protocols every single day, travelling out of zone for no valid reason, travelling for work without the necessary paperwork, going fishing, going shopping in whole family groups, going to see friends, going to buy alcohol.
"The truth is that our people were awesome on the frontlines. They put up with a lot, and there was no retaliation. I think what kept our people focused was the fact that the complaints would've added up to about two per cent of the traffic we engaged with in the early days, and below one per cent by the last week of level 4.
"Ninety-eight per cent of locals, Māori, Pākeha and our very-important others, were hugely supportive of the checkpoints. I received many, many positive comments and thank-yous, keep it up, you're doing a wonderful job, thank you for keeping our community safe.
"Every day different crews boasted of the cakes, pancakes, sandwiches, fruit, hot meals, muffins, smoked fish, wild pork, lamb, chicken, drinks, the camaraderie, coffees. And we were getting it from everyone — aunties, cousins, the Pākeha neighbours. Hell, even the police were dropping off kai (so they could come back and swoop for lunch too!)
"And every day whānau would toot their horns, or give us the big thumbs up, or just give some positive recognition, and it made us feel good about what we were doing. It's not hard to stay positive when the people who matter most are grateful.
"And even though in the early days iwi were slow to step up, Aupōuri and Ngāti Kuri were quick to provide full support for their checkpoints, followed by Ngāpuhi and Whangaroa , who publicly supported their checkpoints with flyers, staff and resources. Then others joined in as well. And that's as it should be."
There was no argument, Harawira said, that by every measure the Māori of Te Tai Tokerau were extremely vulnerable to the highly infectious disease, and it was important that people understood the "Māori place in this crisis," and why steps were taken to protect the elderly and communities across the Tai Tokerau.
And that need remained.
"We have gone from running checkpoints of necessity to Checkpoint Taitokerau, a joint operation by Tai Tokerau Border Control, Te Kahu o Taonui (Tai Tokerau Iwi Chairs) and the police that has drawn massive support from Māori communities, whānau, hapū and iwi across Tai Tokerau, from essential services such as fire services and health authorities, and wide recognition from the public for helping keep our statistics low," he said.
"Will the checkpoints be stood down completely or continue to work with the police? Communities, whānau, hapū and iwi are already engaged in those discussions, and as we move to level 2 I want to congratulate all those who stepped forward to defend their communities. Your dedication, strength and unwavering commitment to the kaupapa, in the face of abuse and ill-will, at all hours of the day and night, in every kind of weather and without two red beans to rub together has been awesome.
"You have shown that when the pressure comes on Māori can step up, and you have acted in a way that does credit to yourselves, your whānau, your hapū and your iwi.
"Whatever decisions are taken over the next few days, your stand has given the Tai Tokerau a tiny vision of what the future might look like, so that should we face any other prospective threat to our people's safety and wellbeing, we can look back on these times as a guide to action."