Hard News by Russell Brown

Not any Friday

Last night's Close-Up at 7 special on 1984's Aotea Square riot might well have been a wee bit of a promo for Dave Dobbyn's forthcoming national tour with Brooke Fraser, and its previously unseen footage didn't amount to much. But it was an able and useful look back on an event that seems unreal now.

Mind you, it seemed unreal as it was happening. I was at 89FM's 'Thank God It's Over' concert that day in my capacity as deputy editor of Rip It Up magazine. I wrote about it for the magazine and the report was submitted to the subsequent inquiry. I still have a copy of what I wrote, somewhere under the house, but I think I remember it well enough anyway.

I never saw the original disturbance, on the covered way by the Post Office, but as I emerged from the backstage area, there was already something going on behind the crowd on Queen Street. Police with helmets and long batons. We knew that sight well enough in those days.

I don't actually recall Dave Dobbyn's fateful words - "I wish those riot squad guys would stop wanking and put their little batons away" - but they were audible on a tape given to me later by Californian Ron Kane, a New Zealand music completist who recorded everything. The snatches of conversation caught on the tape were quite vivid: the music stopped (on the order of the police, as it turned out) and thousands of people who had been facing the stage turned around to see a line of riot police blocking their exit from the square. I don't recall the actual words, but there were expressions of disbelief, and then anxiety or anger.

And thus, by shutting off the music and blocking the exits, the police turned a disturbance into a riot. Figuring I'd be writing about it, I walked up behind the front line, where youths were throwing bottles at and taunting a line of police back at the Wellesley Street intersection. Crowds were packed along the footpaths and behind the police.

Something way out of the ordinary was breaking loose. I saw the young guys trying repeatedly to put a bin through the windows of the vacant DFC building. It would be dishonest of me to say it wasn't exciting.

Wendyll Nissen later wrote a dramatic story for the Auckland Star about cowering amongst terrified bystanders nearby. But I didn't feel any threat to my personal safety until the police charged. Like everyone else, I ran like hell. I was in shorts and jandals, and one of my jandals flipped off, leaving me hopping as fast I could around the broken glass. Quite quickly, the police fell back, and I was able to walk up and retrieve the lost jandal.

I watched a little longer, until the police charged again, at which point I decided it was time to head back to the Rip It Up offices. I felt a little chill as I walked past the information centre and saw flames through its smashed windows. On Wellesley Street, a member of the public was trying to dissuade a youth from putting a bin (was our tidy Kiwi status coming back to bite us?) through the windscreen of a stranded car.

I left not long after for a gig at the Windsor Castle - bringing with me the astonishing news of rioting on Queen Street - but the looting carried on. We tried to have a look on the way back from the Windsor, but a policeman stopped us on Symonds Street. Someone was running around with a gun, he said. It wasn't true but we didn't disbelieve it at the time.

So what happened? Well, things were different then. People just bowled up with their own booze, lots of it, and drank it in the sun all afternoon. The role of excess alcohol in what happened can't be escaped.

But the police were different too. The 1981 Springbok tour had hardened them, set them against sections of the public, seen them equipped with the helmets and long batons. But in a more general sense, they were a confrontational force, rather than one of order. The team policing unit would go to pubs at closing and basically pick fights. It wasn't entirely surprising that a chance to hit back snowballed the way it did.

In the end, I concur with what Dave Dobbyn said last night: a whole confluence of factors converged on Aotea Square that Friday; not least among them a sense of release with the end of the Muldoon era. Society was shifting and something was due to blow. I've been caught up in two riots in my life (the other was the Poll Tax riot in London, which we missed a good deal of by going to the pub) and in both cases there was poor policing, but also a tipping point of public permission from the wider crowd.

Three weeks later, I was in my parents' backyard in the Hutt Valley, waiting for a barbecue banquet to be served. Amongst the guests were a senior Maori policeman, a friend of my parents I had not met before.

"So," said my Dad, showing his usual tact. "Russell reckons your guys blew it at Aotea Square."

I cringed.

"Yeah …" said the policeman, quietly. "We did."

PS: I'm off to Wellington for a few days from this morning. Hopefully, I'll be able to pop in on Parliament for the second reading of the Civil Union Bill, and I've blagged my way into the The Seventies in New Zealand: A Decade of Change conference. And, of course, I'm going to see my Mum. I may or may not post tomorrow, but I expect there'll be something new from the crew.

PPS: Only Camilla could innocently put it to Don Brash that didn't he have a couple of gay MPs, and worry that they might be scared to come out in the current climate. "I don't think there's any evidence that gays in the National Party caucus have been afraid to express their sexuality … I don't think there are any. But I could be wrong …" he said this morning on b. Wow.