Speaker by Various Artists

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Les Gray: the man who told the truth

by Paul Shannon

The story of Les Gray, the public sector psychologist who told the truth about his use of cannabis and set off a storm, has a special place in the lore of cannabis reform in New Zealand.

When Paul Shannon interviewed Gray for the 'Dope and Hope' issue of Planet magazine in 1994, it was a decade since he'd first frightened the horses and five years since he'd done the unthinkable and admitted to cannabis use on live TV. As Paul observes, Gray told the story well.

Last I heard, Les Gray was still part of the holistic therapy community in Northland, although his health has been impacted by a stroke. And he still has that jersey.

RB

Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for the typing.

–––

It was April, 1984, at a meeting of the Dargaville PTA, that Les Gray publicly challenged the then-Minister of Education, Merv Wellington, over his banning of all sex and drug education in schools. Since that night, it seems that Gray and the marijuana debate have been inseparable.

Gray was then a psychologist at the Department of Education, so he was qualified to comment on what he saw as a ridiculous stifling of information. He also thought the laws on marijuana were absurd when the health risk was compared to tobacco and alcohol.

Senior police officials were subsequently interviewed on TV's Close Up. They made it plain they were considering action against Gray because he'd admitted usage. But none was taken and Gray thinks the police decided  the best strategy was just leave him alone and hope he would go away. He didn't.

Controversy raged through the media. Gray was sacked by the Education Department and at the same time established as one of the few people actually prepared to stick his neck out on the marijuana issue.

Then, in 1989, Police minister Peter Tapsell suggested opening up the debate on marijuana. Unheard of. You can imagine every detective senior sergeant in the country just shaking with rage, furious that they had a minister who actually wanted to hear both sides of the debate.

But no sooner had Tapsell made this provocative announcement than he boarded a plane for a “research” junket to Scandinavia. In his wake, the story was picked up by the then-new current affairs show, Holmes. Gray was invited to appear, along with Ian Hastings, a former head of the Drug Squad, who was (and still is) active in prohibitionist drug education.

What follows is a story that Les Gray has told many times before. Indeed, he tells it so well we'll leave him to it. He takes up the chain of events with that Holmes show of Tuesday 23 May, 1989.

“The first question on Holmes I saw come up on his cue screen from where I was sitting. It said: 'Have you used marijuana?' He asked Ian Hastings first. He looked all over the room and finally said no. Then Paul asked me and I said to him 'Yes thank you Paul, I enjoy it.' I wanted to admit to usage, crank it up one notch further and be clear that I enjoyed it, which is more than a use and abuse sort of thing.

“I sensed it was more of an inflammatory thing to say – and it was inflammatory for Sergeant Lloyd Harris here in Whangarei, who apparently didn't even see the programme, but heard the other police talking about it in the canteen. He decided off his own bat that he would do me.

“I'm sure that if he'd tried to clear it from the top they would have said no. I've heard since from some sources that are confidential in the police that he got arseholes. Anyway, he took it upon himself to get a search warrant, which he secured on the Wednesday. Then on Friday 26 May, he came and searched our houseboat that we were living on at the time and arrested me.

“Well my partner Pat was furious. She rang the Holmes show and said 'Look, it's all very well for you bastards to ask cheap sensational questions, you don't have to live with the consequences. Les has just been arrested.' They were horrified and immediately flew a helicopter team up. By the time I got released from the police station and came home, the camera crew were there. I said how I'd told the sergeant when he was fingerprinting me, 'Look you come in tomorrow we'll have a joint, you come in the day after, we'll have a joint. You keep coming back and we'll show how ridiculous this bloody law is. You can come and arrest me every day'.

“The Holmes show then interviewed Police Superintendent Wells and it was a lovely little shot because he said 'Oh, you've caught me on the back foot.' He didn't know anything about it. They were very sympathetic to me. The way they edited made me very strong and confident and made the Superintendent look an absolute dork, humming and haa-ing, saying he'd been caught on the back foot.

“The case went to the District Court in Whangarei for a two day hearing. We pleaded not guilty and Judge McKegg made this amazing 12-page finding that it was more in the public's interest that I was honest on that TV programme than to arrest the one individual. He believed that the public good was served by my being honest and dismissed the case.

“Then the police appealed in the High Court. The charge was formally for possession of about 90 grams – our winter stash. They didn't try and get us for supply. This time they won.

“Then we went to the Court of Appeal in Wellington. The three appeal judges couldn't understand why I'd told the truth. One said 'Well … you could've lied.' Another one said 'Well … you could've avoided the question.' And the summing-up judge said 'Well, perhaps he was caught by surprise.' They couldn't appreciate that I'd deliberately chosen to tell the truth!

“So then it had to come back to the District Court in Whangarei in front of the same judge who'd dismissed it in the first place. He'd been rapped over the knuckles by the Court of Appeal, so he was obliged to fine me.

“He didn't even look at me. He didn't give me any opportunity to speak and fined me $100. I came out of the court and a television crew was waiting. I said 'I'm not going to pay $100 to have a criminal record for life. If they think I'm a criminal they can lock me up, I'm not going to pay the fine.'

“We were then waiting to see what they were going to do about it. A journalist who was tracking the story at the time came up to me and asked whether we minded if he checked with the court to find out what they were up to.

“It transpired that some anonymous person in Auckland had paid it. It was just as well because NORML were going to set up a tent camp outside the jail. They were going to raise hell. Someone defused that situation by anonymously paying it. I still don't know to this day who paid it.”

Gray's stand has earned him respect ever since. He finds that in his work as a psychologist he is better able to help people deal with the downside of marijuana. Many of Gray's patients are marijuana users and, if necessary, they feel they can talk to him about it.

“A lot of them use it for relaxation, to enhance their sensations. Most of them just use it for social recreation. Some people do come to me because they've got out of control with it and are using it far more than they want to and they don't want to go for total abstinence, they want to go for more regulated usage.

“Some come to me because they're in deep shit for having grown it and the heavy scenes that take place because of the illegal nature of the drug; standover tactics and things. They're stressed out by things they can't tell the police about and they feel that I'm the only one they can really talk to.

“I know a lot of men who are very violent on alcohol who have made marijuana their drug of choice because they don't get violent. They just go apeshit when they're pissed.”

It's not only in his office that people feel they can talk to Gray about dope.

“You know, I can go into any pub in the country and after I sit there for a while, someone will come up to me and say 'Excuse me, aren't you Les Gray?' And they'll shake my hand or they'll slip me a joint. Sometimes they'll say 'do you want to come outside for a smoke?

“Because of my stance on the issue, people have told me their horror stories of how they've been treated by the police, how they've had their houses ransacked and some of the things the police have done and some of the heavy things that go on. I've lost track of how many people have died because of this law.

“People have been shot, there've been suicides. One guy was electrocuted on top of a power pole because he was growing some plants on top of a power transformer. A cop fell out of a helicopter and died because he got too excited about a patch. So people are dying not because of marijuana but because of the law.”

Living as he does in the hub of the North, Gray is aware of the trouble many smaller Northland communities would be in if not for the cashflow generated by marijuana.

“There'd be a lot of small communities who'd actually be in economic trouble – the local garage, the local supermarket, dairy – they benefit from the cash provided by marijuana. There must be millions in cashflow. A lot of shopkeepers would be in serious trouble if that cash wasn't there. Mind you, even if it was decriminalised now, sure the prices would come down but there'd still be a market for the stuff – everybody can grow their own cabbages but who bothers? And everyone can brew their own beer but not everyone bothers. So there'd be a market for it, but it wouldn't be such a high-priced commodity.

“I think the present law does far more harm than good. I would say this law is the greatest alienator of young people from the police. Over the last 20 years the police have lost a lot of credibility with the younger generation of the way they've gone about enforcing the marijuana laws.

“On one hand the police are calling for greater co-operation, but they're failing by the way they go about enforcing the marijuana laws. If it wasn't for that the police would have a much higher level of acceptance in the community. Many international reviews point out the great cost to society of alienating the younger generation with blatant hypocrisy. They go around shooting themselves in the foot by the way they're enforcing the marijuana laws.”

“This marijuana law makes a mockery of democracy … the very law that you want to debate is used to shut you up.”

–––

Originally published as 'Truth or Consequences' by Paul Shannon in issue 13 of Planet magazine, winter 1994.

Other articles from the same issue issue are available as follows:

Time for a New Deal: 25 years on

Dealer's choice: an oral history

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Planet History: Becky Nunes

by Becky Nunes

In this project to periodically republish the most memorable work for Planet magazine, the title I edited – alongside a brilliant, creative group of friends – in the 1990s, I've focused so far on the writing.

But photography was an equally important part of Planet. The large format of the magazine gave photographers, experienced and otherwise, a great canavas for their work, and the editorial philosophy was permissive.

One of the photographers who came into Planet's orbit was Becky Nunes. At the time, I think, she was getting work as a product photographer and she brought the technical skills of that work to what she did for us. She was always a delight to work with; the opposite of a prima donna.

Becky continues to work commercially, but has also developed an amazing portfolio in art photography and film. She's been the head of the Photo Media department at Whitecliffe College since 2011.

These are her words and images below. None of the Hero photographs have been published before (we used another shot by Becky, of Michael Parmenter on a trapeze, to accompany the interview I did with Hero coordinator Rex Halliday). The issue that appeared in, Planet 7, 1992, was dedicated to the memory of Frank Hori Churchward (the father of our fashion editor, Rachael Churchward, who spent his last weeks in the bedroom at 309 Karangahape Road, Planet's office and Rachael and Grant Fell's home) and "AIDS sufferers worldwide".

Thanks Becky. RB

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The Minka Firth/Guadalupe cover

I had the privilege of shooting around three covers for the magazine. This was always epic; the physical scale of the magazine cover was huge, and printed in full glorious colour, unlike most of the work inside, thus equal amounts of kudos and pressure. However this image is hands-down my favourite, for several reasons. The main one is that the beautiful woman conjuring up our Lady of Guadalupe is Minka Firth. Minka was a talented photographer, mother and eco-warrior at her very untimely death from breast cancer, and it makes me happy to see her immortalized there.

 The Sony ad

One of the things that was great about the Planet crew was their no-genre-snobbery approach to commissioning and making work. Fashion, product, portraiture, illustrative photo-collage, it was all recognized and celebrated long before the “official” fine art photography world caught on. It was at Planet that I began to work with clients whose advertising dollars supported the publication. However we got to do the ads the Planet way, and at the time this seemed somewhat radical. 

The Hero 2 pictures

Planet was a big, diverse, supportive whanau giving voice to those previously more on the margins. At this time there was quite a public stoush between civic Auckland and what would now be called the LGBTQI community, and Planet gave lots of editorial space to celebrating the latter. Photographing Hero2 was pretty technically challenging; it was practically dark inside the massive boatshed on Princes wharf, and performers swung on trapezes illuminated by glitter balls. Overall though I  remember it as a pretty incredible celebration of freak-flag-flying in the face of bigotry, and a great party.

Musicians

Planet, along with Murray at RipItUp, gave me the opportunity to indulge professionally in my main passion at that time; live music. I got to meet and photograph lots of talented musicians, but I’ve chosen these two as highlights. Kim Gordon was and still is one of my idols, and even in a mediocre hotel lobby somewhere in the inner ‘burbs she still radiated Riot Grrl power. And the huge talent Emma Paki; her song 'System Virtue' still gives me chills. 

1

Planet History: Taking Tea with Quentin

by Rupert E. Taylor

This interview with Quentin Crisp is part of a series of articles republished from Planet, the independent magazine I edited in the early 90s from a base at 309 Karangahape Road, along with Grant Fell, Rachael Churchward, Fiona Rae, David Teehan, Paul Shannon, Mere Ngaigulevu and others.

Inevitably, you forget things, and over the years I've looked at the cover of Issue 12 (Summer 93) and thought "what did we do about Quentin Crisp?". Turns out it was this gem by Rupert E. Taylor.

Thanks to Leo Rae Brown for offering to re-type this and future articles to get them out of the memory hole. RB

––––

“Shit!” I yell. “When do the banks close here?” “Oh, about four I think.” I'm staying in New York briefly, with friends Shelly and Joost who have just moved into a new apartment, on my way to London. Anyway, it's 3.15, so I rush out down the hall, stairs, stoops and away, my first venture out alone in New York

'I won't get lost,' I'm thinking, 'cause the banks are on 2nd Street, so I'll just stay on 2nd.' I'm walking hurriedly up 2nd street searching for the bank. Have I missed it? Have I walked past it and not noticed? God, so much to look at, I love it here. Oh look there's Quentin crisp having lunch … Quentin Crisp!!?? He caught my eye, I wave, he nods a similar nod to that of the Queen of (shit!) England. 'My, my,' I'm thinking, 'I should talk to him. No Rupert, he's eating, you can't interrupt him. (Shit! I've missed the bank – closed 3.30). Go on, go and talk to Quentin, Rupert, you're not in New York every day'.

So I do.

I walk through the door of the cafe and straight up to him. “Mr Crisp?” I ask rather nervously, but confidently loud. “Yes,” he replies, looking me from head to toe. “Uuummmmm ...” I stand not quite knowing what to say next. “For goodness sake move my shopping and sit down,” he says. “Okay. Thanks.” I sit down and look at this man. From my chair it's almost as if he is somehow dragging me closer. I move the chair further into the table so I can get closer and look harder. He has applied his blusher, a sort of rose pink, not too bright, below the outer corner of his eyes in small filled-in circles, rather clownish and not subtle. He is lightly powdered and his eyeliner has been applied with a very shaky hand; there's a hint of eye shadow, powder blue. His hair is plainer than I would have imagined. Mauve in the grey from his hairline, fading into silver-grey, both sides swept up to join in the middle, like two waves meeting in a windy sea, captured in a photograph or still life painting.

“Will you join me?” he asks, his dancing hands rolling together towards his sandwich.

“Okay,” I reply, still bemused by the whole scene. He calls a waiter, who toddles off with the sandwich and returns with it cut in two with an extra plate for the unexpected guest.

“I'll have a black coffee too, thanks.

“Thank you,” I say to Mr Crisp. “My name is Rupert.”

“And mine is Quentin.” He looks at my eyes, and I his. He has old eyes, soft and grey-blue. I liked them and lapped it up every time he looked at me which, as he only did occasionally, was an extra treat.

“I thought you were amazing in Orlando,” I say. “You were great, I especially loved the opening scene with Jimmy Sommerville singing on the bow of the boat.”

Quentin laughs: “Thank you, thank you. Yes, Mr Sommerville, (he starts singing in falsetto) singing very high in falsetto.” He is leaning back in his chair, his head tilted back, singing and performing. Heads are turning in the cafe and I'm loving it. “Yes, that damned scene went on all night,” he says. “Up and down, up and down we went, 'cut' they'd yell, and I'd think 'no, not again', and we'd have to start the scene from the beginning. Up and down, up and down. The poor men rowing. Of course they weren't proper actors y'know, actors wouldn't be seen dead rowing like that. They were extras with big chests. Poor fellows. Then before I knew it, someone yelled 'dawn has approached us', and sure enough dawn had approached us – we'd been going all night and it didn't stop there.”

Did you prepare for your role as Queen Elizabeth? Did you study for the part?”

“Oh no. Not at all. They picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to the set and that was that. Y'know some people do that. Some actors, they go and become a nun or something, but I'm not really like that, in fact I wouldn't call myself an actor.”

“Oh, I would Mr Crisp. I think if you can put on a costume and slip into the part of the character as immediately as you did, I would definitely call you an actor. I thought you played the part beautifully.”

“Thank you, Rupert.” Talking to him and watching his hand and expressive face, his dramatic voice – oh yes, he's an actor alright.

“What about The Naked Civil Servant?” I ask. “Was that a very close portrayal of your younger life? Did you like the way John Hurt played you?”

“Oh yes, indeed. Mr Hurt was wonderful and you know, by the time he had his makeup on and was dressed, I was very surprised, because yes, he really looked as I did when I was younger. I remember one day he said to me, 'I'm dreading this Mr Crisp, how the hell am I coing to play you?!' But then after he had been made up he approached me and said, 'I know I can play you now Mr Crisp, do you know why? Because I feel veerry pretty!' (he laughs). Y'know they were just so thorough about everything – everything had to be just right. They made me draw pictures of my close friends at the time and they would colour them and ask me if it was right or not. Yes they were very thorough.”

“Were you paid lots of cash for the movie rights Mr Crisp?”

“Well, no, I was paid £350 and they paid me to be a technical adviser – no, not lots of money.”

“I found The Naked Civil Servant very sad and quite disturbing. Did people really do those things to you? Were they really that harsh?”

“Oh yes! They were, very nasty people. Of course, getting beaten up during the Second World War was a horrid thing, but yes, people used to grab my hats and throw them on the road and jump on them. I didn't know what was wrong with them, as far as I was concerned I was doing nothing wrong, but the English most definitely did not like it, they are so bloody conservative, people would come right up to my face (he starts talking to his hand which he's holding up to his face) and say, 'who the bloody hell do you think you are anyway Quentin Crisp?' And I would say, 'I'm nobody, nobody at all, what is wrong with you?' Oh no, the English are very conservative, unlike here of course.”

“How long have you lived here in New York?”

“I've lived here as a legal alien now for 12 years non-stop. I paid thousands of pounds and begged for years to be able to stay here. People here talk to you, people on the street say, 'Hello Mr Crisp', people here are very friendly and want to talk to you and find out about you.”

“Do you live alone?”

“Yes, I do, as I have all my life, in a one-bedroom flat. That's how I've always lived. I share a toilet and bathroom with five others. I'm living in probably the only, or one of the only, boarding houses left in New York, on 4th/East Avenue. Y'know, these days people call anything an apartment – a tiny box, they'll put a gas cooker in one corner and a shower box in the other and call it an apartment.

“Will you look at that rain, look at the puddles, that's about six inches of water there. Y'know, the drain system here is dreadful, I mean I know New York is built on a large rock, but wouldn't you think they'd have better drainage?”

“What do you do in your spare time? When you're not performing or giving interviews?” He laughs. “People are always asking, 'Mr Crisp, What do you do when you're not on telly or in the movies?' I say, 'My dear, I'm only on telly or in the movies for four minutes here, five minutes there, what do you think I do? I do what you do – I fry an egg, clean the lavatory or write a letter.' People are so funny.”

“Do you go for walks?”

“Oh no, I hate walking.” He looks blankly out the window, silent for a few seconds. “Y'know, I don't think I've ever been for a walk. Oh, I go to the shops or I'll walk to get somewhere, but no, I've never been one to 'go for a walk'. I have a friend who lives in the country and he's always asking why I don't go and stay and I say because I hate all that grassy stuff and leaves. It's just not me, I love the city. Y'know, just the other day I was walking to catch a bus and I walked past this big black man who was looking at me in a rather surprised way. He said to me (laughing), 'We've sure got it all on today, honey.' Well, I laughed and said, 'Yes, we have haven't we?' It was very funny, I like people here.”

“I went to Wigstock on monday,” I say. “It was amazing, 20,000 people dressed up. Drag queens, transvestites, wigs galore, great acts and entertainment for eight hours. Ru Paul performed. Did you go? Do you go out to clubs here?”

“Oh no, no. What I can't understand is this; how can a man have a frock on, stockings and a full face of makeup and a wig, all the business and still have a beard on his face? (laughs). I just can't understand it. Of course, drag is very fashionable now and there are some good ones, but no, I don't go out.

“We'll, I'd better be off and go home now. It's been lovely chatting with you, Rupert.”

“You too, Mr Crisp, I'm so pleased I've met you and thank you for talking with me.”

“It was a pleasure. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

I walk up to the counter with Mr Crisp and observe him as he pays his bill. He says goodbye again, this time turning around to have a final look from toes to head. I smile, he leaves.

I ask to pay for my coffees, of which I have lost count. “No, no,” says the waiter. “Mr Crisp paid.”

I later found out that Mr Quentin Crisp was very poor and did not own a lot of money – on the bones of his arse was how it went. Thank you Mr Crisp. I owe you one.

Originally published as Fairytales of New York: Taking tea with Quentin, in Planet 12 (Summer 93), by Rupert E. Taylor.

15

Extinction Rebellion is not a cult (but ecstasy for the people)

by Anke Richter

Yoga gurus and cult leaders – I’ve seen a few. Two weeks ago, I unknowingly joined an alleged new-age cult at the Kāpiti coast, together with a giant kraken and some neatly dressed pensioners who would make any book club proud.

They were among the two hundred people of all ages preparing for a week of worldwide protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR). It kicked off in Wellington with rebels temporarily shutting down the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and gluing themselves to the Lambton Quay ANZ branch with “climate crime scene” tape.

The next day, a Māori XR commando squirted tomato sauce on James Cook’s plaque and decorated the statue of Richard Seddon outside Parliament with a ball and chain. Melbourne rebels sang and danced in the streets to 'Staying Alive', turning civil disobedience into “disco-bedience”. Meanwhile in London, a man had broken down in one of the many protests, overcome by emotion – shaking, crying and clutching a photo of his two little children. Mothers holding babies filled the streets.

After more than a thousand arrests in the UK alone, the BBC stopped reporting to not cause more disruption. Someone got on top of a plane at Heathrow. Over in Berlin, a controversial politician warned young school strikers to stay away from XR’s piraty pranks. Her safety concerns were not because of physical danger. Jutta Ditfurth, co-founder of the Green Party, now on the far left and an abrasive voice even by German standards, called the apolitical action network an “esoteric doomsday cult”. She tweeted that the movement is "anti-intellectual“ and acting hyper-emotional instead of rational. 

The global Greta hating and XR bashing has come from neoliberal and conservative camps as well as the radical left, the latter accusing XR of being too white (make that racist), tame or elitist. But in Germany, only the far-right AfD party branded Extinction Rebellion a “climate cult” – and also declared its full support of a fossil fuel counter movement to the school strikes. “Fridays for Hubraum” was started by car fanatics and instantly gained half a million followers. 

Since XR is now being attacked by both extreme ends of the political spectrum, it must be doing something right which transcends all agendas and appeals to a simple human denominator: survival. If the concerned German politician would have come along to the Paekakariki Holiday Park, she might have found that the training weekend that took place there was one of political activism, even if two kitchen helpers went to meditate during a break and a yoga session was held. 

The overall vibe was friendly, fun and undogmatic. Someone brought a ukulele along. No-one gave me a hard time for arriving by car. Although the food was mostly vegan, there was some milk and cheese at mealtimes – organic, not by Fonterra. My mission for the rebels was to go shopping: finding police hats, pink ribbon and magenta dye for a performance piece with mock arrests. 

Their ethos, pinned to the wall on brown paper, was more in line with the principles of Burning Man and Non-Violent Communication (NVC). It mentions self-responsibility and “radical inclusivity”. No shaming and blaming of individuals – they want systemic change from the top. Hate symbols like swastikas on a US flag aren’t tolerated, nor is swearing at police officers. Instead, local organisers and their artistic helpers like Nelson photographer Jose Cano create a wave of love with visual imagery that they hope will catch on.

The first morning started with a powhiri. Rebel Haimana Hirini stood barefoot on the wet grass, holding a talking stick towards the sky and thanking his siblings: the trees, the mountains, the water. New Zealand’s XR branch has translated the three demands of Extinction Rebellion – tell the truth, act now, lead by Citizen’s Assemblies – into te reo Māori and wants to add a new one: decolonization and recognition of indigenous rights.

What Jutta Ditfurth and the European radical left dismiss as “new age” is in fact the spiritual foundation of many indigenous cultures which are directly affected by the destruction of our dying planet. If those critics are comfortable with Māori, Aborigines, Mongolian shamans or Native Americans referring to higher powers and the interconnectedness of all species, but ridicule the same sentiments if Swedish or white American teenagers express their fears, then it only goes to show their arrogance and inert racism towards non-western cultures by not taking them seriously. 

If the politician calling XR a cult had ended up in the tent for the “Truth Mandala”, she might have fired off more furious tweets. “The Spiral” was written out on a blackboard with a pretty floral drawing, explaining the emotional stages to move through before we kick into action: Gratitude that “brings us back to source”, then “honouring our pain”, finally “seeing with new eyes” and “going forth”. 

It sounds esoteric but is psychological, if not therapeutic. If XR works like a religion, then not as opium for the people, but ecstasy. MDMA can open hearts, heal trauma and bring out empathy. 

“Regen” is short for “regenerative culture”, from massages to cacao ceremonies: the XR wellbeing sector to prevent burn-out and create more connection. I missed the few body-mind offerings for the NVDA (non-violent direct action) training where I practiced breathing deeply and staying calm while being yelled at, for instance by people who cannot get to work. One group was painting hourglass symbols on flags, with endangered birds as an endemic note. In the evening, we sang chants: “The children have spoken – the earth won’t be broken”. 

Sea Rotmann is a sustainable energy advisor and originally from Austria. She put on a kraken costume to introduce us newbies to the “rebels without borders” – not for fun, but because her “spirit animal” is a harbinger of ecological disaster. The Wellington marine biologist has been obsessed with the ocean since she was a child, then studied the dying Great Barrier reef for her PhD. She saw first-hand what is happening to the ice shelf on an expedition to Antarctica in 2016. 

Rotmann gave an introductory talk about the non-violent principles of XR, their mass-mobilising philosophy (“hope dies, action begins”) and the state of the world to come: “Shit is just starting to kick off”. The climate is not warming, but heating. We got all the facts and numbers. “A dying ocean is a nightmare we cannot fathom”, especially in this coastal country and with climate refugees from the pacific islands. No Elon Musk is going to come and whisk us away. “The clock has gone past 12.” She wiped away tears. So did I. 

I thought of Paraparaumu beach where I had walked that morning in the early sunshine, watching birds, water lapping on the sand and shells.  And of my sons – one now a vegetarian, the other one sure that he will never have children. “Dr Sea”, as everyone called her, closed her laptop. “Thank you for sharing your grief. I love you.”

I also saw wet eyes in Wellington when the mourning brigade in red robes and white faces appeared there. One of the performers, decorated as Mother Earth, nursed her baby while she stood on the steps of Parliament, looking straight out of Wearable Arts. It was powerful, heart-breaking – and stylish. The XR newsletter uses similar images and emotive language: “compassion; awareness; courage”, “We’re a movement unlike any other”, “you’re not alone in this”. 

Apocalyptic scenarios, group intensity and woke jargon – this is also cult material which was discussed in July at the annual International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference. Cult researcher Yuval Laor from Colorado has researched the nature of fervour for his PhD and upcoming book, “The Religious Ape”. What I took away from his lecture was that being in a cult – or a “high-demand group”, as is the preferred term among experts – works similar to falling in love: an awe-induced state of limerence that opens us to exploitation, coercion or manipulation. 

How does Laor see XR in the cultish context? Are the XR rebels inducing fervour by sharing grief, riding the trauma wave together and pulling in celebrities like Michael Stipe and Keira Knightley? Yes, he says, but fervour is neither good or bad in itself. “Cults, by definition, are bad, but there are positive groups that resemble cults.” He mentions the French underground resistance in WWII as an example. “Inducing awe is a good way to influence people. When the situation is dire, it would be negligent not to use awe to inspire people to change.” 

Bestselling writer Jonathan Safran Foer says in his new book We Are the Weather that we know about the climate catastrophe, but we don’t believe what’s coming – similar to his Jewish family in Poland. Everyone in the village knew in 1941 what the Nazis were up to, but only his grandmother felt terror, packed her things and fled. The others thought that things would turn out okay somehow. They were all killed. 

Extinction Rebellion is based on hard science but works with emotions. That’s not cultish but smart. 

4

Disability and the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse

by Hilary Stace

The Royal Commission on abuse in care is very significant for the disability community. For many decades last century, thousands of disabled children, and adults who managed to survive, were locked away from families and communities. This was not for anything they had done, but for the perceived threat their impairments posed to some powerful people who believed that disability was caused by ‘tainted heredity’. 

These widely held but false scientific beliefs held that impairments, particularly learning/intellectual disability and mental illness, but also other conditions such as epilepsy, were signs of genetic inferiority. These supposedly hereditary physical and intellectual defects caused consequent moral ‘degeneracy’ making disabled people less ‘fit’, threatening the ‘fitness’ of the rest of society.

Powerful politicians, doctors, public servants and others decided that disabled people must therefore be segregated from mainstream society to prevent their reproduction. Laws such as the 1911 Mental Defectives Act started the requirement to report and classify disabled people. Later, psychopaedic institutions such as Templeton or Kimberley were developed.

The IHC was founded in 1949 by parents who did not want their children sent away to institutions and instead wanted education and other facilities in their local communities. However, the children and their families faced much stigma and discrimination.

Despite the advocacy of these brave parents a government committee in the early 1950s recommended that the current institutions (‘mental deficiency colonies’) be expanded and parents encouraged (or coerced) into sending their disabled children to them by the age of five. A decade later a government documentary suggested that one in a thousand children should be in such places because of disability. There are families around New Zealand who didn’t find out that they had a missing family member until the institutions started to close in the late 1970s.

There are not many survivors of those times. Lives were often short and sad. But there are numerous reports of children denied identity, education, or contact with families, and exposed to physical , emotional and sexual abuse. The ‘back wards’ of the institutions were often places of horror. We need to hear and acknowledge this history to ensure such things never happen again.

The Royal Commission is working out how best to hear these stories, and to reach and welcome anyone who wants to talk to them, within a safe environment. This is the first inquiry in the world to cover all types of abuse in a variety of settings. It wants to hear the stories of disabled children, but also children who were sent to youth justice or abusive foster homes or experienced abuse in faith-based care. The main focus is 1950-1999, but survivors, family members or staff from outside this era will also be heard. So, coverage is large and complex.

One of the five Commissioners, Paul Gibson, has lived experience of disability and has long been an advocate for an inquiry into historic abuse through various roles he has had in the disability community including with DPA and more recently in the Human Rights Commission. For several reasons, stories of disability abuse are harder to find and hear than some others and need champions. 

The Royal Commission is highly political. The last government fought against the idea, but in Opposition Jacinda Ardern promised an inquiry and announced the Royal Commission in early 2018. Despite its independent status there are numerous and sometimes competing agendas going on. In addition, abuse is messy and complex – and abused and abusers may be the same people. To hear and acknowledge abuse it is necessary to share human vulnerability, which is not easy when we are used to adversarial hierarchical systems. 

Many people are working hard to make this Royal Commission work, but it will take time and the road will not be smooth.

You can find out more or register to talk to the commission through their website:

https://www.abuseincare.org.nz/