They formed a circle, holding hands.
What cop would break such brittle wrists
stretched round this smallest of small lands?
The statue gone, the plinth still stands.
The fig tree squiggles, bends and twists.
Its branches circle, holding hands.
Some years the garden fills with bands.
The vocals roll, the beat insists,
all round this smallest of small lands.
Movers and shakers, firebrands,
rock standing firm, song that resists;
all in that circle, holding hands.
The grassy bank, the river sands,
the landing place that still exists
beside this smallest of small lands.
The years move on, and time expands
the distance, but the tale persists:
they formed a circle, holding hands,
around this smallest of small lands.
Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and writes poetry, fiction, essays and criticism. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (Victoria University Press, 2017). In 2016 she completed a PhD in creative writing, on the subject of narrative in contemporary long poems and poem sequences.
Beautrais comments: ‘In 1995, Whanganui iwi occupied Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens for 79 days. The occupation sought to restore mana over the site, a former pā and trading place, and to highlight treaty claims and tino rangatiratanga.
‘When police came to intervene, a group of supporters of the protest organised an action, holding hands around the park to obstruct police entry. The poem says the circle was “all round” the park; however, this is an exaggeration. I asked Whanganui Quaker and Treaty issues educator David James for the story. He replied:
“There were something like 200 there on the day, but they were still not enough for a complete circle, so the police could indeed have walked straight on via the courthouse side. The mayor found it useful to say that they couldn’t have come on to the evict the occupiers because of the risk to the old people who were on the picket line—but we weren’t all old at all, though there were ninety-year-olds involved. So it was the mayor who started the notion that it was a complete circle, and it’s also gone into Māori lore as that. Two other important things: We were facing outwards towards the police and the other citizens, some of whom were lined up on the opposite river bank to see the action, leaving our Māori allies free to do what they needed to inside. Symbolically that’s an important stance for allies—interacting with our own and not crowding Māori or monitoring them . . . And at the end, when the action was ending, Moana Jackson came out from Pākaitore and went round thanking every individual, and saying that to the best of his knowledge it had been a unique stand by Pākehā in support of Māori.”
‘The protesters were not evicted and eventually left the park peacefully at dawn on 18 May. In 2001 a tripartite agreement concerning management and ownership of Pākaitore was signed by iwi, local council and the Crown.’