A stark contrast between the United States and New Zealand in war on COVID19

Yesterday a truly disturbing announcement was made about COVID19. Whereas the first 1 million cases world wide had taken 3 months to reach, the most recent million new cases took a mere 8 days. 125,000 cases or the equivalent of the entire population of Otago every day coming down with COVID19. And as we ramp up our efforts to keep the border secure, the contrast in handling the emergency between the country much of the West looks to for leadership and a country of two moderate size islands and a host of smaller ones 11,000 kilometres away, is becoming ever more stark.

New Zealand has made a few mistakes. We should have never allowed people in on compassionate grounds. From Day 1 we should have sent everyone to quarantine without exception. The Police should have gone in hard after a few days grace and done away with warnings and education.

I know there is a whole lot of coulda, woulda, shoulda in there, but if you look at earlier articles, you would see that I have acknowledged the mistakes. You will see that New Zealand has been – and I cannot say this with enough emphasis – very lucky to have had both the Opposition and the Government largely on the same page. For election year reasons as well as holding the Government to account, there have been obvious disagreements. When we look at how the Opposition and Government have worked or not worked together in other countries only then do we realize that for all their many faults, there are worse things than National and A.C.T. in politics.

But New Zealand has done very well to control COVID19 to the extent that we have. It has been a combination of circumstances and a brilliant response. New Zealand’s geographical location, so often the curse of the country in terms of our relevance to the rest of the world has paid rich dividends in this instance. Contrast that with Canada which has the United States on its border; France with Spain; India with Pakistan. The response, which was in the history of New Zealand, unprecedented, planning, announcing and implementing a complete national shutdown with the speed that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did was always going to catch some people out; was always going to have a couple of teething issues simply because so much had to happen so quickly, adequate planning simply was not possible for everything. Much of the desperate politicking by National and A.C.T. at the moment has nothing to do with COVID19 and is simply about the General Election on 19 September.

Before people say “the United States is much bigger than New Zealand, so more cases and fatalities should be expected”, yes that is true. But not on the disproportionate scale that the United States now finds itself in. The United States has 66x New Zealand’s population of 5 million people, but it also has vastly greater resources available to it, both in terms of Federal Government finances, equipment, personnel and so forth as well as an immense bank of knowledge to draw upon.

If the United States had some how managed to keep its cases strictly proportionate to New Zealand, prior to our case numbers starting to climb last week, the key equations would have been:

  • 1504 (N.Z. total cases) x 66 = 99,264 cases
  • 22 (N.Z. total deaths) x 66 = 1,452 deaths

If we were pragmatic we would acknowledge the social, geographic, economic disparities across the United States and the fact that a vastly larger population would bring individuals with a vastly greater range of medical conditions. On that basis, for arguments sake, one might then make a 3-4 fold allowance cases and deaths. But even that, horrible as the statistics are – and remembering EVERY life lost is a tragedy for a family somewhere, there or here – the following statistics still look comparatively good to what is actually happening in the United States;

  • 99,264 cases x 3 = 297,792; x 4 = 397,056
  • 1,452 deaths x 3 = 4,356; x 4 = 5,808

I honestly do not know what the answer is in the United States. With 2 million casualties and 120,000 dead it is clear that the United States has an unprecedented medical emergency on its hands, especially as the U.S. moves into the hottest months of its calender year. With major holidays such as Independence Day still a month away and an election campaign to come, the U.S. struggle to contain COVID19 is only going to get more and more desperate. It is not nice to see a country you were told to look up to in Primary School as a nation that New Zealand should aspire to be like, suffering like this, but it is one time I am truly, truly grateful that the lottery of citizenship had me born in New Zealand.

“Defund the Police” movement needs a reality check

Over the last few days in the wake of the George Floyd riots in the United States and the at times callously excessive Police counter response, there have been numerous calls for the defunding of the Police force there. The calls, which have come from activists, in part seem like a knee jerk response to the violence. In New Zealand some calls for similar have been made as well.

However there are some basic, yet key points that need to be acknowledged, which go towards undermining a potentially knee jerk response to the worst violence to engulf the U.S. in decades.

First, New Zealand is not the United States. The internal policing environment here is markedly different from that of the United States, as is the training regime for the Police, the accountability of their officers, and the public expectations on them as a law enforcement organization. I’ll happily have the New Zealand Police over the United States Police any day of the week. For the vast majority of New Zealanders being a Police officer is still a respectable occupation, and the New Zealand Police force when lined up against those of other O.E.C.D. countries is still very well regarded.

Second a significant problem in the United States that we do not have here is the Second Amendment and the associated problems with controlling the domestic arms trade. There are several notable law enforcement issues that go with the Second Amendment that I will address later as well. Just a few of the major issues with the Second Amendment are below – there are others:

  • It was written at a time when large parts of the American border regions were largely lawless; when frontier towns often dealt with outlaws and – correctly or incorrectly – thought that only the ownership of a firearm would help them ensure their property rights and lives were kept intact
  • No uniform nation-wide protections such as licensing; restrictions on certain weapon types and measures to to stop those with mental illnesses, records of past threats to commit violence and so forth
  • The N.R.A. – an organization that has a toxic level of dislike for individuals, organizations and even countries that do not promote their gun-toting views on gun ownership; the N.R.A. actively fuel division and show little or no regard for shooting victims

Third, American police culture, training, accountability at all levels have systemic issues. It is well known that U.S. Police have a lower threshold for the use of firearms than New Zealand Police. New Zealand Police, perhaps a result of being in a smaller country with less of a range of officer backgrounds have a culture that perhaps seems more able to adapt to change than the culture of the U.S. Police. Unless an offender is armed and/or on drugs and/or unable to be controlled using non lethal means such as pepper spray, baton and Taser, New Zealand Police avoid the use of firearms generally. That is not to say that New Zealand Police do not have issues – we most certainly do, but the fact that the New Zealand Police have given up on the Armed Response Team trial after a massive outpouring of concern tells me that they are considerably more responsive to public concerns.

So, to conclude, I am not going to support in any way the movement to defund the Police. I think in the United States, those places that do try to defund their Police forces will wind up regretting the move and wish that they had maintained them, albeit within a stronger, more accountable and community friendly framework than the one that currently exists.

The New Zealand Police are on the whole better than their American counterparts. The internal culture change needs to co-driven by both U.S. Police and public expectations. But defunding the Police will help no one here, just as it will not help anyone in the United States.

Welcome to the Divided States of America

In 2017 I went to the wedding of two great friends in California. I had a great time at the wedding and caught up with several other friends in the Los Angeles area before and afterwards. But whilst there I was subjected to an incident that in hindsight I realise must be daily routine for a huge number of African-American people. I was walking down the street to go to a bar for a couple of late night rounds. I’d just crossed an intersection when a patrol car flashed its lights at me, so I stopped and waited to see what the officer wanted. He wanted to see my I.D., told me I had crossed an extremely dangerous intersection and that I should not do it again. After a brief discussion and seeing my N.Z. driver licence which I took in case I needed I.D. to get into the bar, he let me go.

I found it bizarre at the time. I still wonder what he was trying to achieve to this day. There was nothing really dangerous about that intersection – I’ve crossed dodgier ones in other cities around the world including in New Zealand than that. But in the last few days looking at all of the clips on Youtube, on Twitter and on Facebook of people being detained, tear gassed assaulted and so on by the police, I wonder what would have happened if I was an African American male or other non-caucasian ethnicity.

It is only now that I am beginning to realize that the daily struggles of African-Americans and other people of colour is far beyond my worst thoughts. I thought I knew enough to realize that institutionalized racism is very much alive in the United States, but after days of monitoring my Twitter account, it has become unmistakably clear I actually know absolute stuff all about the monster that is institutionalized racism. I also realized that if I am ever to talk to people on honest, and hopefully understanding terms of what they have experienced, I need to understand this better.

The yawning divide between Republicans and Democrats becomes an unimaginably deep chasm it would seem. In New York, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote a day or two after the violence started that local elected officials of African-American descent going to check on their districts had been detained by the New York Police Department. The N.Y.P.D. feature in a large number of videos circulating on social media and not in a good way. In the same state Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have ripped into the administration of United States President Donald Trump for his handling of the crisis. Much has been said about the need to acknowledge and learn from the past.

By contrast the Republican response has almost uniformly been about cracking down on the rioters. Nary a word about the underlying causes, the the white supremacists who        committed acts of violence in the hope that African-Americans would be blamed. A good example of the hardline Republican response is a opinion written by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. Mr Cotton wrote that it is time for the President of the United States to send in the military to restore order. At no point in that article did Mr Cotton attempt to acknowledge the large and growing number of instances where American police and the National Guard have used excessive force against peaceful protesters. At no point did Mr Cotton acknowledge that in many instances white supremacists had been involved in violent acts in the hope that an unwitting person of colour would be blamed, arrested have have their lives wrecked. Mr Cotton is part of the problem.

I love America for its old ideals that held truth many moons ago, when it proclaimed to be Land of the Free, and a country that people from all walks of live could come to and make a life whilst living the American dream. I love Americans for their warm, generosity and friendliness. But the level of hate, anger, antagonism and deliberate fear mongering now is toxic to a point that after watching years and years of coverage on various social media platforms from people who genuinely hate America and standing up for the America of old, the enthusiasm for defending America is not there any more.

Welcome to the Divided States of America.

Why I attended the Black Lives Matter rally

On Monday 01 June 2020 I attended the Black Lives Matter rally for the late George Floyd in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. The protest attracted about 500-700 people by my estimate and happened on the Queens Birthday holiday. Since then I have received significant criticism for attending the protest in light of the COVID19 laws. I explain what I was doing there in this article.

Fortunately very little if any of the criticism has been about the cause of the protest. But just in case anyone does decide to criticize the very cause of the protests even being considered, I will make my stance clear after explaining the protest.

I am an activist. I am also a law abiding citizen – 99% of the time. The 99% of the time being laws on very rare occasions are going to be broken because they are obsolete. You might say that this is no justification for going to the rally. But are you the same people telling Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that the COVID19 level is out of date? Possibly.

Lets be honest. If this had been at Level 3 and even 20 people had showed up, there is no way I would have gone. Because at Level 3 COVID19 was very much a live firing thing. It was presenting new cases daily. It was killing people. It was putting people in hospital. I went to a rally on an island with NO COVID19 cases at all. If any COVID19 cases were known to exist in the South Island, I most probably would not have gone.

And here is where the problem is. Sometimes the law simply cannot and does not keep up. The processes that need to happen before it can be amended are simply too slow, too unwieldy. Had these riots been going for an extra week longer, I would have expected that the Prime Minister would have become aware of protest action plans and been able try to speak in a way the protesters would have understood, and maybe try to explain or set down a position that might have made the protesters think twice. But three factors seen as a combination I think took matters into the unknown:

  • The American police doing such an A+ job of screwing up their response for consecutive days, a combination of anger;
  • the speed with which things were unravelling; and
  • the fact that New Zealand had a statutory holiday weekend in progress

Is a protest of more than 100 people in actually in breach of the law, when everyone – at least up until it reached 200 people – is kept at the 2 metre distancing recommended actually a gathering? If so, then perhaps one could argue some shopping centres, another focal point where there is a certainty of large numbers of people being in potentially close proximity, should not have been open.

On 22 May 2020 an African-American named George Floyd was stopped by a Minneapolis police patrol. At some point in the incident that has triggered the worst violence in the United States since the 1992 Los Angeles riots which were triggered by the same issue which I will deal with later in this article, he presented what I understand was a counterfeit note. The officers made him get out of his car. They forced him to the ground at which point officer Derek Chauvin knelt down on Mr Floyd’s neck. Mr Floyd began struggling to breathe and can be heard over and over saying he cannot breathe. He was taken to hospital but died from injuries caused by the officer’s knee being on his neck, which the autopsy results released today said were consistent with a homicide.

Let us get this straight now. I do not endorse the rioting, the violence or any killings that have happened. Protesters are one group. Looters are entirely another group, who function as opportunistic individuals who know that they probably have a good chance of getting away with what they have done because the police are distracted by the protesters – who for the very most part, are the lesser of the two problems. The looters were never there for the protests. They were never there for George Floyd or for anyone who died before him whose death led to events such as what we are witnessing now. Let us get that clear now.

If you think police brutality is an overseas thing and cannot happen in New Zealand, you are wrong. It can, it does and here are some disturbing statistics from Action Station to back it up. This was also an #ArmsDownNZ protest to make sure people are aware that there is fundamental break down between New Zealand Police and Maori and Pasifika communities. About those statistics:

  • In a survey on the Armed Police trial, 1,155 Maori and Pasifika people took part
  • 85% of them did not support the Armed Police trial
  • 87% of them said they felt unsafe and intimidated when they see armed police
  • 91% of them said that they would not call the police in an emergency

So in other words out of those 1,155 at least 1,051 of them would not call the police in an emergency. And we wonder why crime rates among these two ethnic groups are disproportionately high in New Zealand. Stop and think about that for a minute. We have a problem even Minister of Police Stuart Nash is too scared to say so out loud.

So, that is what happened. A fast moving flash of the pan type protest whose speed and size I don’t think anyone on Friday, or even Saturday afternoon could have honestly told you would go like this. Didn’t say it was necessarily right, but this is what happened. Live with it.

Why I am grateful for the New Zealand Police

Over the last 72 hours I have watched coverage of the death of a black American named Floyd George, who was arrested in Minneapolis and pinned to the ground by an officer who placed a knee on his neck. Mr George lost consciousness and later died in hospital. Widespread outrage at the latest example of police violence in the United States, which has led to business premises being torched in Minneapolis and reports of disturbances in Los Angeles, have reminded me why I am extremely grateful that I live in New Zealand.

Whilst the vast majority of American police officers are probably honourable men and women who just want to protect their communities as best as they can, the American police force at all levels has several major ingrained problems:

  • It is trigger happy
  • The militarization of the force

There is no doubt that the U.S. police force have a lower threshold for the use of firearms than in New Zealand. Nor is there any doubt that the tendency to shoot first and ask question’s later has had some bad outcomes. An Australian lady was shot dead when Police arrived to respond to a suspected rape that she had just reported. In another case, Eric Garner was shot dead by an officer later found guilty of murder.

In recent years, the U.S. police force has been given access to armoured personnel carriers, sniper rifles and other equipment generally reserved for military use only. The militarized nature of the equipment and its deployment in places with large black populations following controversial police actions, has caused significant tensions in recent years.

Is this to say though, that the New Zealand Police are perfect? Of course not. They have had their moments when they have done things that have had significant fallout.

I am reminded of two big failures in 2007 that elicited substantial negative public reaction around the country and reminded the Police that they needed to lift their game. One was the case of police officers who allegedly raped a lady named Louise Nicholas. Ms Nicholas was a young adult when three Police officers allegedly went to her house for non-consensual sexual intercourse. Whilst they were acquitted, it brought significant light onto several corrupt officers who were fired, and one jailed for obstruction of justice.

The other big failure of the Police was in 2007 when in testing the counter terrorism suppression laws, raids were conducted around New Zealand. They were response to an alleged paramilitary camp that was supposedly training individuals for an Irish Republican Army type guerilla war to form an independent Tuhoe nation based on ancestral Maori land in the Urewera mountains. These acts were in numerous cases found to have breached peoples civil rights and there was a significant uproar about it. In Christchurch I knew of activists who were at home studying for university exams when Police turned up demanding to search their flat, looking for a man who had been invited to attend the paramilitary camp. They asked to see the warrant and when none was produced, were told to leave. In the North Island, raids occurred around Ruatoki, near the Urewera’s, with 17 arrests. Most went free after it was found the charges were inadmissible.

At the other end of the scale, respect across the country mushroomed in light of the 2019 terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, where 51 people were murdered.  On that day Police responded to the attacks within six minutes and were able to apprehend the suspect, who pleaded guilty to all charges earlier this year. Two police officers rammed his car as he drove to a third mosque with the intention of attacking it. Further adding to the respect was the enormous compassion and sensitivity that they displayed towards the victims of the attack.

People on social media sometimes accuse the Police of having a vendetta against them. I have to ask what their background was. Did at some point in the past they have an interaction with the Police caused by them doing something they should not have? Maybe the Police response was over the top – I certainly know of cases where this has happened, but did the complainants ever take their complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Authority, and if so, what did the I.P.C.A. say?

On occasion we hear of Police officers being rude when first. The very vast majority of them are polite and considerate, but one needs to remember that they might have just come from having to deal with someone who resisted arrest or had to break up a domestic assault case.

So, as we watch the growing violence following the death of Floyd George, we here in New Zealand can be very grateful for the restraint and compassion that our force displays.