Ihumātao protectors develop colour-coded arrest system as tensions grow

Two days after being served an eviction notice, the Ihumātao protesters - or  "protectors" as they'd rather be known - are maintaining an uneasy stand-off with police.

On Thursday morning, a row of people manned the "front line" of the Mangere occupation while an increasing number of officers stood silently behind them. 

The crowd protesting the construction of a Fletcher's housing development on a significant historical site considered sacred by local hapū and iwi has swelled to several hundred - and more are coming. 

Busloads of people from Opotiki and Wellington were expected on Thursday afternoon. Others had come up from King Country to support the cause.

Many are angry at the arrests of two women on Wednesday, one of whom has been charged with obstruction. There was reportedly a "scuffle" with police on Thursday morning but no further arrests. 

Protectors are using a colour-coded system to help manage the police presence. When people arrive, they sign themselves up as either a green (no desire to be arrested), orange (don't mind being arrested) or red (happy to be arrested). Those who designate themselves as reds are told to write their next of kin on their arm "just in case something happens". 

A colour-coded arrest system has been developed.
A colour-coded arrest system has been developed. Photo credit: Sophie Bateman / Newshub.

Despite the potential for things to go south, the mood is one of community and care. Protest signs and the tino rangatiratanga flag are waved gently to the waiata that break out every few minutes.

Speakers remind the crowd to keep hydrated and to "check in" on themselves regularly, and are encouraged to get a friend or relative in to replace them if they need to go home for a few hours. 

A makeshift daycare centre has been set up for the many young children present. Students from Kia Aroha College arrived at midday to perform a haka in solidarity.

Amnesty International arrived at the protest in the morning, with members wearing 'Human Rights Observer' signs and fluorescent jackets. It's the first time the organisation has sent observers to a New Zealand event in a number of years.

Meg de Ronde, executive director for Amnesty New Zealand, says it seems to have been a mostly peaceful few days, but are investigating the arrests as well as the alleged scuffle.

"We've been paying attention to [the protest] on and off for a while, but as things have escalated a little over the last couple of days and there was a possibility of people coming in from around the country, we thought it was important that we got down to see what was going on for ourselves," De Ronde told Newshub.

It's the first time Amnesty International observers have attended a New Zealand event in years.
It's the first time Amnesty International observers have attended a New Zealand event in years. Photo credit: Sophie Bateman / Newshub.

"Amnesty International's presence at an event like this is about ensuring people remember to uphold human rights, sometimes just having a presence here can be helpful. But also we're watching to make sure people's right to protest is respected, that people protest peacefully, and if anything was to occur that there's evidence and verification of what goes on."

Trinity, 16, and Waimarie, 17, have their school ball this weekend - but say they'll happily miss it to stay at the protest.

"We're here supporting our whanau," Trinity told Newshub.

"It hits home a bit, especially with everything our whanau had to go through, our koro and everything. It's just a really sensitive task because this land is tapu and people don't understand that, they're not educated."

A kaumatua addresses the demonstration at the front line.
A kaumatua addresses the demonstration at the front line. Photo credit: Sophie Bateman / Newshub.

"This shouldn't be happening in the first place," Waimarie adds. "Why are we having to do this? It's not the tahi."

They've both grown up with a keen sense of justice for Māori land rights, and want Ihumātao to be remembered by future generations.

"They have a right to know about this. We have a right to be here protesting for our tapu," Trinity says. 

"If we could go over to Hawaii and do the same thing, we would," Waimarie says.