It was a grim chapter in New Zealand's history. Now The Dawn Raids – Educate to Liberate is open at Ōtara's Fresh Gallery – its first stop in the North Island on what is a nationwide tour, to tell the story to a wide audience especially as many young people didn't know about it.
Forty-five years on, musician Tigilau Ness still remembers being stopped by police while walking to and from work or around his Ponsonby neighbourhood.
A member of the social justice organisation the Polynesian Panthers, New Zealand-born Ness, the son of Niuean immigrants and then only 19, says when word broke in the early 1970s about new immigration policies and police tactics to hunt down overstayers, he and his fellow Panthers sprung into action.
They saw it as unfair and racist because Europeans weren't targeted by police and immigration officials who would arrive at homes in the early morning or stop people on the street and demand to see proof of their right to be here. The early morning visits were dubbed "dawn raids".
"We were told to be polite to the police, to answer their questions and to try not to be bush lawyers," says Ness, "but we knew the police didn't really know much about us so we'd give them false names."
The award-winning reggae musician, father of hip hop artist Che Fu and long-time social justice worker who now facilitates a parenting programme in Māngere East, Ness' favoured pseudonym was Alisana Saepelu – meaning Alexander the Great Bushknife, the latter based on the Niuean word for sword.
Ness never expected to one day contribute to an exhibition touring museums and art galleries about the bleak chapter in New Zealand's history. The Dawn Raids – Educate to Liberate is now open at Ōtara's Fresh Gallery – its first stop in the North Island on what is a nationwide tour.
"We were just standing up for the rights of our people because we knew we didn't want New Zealand to be another South Africa," says Ness, who admits his widowed mother, Moka, disapproved of his activities because she thought he would wind up in trouble and in jail. "I felt vindicated at the exhibition opening and Mum, she finally said to me that she now understood what I'd been doing all those years ago."
Developed by teacher and author Pauline Smith and Southland Museum and Art Gallery, the exhibition explores the dawn raids of the 1970s and early '80s. Smith, author of the book My New Zealand Story: Dawn Raid, says researching and writing her book made her want to tell the story to a wider audience especially as many younger people didn't know about it.
"If you don't know about something, you can't decide how you feel about it? It also lessens the chance that it will happen again," says Smith. "I really want to show the younger generation, in particular, a bigger picture because I think that helps to create better citizens."
It's a view shared by Ness who's heartened to see young people out on the streets today protesting about climate change: "We were the same age when we started and we helped to make a difference."
While not related to it, The Dawn Raids – Educate to Liberate coincides with the Mandela: My Life exhibition now on at Eden Park. Ness, who was jailed for his part in Springbok tour protests of 1981, says the Polynesian Panthers also saw Nelson Mandela, then a jailed human rights activist, as a role model.
He met Mandela in 1995 when he came to New Zealand as President of South Africa and thanked those who had supported protests which helped overturn South Africa's apartheid policies.
• If you have a story to share about the dawn raids, contact Fresh Gallery on 261 8030. The Dawn Raids - Educate to Liberate exhibition includes original artworks, memorabilia, photographs and documentary screenings. It is on at Fresh Gallery in the Ōtara town centre until Saturday, May 25 and then travels to Pataka Gallery in Porirua.
Brian Rudman on the story of overstayers
Forty years on, it's a phone call I still remember. A Saturday morning in October 1976 and Police Minister, Manawatū dairy farmer Allan McCready, was trying to downplay the furore that had erupted following the random searching for "overstayers" on Auckland streets begun a few days before.
Polynesians weren't being targeted, he claimed, it just looked like that in Auckland because "there are so many of these people". Then he added. "If you have a herd of Jerseys and two Friesians, the Friesians stand out."
It was a comment that helped fuel the growing outrage, bringing the joint Police-Immigration Department's "Operation Pot Black" to a sudden end the next night. During the four nights involved, more than 800 pedestrians – almost all Polynesians – had been stopped at random and asked for proof of their immigration status.
Auckland police chief A G Berriman warned that anyone who spoke in a non-Kiwi accent or looked as though they were not born here, should carry a passport. Among those stopped was a Māori woman on her way to work. "I hope you are a good Māori," said the police officer as he sniggered to a colleague.
At the time, Immigration officials admitted that of the 10,000-12,000 estimated "overstayers", 40 per cent or so were in fact people with expired visas from Britain and the United States. Asked if they were also in his sights, Berriman told me, "We've only just started this. We went for the obvious ones first."
Immigration from the Pacific Islands had been encouraged in the early 1970s because of labour shortages, but many overstayed their temporary work visas. In 1974, with an estimated 6000 illegal overstayers, dawn raids were launched to track them down. An embarrassed Labour Government halted the practice as "alien to the New Zealand way of life" and declared an amnesty.
This played into the hands of populist National leader Rob Muldoon, who used the anti-migrant card to help win him the 1975 general election. On February 17, 1976 he revived the dawn raid policy, hitting 18 houses in Onehunga and four in Ponsonby before sunrise.
One of the initial targets was long-time legal resident, and wife of a New Zealander, Tongan-born Telesia Topping. She was awoken at 6am to find a young constable checking under her bed and in her wardrobe for overstayers. She emerged from her bedroom to find at least eight policeman beginning to drag six visiting relatives into a waiting police van. They all had valid work visas.
I recall the Immigration bosses being upset, not by such embarrassments, but by our reference to them being "Dawn Raids". Dawn, they argued, was around 5am. The Auckland Star noted that sunrise, that day, was officially at 6.53am.
Months of indecision followed, with talk of amnesties and voluntary departures getting nowhere. Then came Operation Pot Black, the random stopping of anyone with brown skin. It proved a step too far. As Sergeant Peri Ngata, head of the Auckland branch of the Police Association courageously said, the order his colleagues had been given to stop people on the street to check their immigration status was "abhorrent to say the least".
By December the Government admitted defeat. The dawn raids and random stopping both ceased.
• Brian Rudman won the 1976 Dulux Journalist of the Year Award (then the country's top journalism award) for his coverage of the crisis in the Auckland Star.