Canterbury Lecturer asks: Is Nathan Pukeroa our Trayvon Martin?

University of Canterbury lecturer Garrick Cooper of Aotahi: School of Māori and Indigenous Studies discusses the lack of public outcry over the death of Nathan Pukeroa who was stabbed and killed by Dustin La Mont in December 2015, La Mont has been found not guilty of Pukeroa’s murder.


The death of any human being is tragic and the case of Nathan Pukeroa is no different. However, the relative silence amongst the broader community around the tragic killing of Nathan Pukeroa by Dustin La Mont and subsequent ‘not guilty’ verdict is instructive. To my knowledge, there has been no public outrage or barrage of calls to radio talkback shows demanding intervention.


Contrast this with the public uproar to the non-conviction of Wellington rugby player Losi Filipo. Public pressure was brought to bear on the authorities, the Wellington Rugby Union and Filipo himself to have the case revisited. No apology or self-imposed exile by the young man was going to appease the masses.


The public got their wish and it is now being revisited.


Why is there silence around this case where a young man wasn’t only assaulted but was killed? To state the obvious, in the Filipo case the perpetrator was young man of Samoan heritage and the victims were white, and in the La Mont case, the victim was a young Māori man and the perpetrator white. Surely this was simply then a case of a poor “white boy” defending himself from big Māori men, right? And if that wasn’t reason enough they were also gang members or associates?


The subtext to this case is that big black bodies are latently dangerous, and to interpret their bodies in such a way is actually rational.


The case has a number of striking similarities with the tragic death of American teenager Trayvon Martin. Both young men were killed by a member of public.


Both were young men of colour. Neither of the victims had weapons. Both of the defendants were armed. Both defendants claimed they feared for their lives, this is despite the fact that the victims were sought out by the defendants.


Trayvon Martin was followed by George Zimmerman, and La Mont was closely watching, and had been for some time, Pukeroa and others from near and afar.


Both defendants were found innocent. If these black bodies were so dangerous – remember both defendants argued they feared for their lives – why were they following them? Why didn’t they wait for the police?


America’s obsession with the right of the public to bear arms – legitimated through its constitution – and the horrific numbers of African-American men shot and killed by its police force makes the Martin case seem different. Only in America, right?


The US Constitution’s second amendment makes for interesting reading. It states; “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”. A militia is a police force drawn from the civilian population. Civilians are by definition then an extension of the state’s police force.


Innocent, originally comes from the negation of the Latin word nocere (to physically harm) therefore meaning having done no physical harm. What happens when an individual has clearly perpetrated harm against another person and this is not disputed? In these two cases harm clearly has been done; two young men are dead.


The judicial system has in effect determined in these cases that George Zimmerman and Dustin La Mont have not committed harm. What being declared innocent now means is that the law has removed the burden of responsibility from the defendants.


So who then is responsible for these deaths? The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that the two dead men are responsible for their own deaths. They must have brought it upon themselves, because as philosopher Lewis Gordon has argued in his discussion of the criminalisation of African-Americans in the US, people of colour must “always be up to something”.


An extended police force drawn from the civilian population, Gordon demonstrates, has been a feature of the policing of African-Americans since the abolition of slavery. He argues that simply the appearance of a black person is illicit and therefore enough of a crime, because in an anti-black world, black people don’t just commit crime, they are crime.


This logic is something that many Māori are familiar with. As Pukeroa’s friend Devaray Cole-Kuraji, who was also stabbed by La Mont, noted: if the roles had been reversed, “I mean the way we look, our tattoos, dark skin and size, against him, a small white boy with no convictions – we would have said goodbye to our families for 20 years”.


What he is alluding to is that it doesn’t matter what actually happened or who they are, their mere appearance is enough of a crime. Who can put their hand over their heart and say, he is wrong? We might all hope he is wrong, but that is quite a different matter. Or even if they were declared innocent, whether the public would have stayed as silent as it appears to be now?


The Māori proverb “Kei tua i te awe kapara, he tangata kē mana noho te ao nei, he mā” speaks of the tattooed face, as referenced by the words “awe kāpara” meaning soot derived from resinous hardwood, as a metaphor for Māori people, who will be overtaken by another people who have white skins. It is said this prophecy was uttered by a chief on his deathbed.


Prophetic indeed. Another idea behind the proverb though is that behind the tattooed face is a human being. Nathan Pukeroa, it sounds like, was like many other young men; not perfect. But that is a feature of humanity, not the exception. He was a fellow human being who is loved by his family, and he and Cole-Kuraji deserve much better from our so-called justice system.


University of Canterbury academic Garrick Cooper (Ngāti Karaua, Te Pirirākau) is a lecturer in the University of Canterbury’s Aotahi: School of Māori and Indigenous Studies