November has just passed and New Zealand once again had its regular celebration of Guy Fawkes, marking the English gunpowder plot of 1605. Passing by almost unnoticed this November was the 30th anniversary of an event that may have been the nearest New Zealand equivalent to the gunpowder plot. At 12.35 a.m. on 18 November 1982, punk anarchist Neil Roberts blew himself up in an attack on the Wanganui Computer Centre, the building that held the national police computer.
A number of people who knew 22-year-old Roberts maintained that his death in the blast was intentional rather than accidental. The foyer of the computer centre was seriously damaged, but the computer itself was not affected and security guards on site were unharmed. Roberts left graffiti on a nearby toilet block: ‘We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity’. This was a quote from the revolutionary Junta Tuitiva, of La Paz, which fought against the Spanish for the freedom of Bolivia in 1809.
Neil Roberts was part of the punk sub-culture that emerged in late-1970s New Zealand. Punk in New Zealand was a response to music and styles developing in the UK and the USA as bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones redrew the cultural map. It incorporated an attitude of rebellion against authority, with a reaction against the ‘bad disco’ and ‘boring hippy’ music of the early 1970s. Punk music relied on noise, attitude and just doing it, with little regard for any sort of musical ability. In New Zealand bands such as the Suburban Reptiles, the Scavengers, Flesh D-Vice and Proud Scum sprang into existence. While most punk bands did not last long, the DIY approach they promoted was to have an indelible influence on the New Zealand music scene. The punk scene provided an introduction for such great musicians and songwriters as the Enemy’s Chris Knox and the Plague’s Don McGlashan.
Most young people were simply interested in punk for the music, the styles, a bit of rebellion and, for many, a chance to drink or take drugs. It also provided many young people with a sense of community they felt lacking in wider society. A more sinister element was provided by some of the skinheads and bootboys, who brought a violent racist element to the scene. On the other hand, some punks took a more serious political view of the idea of anarchy, adopting the left wing anti-racist stance of bands like the Clash. Neil Roberts himself came to left-wing anarchist ideas through reading the 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, rather than through listening to the Sex Pistols’ Never mind the bollocks.
For many young people, especially young Māori and Polynesians, reggae music was fulfilling a similar role to punk in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Musicians such as Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley called on people to ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights.’ Marley’s concert in Auckland in 1979 literally changed the appearance of the country, as dreadlocks spread across the nation. Bands such as Herbs, Dread Beat and Blood, and Aotearoa sang anthems of pride, unity and resistance.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s many young people felt they had something to resist. New Zealand society under Robert Muldoon’s administration seemed to them stultified, conformist, racist and authoritarian. The dawn raids against Polynesian overstayers were followed by the Bastion Point occupation and the subsequent police crackdown. There were protests against the increasing power of the SIS (the Security Intelligence Service) and against Muldoon’s attempts to fast track his Think Big projects with the National Development Act 1979. A government that talked about freedom maintained laws that outlawed male homosexuality. Visits by nuclear ships became more frequent, while atomic war looked like a distinct possibility with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s fingers on the button. The Springbok Tour of 1981 brought home to New Zealanders just how much power a modern state could use against its own citizens. Neil Roberts protested against the Springbok Tour and marched at Waitangi to support Māori rights. He was also well known for his ‘Drug takers against the bomb’ badges.
For many young punks and rastas (Rastafarians) police harassment on the streets was a fact of life at that time. The Wanganui police computer, the central base for police records, was seen by Neil Roberts and other dissidents as a symbol of police oppression. In an age before computer hacking, Roberts decided to target the computer with gelignite and to kill himself in the process. Such an action was deeply ironic given that Roberts basically saw himself as a pacifist.
Thirty years on the death of Neil Roberts can be seen as both tragic and futile. In the years since 1982, New Zealand society has undergone dramatic changes, both positive and negative. The cultural and political ferment in late 1970s and early 1980s youth culture was a small but significant factor in this change. It can now be seen as fortunate that New Zealanders largely chose peaceful methods of protest, rather than the methods of violence and despair all too prevalent in the modern world.