Ardern says George Floyd situation in US ‘horrifying’

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the situation around George Floyd’s death, who was killed by police in the US, is “horrifying”.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 30: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on April 30, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Pool / Getty Images

Yesterday thousands gathered across the country in solidarity with those in the US who have been protesting since last week over the death of Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white officer who was kneeling on his neck.

Ardern told Morning Report that since the 15 March Christchurch mosque attacks, New Zealand has had its own conversations on racism, extremism and violence.

“That’s something that I imagine as a country we will continue, and that’s something that’s important to us as a nation that we don’t shy away from those debates and those discussions.

“No-one in New Zealand will claim perfection here, no-one. I understand the sense of urgency people felt in response to what they see.”

The protest organisers in their Facebook event listing said they also intended to draw attention to “the militarisation of the New Zealand police”.

Police officers cuff a protestor during a "Black Lives Matter" protest near Barclays Center on May 29, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, in outrage after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died while being arrested

Police officers cuff a protester during a “Black Lives Matter” protest in New York City, on May 29, 2020. Photo: AFP

The police Armed Response Teams (ART) trials began last year in Auckland, Waikato and Canterbury, but serious questions have raised about issues with the trials, and a lack of consultation before their launch.

They have been criticised by Māori leaders, who say institutional racism affects policing, and the mix is a serious risk when police are regularly armed.

The trials finished in April, but critics are concerned they could become permanent. Since the death of George Floyd the hashtag #ArmsDownNZ has trended on Twitter in New Zealand.

Ardern said the government did raise concerns with the Commissioner of Police about the ART trials at the time.

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“They were operational decisions so not something we were consulted on before those trials began, but we did raise concerns.”

Ardern said it was important not to interfere with police operational matters, however, the government did not consider the general arming of police a matter they could not take a view on.

“I’ve always had a very firm view on the general arming of police, I’m totally opposed, always will be. The Police Commissioner himself has also said he shares that view.”

Protesters took a knee with fists up outside the US embassy building in Auckland on 1 June, 2020, chanting "Black lives matter".

Protesters took a knee with fists up outside the US embassy building in Auckland on 1 June, 2020, chanting “Black lives matter”. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

In a statement yesterday, police said the commissioner was committed to keeping “a generally unarmed service”, and the ARTs did not fire any shots during the six-month trial.

Ardern said she expected the commissioner to be taking onboard all the feedback from government ministers and MPs in the evaluation of the ART trial.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said the outpouring of anger in New Zealand was because racially targeted policing also happened here.

Gisborne District mayor Meng Foon

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon. Photo: New Zealand Government

“I think [New Zealanders] feel that these sorts of things can happen in New Zealand and they have happened in New Zealand.”

Muslim community advocate Guled Mire said it was important to recognise the same things happening around the world, also happen in New Zealand.

“I’ve always said the hardest thing in this country about race or racism or just all of that, is really even talking about it. We might not be getting gunned down to the same extent as in the US but the reality is things like racial profiling and police brutality are happening here in New Zealand.”

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Mire said no indigenous groups were immune to racism.

Justice advocate Julia Whaipooti told Morning Report that the video showing what happened to Floyd resonated with many New Zealanders.

“When we look to the United States, they are 400 years deep into a history of colonisation and slavery. In New Zealand, we are 200 years deep into our colonial history,” Whaipooti said.

“Colonial structures, by design, take powers away from indigenous people and people of colour, and that power is often used disproportionally on people of colour and indigenous people,” she said.

“Policing in New Zealand, though not on the same scale as we see in the United States, the underlying issues remain the same and present in the way that we police in this country.”

She said people have spoken very loudly against the ARTs in New Zealand.

Breach of social distancing at protest

Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters argued that it did not make sense to still be at level 2 but not prosecute the organisers of the Black Lives Matter protests in New Zealand for the breaches of social distancing at the gathering.

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Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

He has continuously been vocal about wanting the government to speed up on lowering the alert level.

“If they condone that and there’s no prosecution of the organisers of these two events then why are we not at alert level 1?”

However, Ardern told Morning Report the flouting of rules was not an argument to move away from them, rather health evidence and data. This morning she said Cabinet would consider a move at a meeting on 8 June.

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On the other hand, she said she understood the sentiment of those wishing to show solidarity, but the flouting of rules was concerning.

“I don’t wish to stop peaceful protest anymore than I wish to stop a funeral and a tangihanga or a wedding right now, but we have the rules there for a reason, and it is to look after people’s public health.”

Asked whether she agreed with Peters about prosecuting the organisers, Ardern said it was an operational matter for police.

She praised police for their response and enforcement of rules over the different alert levels.

“The approach they took yesterday is the approach they’ve taken all the way through, they don’t move straight to enforcement, they always take a graduated approach, but that is their call not mine.”

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told Morning Report it was clear to see the 100-person limit was exceeded and there were issues with social distancing.

However, Prof Baker said because it was outdoors, the risk was probably manageable.

He said that, at this point in time, police should stop protests that exceed the 100-person limit.

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