National’s police spokesman Mark Mitchell got into a sometimes tense exchange with the whānau of gang members this morning, with one man demanding Mitchell apologise for wrongly identifying him as a gang member.
Mitchell had gone onto Parliament’s forecourt to meet a hīkoi of the whānau of gang members who oppose National’s gang policies.
The hīkoi, led by Matilda Kahotea (Ngāti Pūkenga), was aimed at opposing National and Act’s policies on the gangs and delivering a petition, calling for gang families to be involved in policies impacting them.
Mitchell listened to Kahotea, who argued politicians did not understand the wider gang community and they were being wrongly labelled as criminals.
He then told her he rejected the petition which had to be accepted by a Parliament staffer instead, saying the gangs were responsible for some of the worst violence the country had ever seen.
Mitchell was challenged when he turned to the two men standing beside Kahotea and told them that if either wanted to leave their gangs he would be the first to support that.
One of them was Taniora Tamihana, who told Mitchell he was not a gang member and had never been a gang member. “That was your assumption. You’re stereotyping me. I support my whānau here.”
He asked Mitchell to “backpedal and apologise” for that.
Mitchell refused to apologise, despite several requests from Tamihana.
“I’m not going to apologise to you. You’re standing on the steps of Parliament as part of a gang hīkoi, protesting our policies.
“So if you’re telling me you’re not a member of a gang, good on you. I applaud you, but I’m not going to apologise to you.”
He said Tamihana was part of a petition that said National would be too tough on gangs: “You’re right, they are going to be tough on gangs. But they have a got a choice, they have got a choice to leave the gang.”
Afterwards, Tamihana said he suspected Mitchell’s appearance at the hīkoi was a political stunt.
He said Mitchell had leapt to assumptions in deciding he was a gang member. “To say you’re going to put me in a box, put us in a box, is just stomping on everything. It would be like if I called you a Karen. Quick to judge. He wanted to have a go.”
He asked how National was going to action policies such as stripping gang members of their patches, saying the policy had been legally challenged before.
“Do you think we’re not paying attention? I’m not even a gang or a club member, but I represent my brothers that are still incarcerated and those that aren’t. They’re my whānau and I don’t want to them to come home from prison with these Draconian laws passed so I can’t have a lunch with them to celebrate them coming out of prison.”
National’s policies include bans on gang members gathering in large crowds or wearing gang insignia in public, making gang membership an aggravating factor in sentencing and giving police new powers, including warrant-less searches for firearms. It has also pledged to scrap using public funds for any community projects - such as rehabilitation programmes - which are run by gangs.
Afterwards, Kahotea said she was not surprised Mitchell had rejected the petition.
Asked what she thought about him going out to meet them, she said “good on him. Thank you. I’m glad he was here, he got to hear us. I think it fell on deaf ears, but that’s okay.
“It wasn’t about him at the end of the day. It was getting our voices heard and a better understanding around this situation.”
She said she had simply wanted to try to ensure gang whānau were involved in policy decisions that affected them.
The hīkoi from the Far North has stopped at marae and gang houses over the past two weeks to discuss gang-related policies, get signatures for a petition and to encourage people to vote.
It had arrived at Parliament mid-morning to avoid the large, unrelated protest which is happening this afternoon.
Kahotea acknowledged there were other kaupapa happening today and she didn’t want their group to get caught up in any trouble, fearing they would be the first to blame.