Hard News by Russell Brown


Angry and thrilled about Arie

You may not have caught last night's Sunday programme on the strange and troubling case of Arie Smith-Voorkamp. You might have been marvelling at Matt Bowden on the other current affairs show. But I would ask you, if you have time, to spend 20 minutes watching Janet McIntyre's superbly-compiled report.

Arie, who was born with Asperger Syndrome, meaning he is somewhere on the autism spectrum, became the media's "face of looting" in February, when he was arrested and paraded for the cameras after the February earthquake in Christchurch. He was back in court last week, and is set to go to a judge-only trial after the police again rejected a very strong steer from a judge to approve diversion for Arie, who has never previously been before a court.

Arie readily admits his offence, which is not, by any reasonable measure, looting. The empty retail building he entered in February, miles from the CBD "red zone", had been damaged, cordoned off and marked for demolition months before, after the September quake. It had been unused for many months even before that.

Like many Aspies, Arie has a particular strong interest: in his case, it's electrical fittings. Against the urgings of his partner, Michael Davis, Arie entered the building and had secured two old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs when the police arrived. The items themselves were essentially valueless, but, as Arie acknowledged, the arresting officers were subjected to the risk of entering a damaged building.

Arie says he struggles to remember what happened during the arrest, but Michael told Sunday that Arie could not understand what was happening and became hysterical.

Those with personal or family experience of aspergers will probably recognise what was happening there: an autistic meltdown. It's an overwhelming and disabling response to stress and confusion.

Meltdowns do not necessarily result from or result in violence. Our older son, when he began taking the bus home at night this year from his Film Society screenings, accidentally asked for a ticket to K Road, rather than Point Chev. When the bus driver queried him at the end of K Road, he got confused and basically locked up. Fortunately, the driver was sensitive enough to realise something was going on and took our son where he needed to get to. I'd like to thank him here for his help and understanding.

Arie did the right thing: he tried to calm himself down. He apparently told the arresting officers he was Asperger -- not in the hope of getting off, but in the belief they might do the right thing. In response, they are said to have mocked him, and -- while he was prone and handcuffed -- assaulted him.

The building's owners were shocked to discover that Arie had been imprisoned, charged and subjected to repeated court hearings. Not only had they made no complaint, they had not even been informed of the theft of their light bulbs.

Arie spent more than a week in jail afterwards, and he and Michael were deliberately and humiliatingly paraded in front of the news media before even being charged. The police, despite being invited four separate times by a judge to consider diversion for Arie, have refused to do so -- in successive decisions that now apparently extend all the way to Wellington.

My lawyer friends are struggling recall other cases in which the police have behaved this way over such a minor charge, although one notes that when there is an allegation of assault by officers, they'll tend to "hang on to the prosecution" to make things look better.

In recent days, however, senior police conduct has gone beyond the inexplicable to the frankly threatening. Inspector Derek Erasmus of the Christchurch police called the elderly building owners to try and convince them to call Sunday's producers and have the programme pulled off air. And then he directly warned Sunday's producers that they themselves were also "under investigation".

There is no other way to read that than as a threat to journalists. If it hadn't been already, a line has now been crossed. This is a matter for the Minister of Police.

And yet, as angry as I am about what has happened to Arie, I was also thrilled by last night's programme. Thrilled to see a young Asperger man speak at such length on prime-time television, to be given such an opportunity to be understood and recognised for the person he is. For that, Janet McIntyre and the rest of the Sunday team, I am deeply grateful. Thank you.


PS: Michael Laws: you have no useful role to play here. You have already insulted and demeaned this young man, comparing him to an animal. This case is not an appropriate or productive place for you to display your own significant personality issues. Please do everyone a favour, desist, and work on your own problems.

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