The killing of African American man George Floyd by police has ignited discussions around racism and colonisation all around the world, including in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Herald reporter Michael Neilson uses that lens to look at a local dispute about trees, which for many is about much more than just trees.
Tears stream down her cheeks, her voice quivers as she addresses the crowd.
"Whether you mean to or not, you are unlocking racism."
By "you", the young wāhine Māori meant the group of predominantly Pākehā people, gathered several hundred metres away and out of earshot, protesting against plans to remove 345 exotic trees from Ōwairaka/Mt Albert.
The Tūpuna Maunga Authority (TMA), established through a 2014 Treaty of Waitangi settlement to manage the ancestral maunga, or volcanic hills, of Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland and restore their mana, was behind the plans, and organised the hui in response to mounting protests over the tree removals.
The "racism" she spoke of was in the vehement reactions that often burst through the surface, generally from disgruntled Pākehā, when Māori asserted their Treaty-bound rights.
It was what she didn't want her young daughter, clutched tightly in her arms, to experience, as she had herself, despite growing up in the lands of her tūpuna.
"We hear about [saving] the lizards and the trees – think about the slightly bigger process. Please, just stop," she begged the protest group.
Under the Treaty settlement the city's 14 tūpuna maunga were transferred to the mana whenua tribes - now managed by the TMA, made up of six iwi representatives, six Auckland Council representatives and one non-voting Crown representative.
Removing the trees was part of a broader cultural and environmental restoration plan, designed to return the native flora and fauna, and culture and mana, to a landscape long dominated by colonisation.
The protesters supported the broad plan, they said, just not how the trees would fall in one fell swoop.
So strongly some felt about it a Ponsonby couple, who said they had no links to the protest group, recently took the TMA to the High Court over the plans.
• Ōwairaka/Mt Albert tree protesters slammed as 'woke, entitled Pākehā' at maunga hui
• Premium - Anatomy of a dispute: The trees on Ōwairaka/Mt Albert
• Anti-Semitic graffiti on Ōwairaka/Mt Albert targets Tūpuna Maunga Authority chair Paul Majurey 'abhorrent act'
•Anna Radford: Playing the 'racist' card to stifle debate - NZ Herald
But for many observers, it has never been just about the trees.
As the early protests grew in voice, the TMA called the hui atop the maunga, and invited all to attend to share their views, and to listen.
Māngere arborist Zane Wedding, of Ngāti Pikiao, also spoke, about how although he was not mana whenua, as a young urban Māori growing up disconnected from his culture, the TMA's plans to restore mana to the city's maunga was "empowering".
Through his work, he saw trees coming down across the city, every day.
"But when iwi do it, all of a sudden everyone is triggered," he told the crowd.
He applauded Pākehā in support.
"You represent the future of New Zealand, the ngahere [forest] will represent the new New Zealand, not these stains of colonial past."
Shortly after Anna Radford, spokeswoman for protest group Honour the Maunga, was asked by the Herald why the group chose not to attend the hui, organised in response to their protests; why they chose not to engage with the TMA in discussions; and what she thought personally of a young Māori woman begging them to stop "unlocking racism".
"Was it because they were racist?" she was asked.
"Absolutely not," she responded.
This was about the trees, and about poor decision-making and planning, she said.
As the TMA was made up of Māori and council members, their protest could not be racist.
For that group it might have been true, but for many others it definitely was not.
Over the past several months while the protests continued, social media has been running hot with racist comments directed towards the TMA, in particular its chairman Paul Majurey, of the Marutuahu iwi confederation; and councillor Josephine Bartley, of Samoan heritage.
In November a person associated with the protest group posted on Facebook the TMA's plans were "retribution for colonisation".
At the hui referred to above, a non-Māori member of the public took to the microphone and placed a curse on all mana whenua who supported the restoration plans.
Letters opposing the project have been delivered to Mt Albert residents under the "One Treaty One Nation" banner, referring to the Treaty settlement over the maunga as a "fraud".
In April the toilets near the protest camp on the maunga were plastered in anti-Semitic graffiti targeting Majurey – who is not Jewish, and again in May more hateful graffiti appeared.
This month Ngahina Hohaia, who has a moko kauae, was allegedly racially and physically abused by an older Pākehā woman atop the maunga.
"She replied with 'oh shut up you black b****, you disgraceful idiots who go around with mokos on your face'," Hohaia told RNZ.
Two weeks later ahi kā Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei organised a karanga on the maunga in support of Hohaia, to stand strongly against violence, aggression and racism.
Majurey told the Herald the incidents were taking a toll on him and his family.
"Nothing brings that closer to home than when your high school daughter questions her worth in a nation where hate speech is openly directed at a parent and wāhine proudly wearing ancestral moko - as does my daughter."
Such racism around the TMA and its actions was not new, either.
In 2018, during a mihi in te reo to open a public meeting in Devonport over vehicle access to Takarunga/Mt Victoria, a member of the public called out: "Please speak in a language 99 per cent of us here understand", Stuff reported at the time.
Attendees recalled various other racist remarks during the meeting.
Majurey said although there was generally widespread support and understanding for the kaitiakitanga that iwi have over their maunga, from all ethnicities, there were some "interesting" contrasts between neighbourhoods.
"We've seen [resistance] mostly in communities where there is a greater Pākeha demographic. In contrast, we've seen greater support in communities where there is a much higher Māori and Pasifika population.
"It's incredibly important that we maintain open dialogue on racism in Aotearoa, especially with the global wave of populism that normalises such unacceptable behaviours."
Individual acts versus systemic issues
Honour the Maunga has condemned and distanced itself from the blatant racism at Ōwairaka on each occasion, and denied any link between its cause and those individual acts.
But Māori lawyer and Te Titiri expert Dr Moana Jackson said the protest highlighted a general trend to condemn individual acts of racism as exceptions, rather than as a systemic part of colonisation itself.
"I have no doubt in my mind the trees are a shield for some quite fundamentally racist attitudes, about the fact Māori people are making decisions which traditionally for over 100 years have been made by Pākehā," said Jackson, of Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungungu.
The Treaty of Waitangi settlement process, which started in the 1970s and 1980s, had seen countless scenes of ugly racism directed towards Māori, even including marae being burned in the early days.
This had quietened in recent years, but strands clearly remained including in the "angst and opposition" of the protests and recently towards Māori Covid-19 checkpoints, Jackson said.
"People have for over 100 years got comfortable to the injustices of colonisation, and now as the country is taking really hesitant steps to remedy it, there is some anger and discomfort.
"People wanting to protect these trees, while not taking into account the bigger picture of cultural restoration and mana, is symptomatic of that wider issue."
Jackson has been at the forefront of highlighting the impacts of racism and colonisation on Māori for decades.
In 1988 he wrote the seminal report He Whaipānga Hou, which identified the systemic and institutional racism responsible for the ongoing failure of the criminal justice system.
The country had come a long way, he said, but there was still a long way to go to accept and address colonisation and racism.
Racism can be defined as prejudice plus power, and in Aotearoa/New Zealand at least, it is designed to benefit and privilege Pākehā by almost every economic and social measure.
"Every time a young Māori kid is profiled by police or security, every time a premature Māori baby is born and research shows they will receive less care - there are countless instances of the way racism functions," Jackson said.
"A colonising country by virtue is a racist country, it is about asserting control over indigenous people.
"What has been happening in the past 20 to 30 years has been confronting that reality, but there are some who won't let go - history will pass them by."
As AUT law professor Khylee Quince says in her comment piece today, racism in New Zealand has always been there, and not just directed towards Māori, but almost all people of colour.
A key path to address it, is to learn that history, she said.
As Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little once told this publication: "There are stories that, when you read them, you cannot be anything other than quite upset."
He was talking about instances like Parihaka, where in 1881 Crown troops invaded the non-violent community, forcibly dispersed the 1500 inhabitants, imprisoned men and boys without trial and sent many as far away as Dunedin. Taranaki women recounted being raped and molested by Crown troops during this time.
But it is not only about education.
Massey University sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley, who is Pākehā, said it was also about Pākehā "anxiety", or a fear of losing control.
Auckland is a multicultural city, including about a quarter Māori and Pasifika.
Mt Albert is much less so, with about 70 per cent Pākehā - against 59 per cent citywide - and about 7 and 6 per cent Māori and Pasifika respectively.
"As is quite typical the veneer [of the protest] appears to be respectful, such as using Māori terminology, but when you dig deeper it really is quite concerning, and appears to be a reaction to that Māori authority," Spoonley said.
It was similar to how Pākehā would generally support symbolic aspects of Māori culture, such as haka, but oppose challenges to the existing structures of economic power or authority, such as the strong opposition to Māori ownership of the foreshore and seabed.
"[The restoration project] is about giving something up to achieve a Treaty partnership, and the anxiety is that you are giving it away or losing it rather than building something positive," Spoonley said.
There was a parallel between trying to save exotic trees, citing their heritage values, and recent debates around colonial statues, he said.
"They both represent a form of colonisation."
New Zealand society had progressed in that there was more willingness to talk about racism and colonisation, but anxiety was clearly still bubbling below the surface.
"I think we began these conversations in the 1970s and 1980s, about how we develop systems that acknowledge mana whenua, but this shows it is still a sensitive issue and there is deeply held anxiety.
"[The protesters] might be genuine in what they believe, but their actions are denying mana whenua their rights, and emboldening others. The abuse of [Hohaia] is a sidebar, but is a result of angry people feeling affirmed.
"We [Pākehā] need to listen when people talk about their experiences of racism, not dismiss them, and figure out how to address systemic racism and unconscious bias in this country."
It is about the trees
When contacted for this article Radford again said there was nothing racist in the group's actions, and framing it that way was a "distraction" from real concerns about removing the trees.
She herself had been subjected to threats from members of the public, she said.
"It is very convenient to blame us when in reality racism occurs all the time. The fact some of those incidents occurred, allegedly, on Ōwairaka do not reflect us but more likely what is going on in general New Zealand society.
"We are there to save the trees. We have Māori people, and people of many cultures, supporting us. We are not going away."
Their protest also did not represent a "distrust" of Māori authority, as the TMA was half made up of elected council members, she said.
"The reality is that clear-felling thousands of exotic trees won't fix any problem - it will create more."
Pouroto Ngaropo, chairman of Ngāti Awa ki Te Awa, Te Tāwera Hapū, and patron of Honour the Maunga, previously wrote of his support for the protesters in the Herald, based on the "shared belief that all trees are the children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku".
He also acknowledged the hapū's Scottish family connections that "put us right alongside our Pākeha whānau in protecting the trees at Ōwairaka and protecting the Treaty relationship we have with each other".
Pouroto told the Herald it was not a racial, but an environmental issue.
Racism did not exist in the traditions of his tūpuna, and he believed in all cultures and people having shared spiritualities.
"For 200 or so years some of these trees, natives and exotics, have existed together.
"Honour the Maunga say they believe in protecting all life forms, that it is pointless to destroy these trees, and that falls in line with the philosophy of my ancestors."
Racism in New Zealand and what to do about it
Khylee Quince is an associate professor at Auckland University of Technology's school of law and director of Maori and Pacific advancement.
Kiwis commonly say of our race relations that it was (and is) "better than America" "not like Apartheid South Africa" and that "Māoris were treated better than Aboriginals".
The little-known reality is that we were not the paradise we thought we were – with many instances of legal discrimination and social acceptance of racism in our history.
Although many have a passing knowledge of the horrors at Parihaka, the invasion of Maungapohatu and the occupation at Bastion Pt, there are many more lesser known examples of racism, bigotry and abuse of power in our back story.
These include the fact that by law all Asians, Lebanese and Indians were excluded from the state pensions until 1937, Chinese were banned from naturalisation until 1952 and subject to a poll tax until 1944, and Māori were banned from serving on juries until 1961.
Numerous local authorities nationwide enforced Jim Crow-style segregation that banned Māori from public toilets and libraries, and private businesses refused haircuts for Indians and provided separate seating for Māori in movie theatres.
White supremacist groups such as the KKK and White NZ League were active in their support of the White New Zealand immigration policy from the 1920s onward, and were responsible for racist attacks on businesses owned by non-European.
Current racism has its roots in our racist past. Although there is no easy solution to address systems, practices and attitudes that perpetuate racism, reflecting how those things came to be is an important part of our maturing as a society.
The opportunity to do this has been provided by our current Government, which announced last September that teaching of New Zealand history will be part of the compulsory curriculum. Learning about our racist past has to be part of that.
I'm 48 and there is so much of our history I don't know, but like generations of Kiwis I could tell you all about the Tudor kings and queens of England and the causes of World War II. As the saying goes, unless we learn from mistakes in our history, we are bound to repeat them.