If a Māori kid who was over 6ft tall committed the kind of assault Uffindell committed and it hit the headlines, National would be calling it thuggery and demanding he be locked up
Opinion: It’s one of the clearest memories of my teenage years. It was like a flash of lightning in the dark. Only it wasn’t a weather event, it was a punch in the head.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by a guy wearing a balaclava who then smashed me in the face, briefly knocking me out. I came to as fists pounded into my kidneys and head. He had an accomplice who also joined in.
I was a skinny 14-year-old. The kid who did it to me was a couple of years older. But in physical size he was a large adult. Despite the balaclava I recognized who he was. I recognized his voice as he cursed me and beat the crap out of me. I was as defenseless and vulnerable as you can be in bed in the middle of the night. I couldn’t see where the punches were coming from or dodge them when they arrived. I took the full brunt of every blow. The first one was like a flash going off in front of my face.
I felt strangely calm after. The terror was over and I’d got through it. But the question that really hurt was – what did I do to deserve that? I kind of knew the answer, although it wasn’t an answer because I still didn’t deserve it. This person had tried to sexually assault me and I’d told him to fuck off.
The day after being beaten up, I calmly confronted him and asked why he’d beaten me up. He gave a shocked denial that was utterly unconvincing. I’d taken his power away by showing I wasn’t afraid of him. He was a coward and a liar. He left me alone after that.
Violence like this was a common enough occurrence at St Stephen’s School in the 1980s. I’ve got scars from stitches and dental records to prove it. But it wasn’t just the physical violence but the threat of it that was constant. The threat was to keep you intimate and in your place. The bullying was as much psychological as physical.
I’ve tested bullies ever since and I have a suspicion of authority and anyone holding any kind of power. It’s sometimes a handy attitude to have as a journalist. I’ve got an instinct for spotting bullies and one of the common traits of bullies is that they’re cowards.
My bully antenna started twitching when I read National MP Sam Uffindell’s maiden speech where he pontificated about winning. Here we go, I thought. Another posturing male who wants to be the big dog. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, but this bragging about winning is often more about lording it over others.
Sure enough, he started talking about gangs. Because they’re National’s chief whipping boys these days. It fits right in with their tendency to pick on people with the least power. Which is bullying. So I wasn’t at all surprised at the revelations of his behavior as a teenager. And needless to say the incident had close parallels to my own experience, only I was on the receiving end.
But Uffindell’s behavior epitomized the behavior that is often attributed to gangs. Intimacy and violence. bullying Only instead of going toe to toe with someone his own size, he belted a kid who was asleep in bed. Gang members would consider that cowardly. Uffindell looks to be over 6ft tall now. He was probably over 6ft tall then.
He only apologised, to his victim in the lead-up to putting himself forward for the seat of Tauranga, knowing that might attract some public scrutiny of his past behaviour.
Yet Uffindell had the gall to jump up and down about gang crime as if gang crime were its own special category. What he did was a crime. Being a white male at a posh school doesn’t make it less of a crime. If a Māori kid who was over 6ft tall committed the kind of assault Uffindell committed and it hit the headlines, National would be calling it thuggery and demanding he be locked up. Uffindell got kicked out of one elite school and enrolled in another. Yet he wants to talk about accountability.
Bullying someone is first of all about looking down on someone, regarding them as beneath you, as not worthy, as fair game for you to inflict your worst tendencies on. Bullying is also about a sense of entitlement, that the rules don’t apply to you or people like you, they only apply to everyone else.
Bullying is not just about physical violence. Bullying is an attitude and bullies adapt that attitude to the social situation they’re in as they move through different stages of life. But they always gravitate to different forms of power and are always trying to find ways to acquire it and exercise it over others. It’s about control.
Uffindell may no longer beat kids up in their beds in the middle of the night. But he still aspires to grasp at the power to beat up others who he considers beneath him. This is a guy who now wants to wield the power of the state against people who have already been victimized.
Our jails are also full of people, the majority of them Māori, who have been beaten up by those who represent the state. A government report found that 83 percent of young male inmates had been in state custody as children. What good did that do them as children?
I’ve gotten to know a number of people who went through that system and ended up in gangs and jail. The violence I experienced at St Stephens was a cakewalk compared with the brutality they went through. They not only experienced that brutality at the hands of other kids, they experienced it at the hands of adults who were employees of the state. Is Sam Uffindell interested in this? Probably not.
Uffindell’s behavior is now under the full spotlight of the media, and suddenly it’s not just his behavior that’s been exposed but his attitude. He only apologised, to his victim in the lead-up to putting himself forward for the seat of Tauranga, knowing that might attract some public scrutiny of his past behaviour. Now that scrutiny has arrived he says it was all in the past, that he’s changed his ways, he’s of good character etc. Then late last night National leader Christopher Luxon stood Uffindell down pending an independent investigation after further allegations surfaced.
Everyone has done something stupid in their teens. However, Uffindell’s maiden speech told me he still carries the same attitude he did when he was 16. I know a bully when I see one. And he’s just become the Member for Tauranga. But his attitude may yet make his political career one of the shortest on record.