Troubled times for tranquil town

COMMUNITY OUTRAGE: Kawhia's wharf, where Constable Perry Griffin was attacked on Friday night.
COMMUNITY OUTRAGE: Kawhia's wharf, where Constable Perry Griffin was attacked on Friday night.

Kawhia is further than it says on the map.

The town is not on the way to anywhere big, it's a tranquil harbour and oasis in the green desert, approached through the peaks of massive, precipitous hills.

A mistake on the constant turns and shimmies will put a car through the sheep wire and turn it, briefly, into an aeroplane. In winter it ices. It's home, or a deliberate destination, or just bypassed.

FULL HOUSE: About 200 turned up for Tuesday night's meeting in Kawhia.
FULL HOUSE: About 200 turned up for Tuesday night's meeting in Kawhia.

The first ever photo taken in the town is from 1884. It shows 45 armed cops in the main street, coming to reopen the harbour and tuck the town back under the wing of law and order and peace after the land wars ended.

In modern times it has just one policeman.

Today there are more.

The sole charge cop has been attacked, again. He's the third one in eight years and might leave like the others. So police are back in Kawhia's main street in numbers.

Some facts are not disputed. Jackie Maikuku is a huge nineteen-year-old. Constable Perry Griffin is the town cop. They had a confrontation at the wharf a week ago when Griffin tried to arrest Maikuku on outstanding warrants.

The policeman used pepper spray and a taser and was attacked by several people. He lost his gun and his taser and was badly beaten. Four were arrested. Just about everything else is open for debate.

Griff has important support. Nick Tuwhangai runs a local marae, started the town's famous Kai Festival, restored the beautiful Methodist Church on the hill.

He's the first stop for media. He knows everyone involved and likes them all. Griff is a good cop, Jackie is from a good family. Nick supervised PD once, saw gross unfairness dished out to his people and had to shut up.

He's got few illusions about how things can work and no one telling him what to think now.

"It is dangerous to make assumptions. Some are saying he deserved it. But we don't know the facts. I'm telling people not to make any judgments but to let the judiciary sort it out."

The main street where the 19th century cops paraded is right by the place where the fight happened. For around a decade Barbara Cutler has had the Blue Chook Inn, directly across from the wharf carpark.

She talks on the street outside, waving to about one in three. She's from Wellington and runs the pub with her sister, late of LA.

"You're exposed to another kind of knowledge, based on the country and the sea. It's anchors and fishing boats and tides."

The Government has warned everyone not to make the attack on Griffin a political football; it's not a debate about policing numbers, they say.

"It's about policing numbers," says Cutler and every other person who owns anything. There's enough today. A uniform moseys without apparent purpose down the main street past the journos.

A detective rolls past in a plain car. He turns his head slightly to the reporters talking on the roadside and gives a look like all 40 kilometres of the winding road in from the highway.

Most people here are really fabulous, says Cutler, but the sisters want to move on, sell the Inn, go to the concerts they miss from the big cities. A Local Identity walks past and Cutler says we should talk to her. The woman stops enough to hear where we're from and declines. It won't be the last we see of her.

Across the way Jasmine Teei has opened her own art shop with partner Brendon Brown. He knows Jackie, got a good conversation out of him, says he was all there. He loves it here because it's where his Princess is from.

Princess Jasmine grew up here when it was different. There was a youth co-ordinator, activities arranged, church visits out of town and confidence courses over in Taupo.

She won a Wearable Art contest. Her work is the first from a living artist to be featured in the museum's Maori section.

"Now there's nothing to do but drink and smoke", she says.

It's a Winz Red Zone; they'll pay the DPB and sickness benefit, but if you're unemployed you won't get the dole. If you want a job and want to live in Kawhia you're officially not really trying.

Out the road and up the back a guy known as John says he's trying. He's tried to get a gym going. Tried to get Outward Bound going. They've tried to get Work and Income interested.

Tainui haven't spent one dollar in Kawhia as far as he's aware.

"They're more interested in their Novotel and Te Awa."

There is nothing to do.

"When you hit 16 you leave or you start drinking."

He's got a DIC and one disorderly back when he was 25. He's good friends with Jackie and has a story about Griff.

One night when John was off his face and steaming home, yelling obscenities, Griff pulled up and tried to arrest him, threatened to taser him. Mum came to his rescue. He apologised to the cop the next day.

He doesn't drink anymore, even got out of town on New Years to avoid it.

The theory on the street is that after the first two cops were hurt – by outsiders, everyone says – they sent a tough cop to clean up Kawhia. He claims Griff was aggressive with the young people.

"I think he was told Kawhia is full of little wankers. I keep hearing about how everyone wants him back. But I think there are a lot of cops who would do a better job." The work schemes come and go, he says.

They get people excited and active and then they stop. Things go back to how they were. Kawhia's stuck out there, a fish-bowl and a big deal this week.

"But once you guys and the cameras go it will be back to square one," he says.

Someone else tells us off the record about the moonshine made in the hills. Someone tells us about the tyres slashed repeatedly over a minor affront to iwi.

Someone tells us Griff used to take the kids fishing and hunting when he first got here. The town's divided. The town's not divided. It's Maori v Pakeha. It's the haves against the have nots.

In the wharf carpark kids are having an ice-fight with a pile of leftovers from some fish chiller.

On the jetty ragamuffins are bombing into the khaki water, producing depth-charge flumes and climbing up the ladder with their togs half-way down their bums before doing it again and again and again.

Holiday homes stud the hill up around the wharf in a rough semi-circle facing down towards it. Griff and Jackie were in an amphitheatre.

But then a different kind of show starts. Kids, five brown and one white, average age ten, have found a 5-metre barge with an outboard and take it for a joy-ride.

They do donuts just off the wharf and whoop and holler it up for a few minutes before the helmsman, maybe 12-years-old, noses it carefully back to the dock and directs its mooring.

He swivels the motor up and out of the water and turns off the fuel-stop. But it's too late.

The Local Identity who wouldn't have a bar of us before is storming down the dock on the war-path. It's her barge. It's piracy.

The kids scatter but the Captain is the last to leave the ship and she reads him the riot act.

He is crying and shaking by the time he gets to the wharf carpark. There's been threats of police.

"Can someone please take me home?" he asks the strangers there.

It is within metres of where Griff and Jackie faced off a week before, if not the exact spot. Two European men, middle-aged property owners and taxpayers, have witnessed the petty larceny by the Maori kid.

The most obvious thing they could do is ignore him. But the most important thing right in this moment is that he's a little boy who is not going to get any more punished and will be needing new togs if he gets any more scared.

They ask him where he lives and he gets in the back of their vehicle.

As they pull out, a police car actually turns up. It stops at the entrance to the carpark so everything leaving must go past it. The weeping Pirate King ducks down in the back as they roll innocently through.

He's spirited, a country lad, able to look after himself. Why is he so frightened? "The policeman ... might do ... something to me", he chokes. Completely and utterly terrified.

Waikato Times