Ram raids then and now

by Don Franks

It seems that almost each day now another ram raid shatters someone’s shop front and loots the premises. Prestigious Queen street is not immune, while attacks on small dairies have long stopped being headline news. 

Those of us not directly affected are becoming numbed to this form of social violence, although it’s a new thing. Widespread smash and grab hasn’t been a feature of New Zealand life.

To see some sort of precedent we can look back ninety years ago, when an Auckland union meeting went off the rails. On 14 April 1932 Auckland Post and Telegraph workers gathered at the Town Hall protesting against wage cuts. Sensing a chance to improve their lot, unemployed workers flocked to join the meeting. With town hall capacity at three thousand and thousands more demanding entry, some sort of trouble was inevitable. Outnumbered police guarding the hall drew batons, striking down unemployed workers leader Jim Edwards. Believing Edwards had been killed, the crowd erupted and turned on the police with fence palings. Thousands then surged down Queen street, smashing hundreds of shop windows and looting whatever they could find. Mounted police with batons, the fire brigade, a naval detachment and Waikato army troops couldn’t control the crowd. Finally the Mayor called on all law abiding, physically fit men to report to the police station immediately, bringing their own baton. There was an overwhelming response but violence continued throughout the night. Next morning a thousand Special Constables were officially sworn in and given police armbands and batons. Their job was guarding shops with broken windows. However, many of them were said to be initiating the violence rather than containing it. Special constables became targets themselves, being seen as scabs. When the riot was finally over, there were two hundred injuries, two hundred and fifty glass windows smashed and eighty-five arrests, eighty-three resulting in convictions. Auckland’s riots were followed by further disturbances in Christchurch and Wellington in early May. A state of siege settled on the main centres, with ‘specials’ patrolling the streets, all outdoor meetings were banned and shop windows boarded up for weeks. Soon after the rioting, Parliament passed the Public Safety Conservation Act 1932, letting the government assume virtually unlimited powers during a proclaimed state of emergency.

Crowds in Swanson St looking towards Queen St Photo:
 [Auckland Weekly News, courtesy Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections]

How will today’s parliament react to the persistent smashing and looting of shops?

Of course, the events and times are not exactly comparable. Today there’s no severe economic depression, no mass unemployment. There are no ‘relief’ camps of unemployed workers doing backbreaking toil for a pittance.

Still, 2022 is not in every way socially superior to the Depression years.

In 1932 New Zealand had a smaller underclass, with fewer criminal gangs, no drug problem apart from the alcohol still prevalent today. 

There was also in 1932, among the working class, a powerful current of hope and determination for a better life. Revolutionary socialist and syndicalist worker’s movements were active and in three years a supposedly socialist party was voted into office. A Labour Party whose then supporters would blink in disbelief at the openly pro corporate actions of its inheritors.

Today we do social dislocation differently, a missing piece is a practical vision of working class empowerment.  

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