Moments of Influence: A Portrait of Julia Whaipooti
Stella Weston (New Zealand)
“For many of us this is not a new moment in time, not a hashtag on Instagram” (1).
Julia Whaipooti (Ngāti Porou), a young Māori activist in criminal justice reform, spoke these words at a Black Lives Matter protest in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2020. Her message remains accurate, and the fight for Black and Indigenous lives is just as important in Aotearoa, New Zealand, as in the United States. For example, police are ten times more likely to use a taser on Māori, the Indigenous people of our country, than Pākehā (NZ Europeans), and nine times more likely to use a gun (2). Māori first time offenders are seven times more likely to end up in court than Pākehā in the same situation, and Māori make up 50.7 percent of New Zealand's prison population despite comprising just 14.9 percent of the total population. If Māori were incarcerated at the same rate as non-Māori, New Zealand would have one of the lowest prison populations in the world. Instead, as Julia puts it, “We imprison poverty. We imprison health issues” (3). This reality creates a vicious cycle of higher and higher incarceration rates. The fight for the rights of all people of color has been a long one; as Julia says, it is not just a moment in time.
However, pivotal moments in time do influence and motivate people to fight for change. Everyone has these key moments, and I can imagine them in Julia’s life (4). I can imagine, for example, her time in Australia, having moved at a young age from New Zealand because her mother wanted the best opportunities for her kids. I can imagine her mother calling someone out on the street because of their racist comments against her as a Māori woman. I can imagine Julia gazing up at the sky, avoiding eye contact, embarrassed then by her mother’s words—words that she would later admire. Now, she credits her mother for her own highly developed sense of justice.
I can imagine her working her last day in the local supermarket where she worked for three years. One of her regular customers trundles over to her counter and smiles as she starts loading her shopping onto the conveyor belt. Julia smiles back and starts scanning the items—a crumpled paper bag of tomatoes, a box of cornflakes. The woman pulls out her wallet, starts searching through it for her credit card, and asks, “What’re you up to these days?” Julia confesses that it is her last day, that she is taking a fulltime job at Mitre 10, that it will pay 50 cents more. She scans a loaf of bread, a bag of potatoes. The woman nods, finds her money, and pays, but she hesitates as she puts her wallet away. “You wouldn’t be interested in a different job, would you?” She hands Julia her business card, takes the shopping bag, tells her to think about it, and leaves.
I can imagine Julia’s first day at her new job—not at Mitre 10, but at the biggest law firm in town, working as a gofer. The woman smiles at her as Julia thanks her again for the card, for the opportunity, and the woman waves her off and introduces her to the staff. During the next two years, Julia watches law clerks coming through from law school and realises that she is already doing what they do.
I can imagine Julia sitting in a law lecture, the first in her family to attend university. She looks around and realises that she is a minority among the “pale, male, stale” world of law. Julia says, “The moment that was very pivotal for me was being in a criminal law class, and the discussion point was the horrendous statistics about Māori in the criminal justice system, with Māori making up more than half of our prisoners. And they discussed it as if Māori weren’t there in the class. And the conversations were being driven by non-Māori… And I was torn by the fact that these statistics were true, and how it was spoken about like there’s something inherently criminal in being Māori when that’s not true at all.” (5)
These moments have all been critical to who Julia is and what she fights for. So, too, has the experience of watching her brother move in and out of prison. “When people talk about stats and numbers, I see faces. When I talk about this, it's not lip service. We just can't accept the crises that we live in, because for me that looks real. It looks like my [future] kids, and my niece and nephew. Statistically, it looks like they don't have any choices, but I refuse to accept that, because it's very real and very personal, and I'll use all the tools I have to change that because it's not fair.” (6)
Julia is using many tools at her disposal. She is currently a senior advisor for the Children's Commissioner and is on the board of a youth organisation called JustSpeak, an organisation focused on changing the criminal justice system. As well, Julia was recently influential in preventing armed police responses from becoming a part of policing in New Zealand.
Police are not generally armed in New Zealand; however, a recent Police Armed Response Team tried sending armed officers into more dangerous situations. Sir Kim Workman and Julia Whaipooti lodged a complaint to the Waitangi Tribunal saying the Crown had breached Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) by failing to work in partnership with, consult, or even inform Māori about the police trial (7). The Treaty of Waitangi was a political agreement entered into by Māori and the British Crown in 1840 which established a commitment to partnership. The Waitangi Tribunal is an institution established to inquire into potential breaches of the Treaty by the Crown.
Julia’s use of the Tribunal is a perfect example of how people can influence change through creative protest.
People like Julia Whaipooti are critical if we hope to change the broken justice systems across the world and finally uproot the systemic racism so many encounter every day.