Saturday, October 10, 2015

Politics and social justice run through O'Connor sisters' blood

For the O'Connor sisters, politics runs through the blood, as does the need to speak up in the face of adversity. Stacey Knott reports on four sisters who are dedicated to fighting social injustice, as part of the Wonder Women series.

Between them, sisters Mary Ellen, Julia, Margaret and Teresa have advocated for unions, nurses, schools, the environment, refugees, and the poor and disenfranchised.

They're not afraid to voice their opinions, and stand up for their beliefs - it's in their DNA, they say.

Sisters Mary Ellen O'Connor, left, Julia O'Connor, Margaret O'Connor and Teresa O'Connor.
Sisters Mary Ellen O'Connor, left, Julia O'Connor, Margaret O'Connor and Teresa O'Connor.

They grew up on a farm in Appleby, their mother was a social activist, in the mid 80s she fought for the rights of seasonal workers and the homeless in Appleby. Their father, a stalwart of the Labour Party.

Their parents set up St Vincent De Paul Society in Richmond and were instrumental in setting up Trade Aid.

"The twin pillars of our lives were the Labour Party and the Catholic church and social justice is at the heart," Margaret, the third eldest, says.

She is an oncology nurse in Nelson, and also the area council president for St Vincent De Paul Society New Zealand.

Margaret has been outspoken on union matters, and has acted as a spokesperson for casual nurses at Nelson Hospital.

The O'Connors act like a clan, she says.

With pride, they are quick to offer insights into each other's work and dedication to the community and what it means to be an O'Connor.

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None changed their last name after marrying, and all have children, many also taking the O'Connor name.

"[We were] probably a bit marginalised where we were raised as Catholic, Labour Party people in the middle of a WASPish conservative farming area, so I think we probably always had that influence over us, and while we might have felt slightly marginalised, as a result it possibly gave us strength.

"[For] our parents, social issues were to the fore, political discussions were our meat and potatoes around the table. It was part of the fabric of our upbringing."

" I know some people will probably stray from how they were brought up politically, but for us it probably runs fairly strongly in our veins."

Oldest sister Mary Ellen has worked in English language schools through her career, and currently works for English Language Partners, working with former refugees and new migrants. She's written books on trade union histories and the history of Salisbury School.

She's outspoken about many issues, from poor housing, to the GCSB.

"It feels to me we are increasingly almost in a war zone, in terms of the number of fires you are fighting."

Second oldest, Julia, a lawyer, worked in private practice in Nelson for 17 years, much of that in family law, and has also worked as a legal educator for community law, and in the disputes tribunal.

She went to Papua New Guinea for a year in 2011 with VSA as a legal advisor.

In 2014, she went back to the Nelson Bays Community Law Centre where she has been doing immigration work with former refugees as well as employment law.

Through her work, she has "seen all sorts of horrible ways people treat each other," and still feels shocked by what she sees.

"I don't see myself as solving the world's problems, but it's really good to be able to assist and provide structures and processes for people to work through some of those issues."

She is also on the board for Salisbury School, and recently stood down from chairing it.

"There would have been no chance for me to have different politics, we were just so immersed in it," Julia said.

Youngest of the four, Teresa used to work as a journalist at the Nelson Mail, and has also worked as a nurse.

After the 1991 budget, she wrote an editorial about the impact of it for the Listener, and he employer tried to fire her for it. She wasn't fired, but had a warning placed on her file.

This sparked a national campaign to remove the warning from her file, the sisters said. Nurses wore stickers in support, and then opposition health spokesperson Helen Clark joined a rally in support of what was an ultimately successful campaign.

Teresa has also been involved with the Victory Health Centre and setting up a free nurse service at Franklyn Village.

She has been editing the Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand magazine since 1992 where she still works, it's a job she feels fits her values.

Teresa was the force behind setting up Voice Nelson, which Mary Ellen is also highly involved in.

Teresa said Voice Nelson arose out of the "complete and utter despair" she felt after the 2014 election.

Teresa said she and her sisters have loud voices and are able to use them, Voice Nelson worked to give voice to those who aren't heard, including the poor and disenfranchised.

Their great-grandparents fled Ireland's famine for New Zealand, and the sisters say they have "huge privilege" from that.

"I have a responsibility to do something, however pathetic and small or insignificant, to honour a legacy, that I, from some accident of birth, have benefited from," Teresa said.

Mary Ellen said Voice Nelson had attracted older members, and she sees it as a way to pay back for what her generation had, "in terms of having had free health and education handed to us".

They were hopeful about passing the baton to younger generations.

People need to care about those less fortunate, Margaret said.

With an impassioned plea, she says it doesn't make sense to keep letting the gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' grow.

"Everybody loses with inequality. Everyone stands to gain when we live in more equal societies."

They have another sister, Gabrielle, the youngest who was unable to be interviewed. The sisters say she is very animal-orientated, a natural farmer and works as a caregiver.

There was another sister, Bridget, who only lived to four months due to health reasons.

 - Stuff

Monday, September 21, 2015

Campaigners calling for conversation on cannabis law

Campaigners for cannabis law reform are working to start a conversation they hope will get politicians to act.
At a weekend screening of documentary Druglawed at the Free House, film director Arik Reiss was joined by Nelson's Rose Renton, who had campaigned for her son to be treated with a cannabinoid oil while in intensive care, and Abe Gray who runs a cannabis museum in Dunedin, and campaigns for legalisation.
Renton's son Alex died in Wellington Hospital on July 1, he had suffered seizures and it was not known what caused them. She has since dedicated herself to cannabis law reform for both medical and recreational use. 
"The Rugby World Cup comes along and with a stroke of a pen they can extend drinking hours," Renton said. "I'm pleased for them, that's great they can watch rugby and have a drink, but what about the cannabis community that would choose to eat a bit of brownie and have a good night's sleep? I really don't get the stigma to it."
She said Alex was a recreational cannabis user, and it helped with his insomnia.
"He was an excellent student with a brilliant mind."
Renton said people should have the right to choose, and said Alex would have wanted to be able to choose cannabis. She and Alex both voted for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party in the 2014 election.
Gray spoke about a nationwide online campaign to "destigmatise the plant" and to open up a conversation to get politicians to legalise the use of the plant. Called 'Let's Start the Conversation' Gray said the aim was to have ads on TV about issues around prohibition.
He wanted people to be open about their use to show prohibition was not working, he said.
The film documented the history of cannabis prohibition in the USA and New Zealand, outlining political and economic reasons for its prohibition. It argued New Zealand mirrored the USA's war on drugs, and prohibition was failing.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Serial rapist's sentence highlights 'fetid' dance party culture

Mateo Nixon was sentenced to 14 years for sexual offences against six women at dance parties and in homes across the South Island. STACEY KNOTT investigates.
The first time P (name legally protected) met Mateo Nixon he raped her.
His sentence was a relief for the woman who was assaulted on three separate occasions by Nixon.
Nixon, known as Tao to his friends and those within the dance party scene he was a part of, was sentenced to 14 years jail at the Dunedin District Court on Friday for six charges of rape, three of unlawful sexual connection, two of indecent assault, and two of sexual connection with a young person under 16, between October 2009 and July 2012.
In the dock, his long ginger dreads and beard were gone, and he remained expressionless throughout his sentencing.
P was at a friend's house in Dunedin in 2009 where Nixon was also present. Her first impression was that he was "self confident, manipulative and alpha." That night she fell asleep watching DVDs and woke to him raping her.

The two subsequent attacks occurred when she was staying with the same friend, and had been told that Nixon would not be present. However, Nixon defied the friend's request he not come over, and again, P awoke to him assaulting her.
"I would not have been there if I had known there was any chance he would have gone, and I totally regret it and blame myself."
She says abuse she suffered when she was younger stopped her from wanting to go to the police straight away.
And she would not have been able to go to police without other victims coming forward first.
When she did proceed,  she felt impressed and supported by the police she dealt with.
In her victim impact statement read out in court on Friday she said Nixon's attacks had lead her to anxiety attacks, suicide attempts and drug and alcohol abuse and triggered memories of past abuse.
"While Tao will be dealt with by the court I am sentenced to a lifetime of flashbacks, panic attacks, endless hours of counselling, mental instability and always lurking is depression."
Credit: Ashlyn Hornsby
She also feared about future suicide attempts.
"I will always feel responsible for what happened to me despite the fact I would have never returned to any place I thought Tao would be present. I felt ashamed and naive I put my trust in the wrong hands."
She said there was support from Nixon within the dance party scene "this made me feel sick and unsafe".
She wanted Nixon to sincerely own up to his offending and get treatment for his behaviour.
Nixon had written letters to the victims, and had offered reparation. P planned to burn the letter, and donate some of the funds to Dunedin Rape Crisis who had supported her.
Read more 
Over the last decade, there were warnings about Nixon.
A former friend, who asked not to be named, recalls first being told to stay away from the dance party crew member at a gig in Wellington in 2006.
She initially ignored the warnings.
"I treated Tao the way he treated me for part of our friendship, which was with kindness and companionship; there were many moments that me and my friends were thankful for Tao being there."
But behind the image of a caring and helpful friend, there were signs of a different personality.
On several occasions she saw him being physically violent "but he always managed to make sure we thought he was in the right."
In 2008 she became wary of him, when he pulled her aside at a party to make sure she believed him, and that allegations made against him were false.
"It wasn't until I heard he abused multiple friends, that me and my inner circle of friends stopped being friends with him."
She said when she tried to warn people about him she was met with the same disbelief she initially had.
"It has taken a long time for people to change their mindset and self educate about rape culture."
She describes Nixon as "a tall, intimidating, manipulative and a scary man, and I think this helped in him not having much opposition to his behaviour."
While drugs and alcohol were involved in the cases where Nixon assaulted the women, the former friend says it's important not to blame any situations on binge drinking or drug taking, "as this becomes victim blaming and not focusing on the fact Tao was a predator and manipulator and rapist."
Nixon was a regular in the punk and dance party scenes.
He was employed in events production, and listed as living in Christchurch, although he followed the party circuit around the North and South Islands.
Performer and promoter Flow Ir In says Nixon got away with his offending for years because of a "fetid culture" where he could operate.
Flow first heard of Nixon's offending in 2012 and started her own investigations after someone told her a "horror story" about one assault.
She was shocked to find there were more victims, and approached party organisers to help.
However, she says in some cases, she was met with "classic rape culture" reactions to Nixon's offending.
"Victim blaming, dissembling, denial, justification. It was quite gross. Many men actually said out loud that they thought if a woman was unconscious, it was perfectly acceptable to have sex with them, and told me that I was out of touch with their culture.
"I talked to every event organiser I could find, to demand that they acted - since the scene was supposed to be 'countercultural' and has a natural aversion to police."
She said some people wanted proof and refused to act.
There was a growing "fetid culture" she said, "where older men plied innocent girls with drugs and alcohol in order to be able to have sex with them."
She says victims were blamed, ostracised and intimidated.
In reality, those who spoke up were "incredibly brave" . She says they faced an uphill battle against the rape culture within the scene itself and with the police, who she said understandably needed evidence to get a conviction.
The victims were "warriors" and it was up to others within the scene to "dig out the remaining rape culture infection and put an end to it. New Zealand deserves safe parties, where we can dance and have fun."
She was relieved to hear the sentence handed to Nixon.
"I pray that the sentence he received highlights the seriousness of his actions to other men who still think that having sex without consent is okay behaviour. My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by his offending, and I have nothing but admiration for the women who took a stand against it."
As allegations swirled around Nixon in early 2014, before police had laid any charges, dance party organisers in the South Island declared on Facebook posts they would ban him from their events, and introduce safety policies to guard against sexual predators. 
But to the disgust of some Nixon was at the 2014 Alien Nation party in the Wairoa Gorge, near Nelson.
Even though none of the charges in the case were related to Alien Nation, Flow believes Nixon being at the party showed "the needs of a few men are placed above the health and safety of everyone else".
David Small, a Canterbury University senior law lecturer and dance party goer, was so alarmed he helped create a Facebook page calling for a boycott of the event.
He believed there was a high degree of naivety among a few people who Nixon was manipulating to maintain access to victims.
Small said outdoor parties were fundamentally safe places, that ran on trust and mutual respect.
He said Nixon's actions "impacted not only on the women he violated, but also on a cruisy positive social scene."
Dance parties "model forms of social engagement and entertainment that are so much more positive than the alcohol fuelled crap in city night clubs."
For the scene, Flow said Nixon's offending meant "we all have our eyes open now and we are saying 'that's not ok, we demand safety and respect for all our people'."
She said at many parties in New Zealand Nixon's offending would never have happened. At their best they were a "joyful celebration of life" where punters danced all night, and camped out depending on their length.
Dunedin mother of three Shalin White said many people were creating positives from what had happened. 
White has been going to outdoor dance parties for the past 20 years, and has been involved with Dunedin's Winter Solstice for the last five years, helping with the party's safety zone.
When Nixon's offending was revealed, organisers of Winter Solstice held meetings to establish what they would do about sexual predators in the scene, and there were accusations against people involved at Winter Solstice, she said.
There were many meetings to deal with the accusations, with talks about consent, and approaching people on alleged bad behaviours.
The Winter Solstice organisers are also planning public meetings where other party organisers and bar owners can meet and speak about safety at parties.
She said it was a community focused party, where safety was paramount.
There is a doctor on the crew of Winter Solstice, and other crew members have first aid training, including drug and alcohol counselling.
White has experience in helping people feel safe when they are having a difficult psychedelic experience.
She enjoyed the community of a dance party when it was done well and was proud to be involved in Winter Solstice.
"It was the safest, cleanest, tidiest and kindest. We worked really hard at that."
She said they reiterated to people the safety message, where the safe zone was and how to find people who can help and to look out for friends and others.
"It was repeated, literally every single car and every single person that came through the gate."
Nelson Sexual Abuse Support and Healing (SASH) coordinator Sarah-Jane Macmillan also said regardless of drugs or alcohol consumption, everyone deserves the right to be safe from predatory men.
"No one has the right to take advantage of someone else, it should be a basic human right no matter what we are doing, to be safe in this world and not be preyed upon."
Rates for reporting sexual assault to police, and then conviction rates were "terrible",she said.
An estimated 9 per cent of sexual assault incidents are reported to police in New Zealand, of those, there is  an estimated 13 per cent conviction rate.
Society's attitude to rape and sexual abuses factored into the low reporting and conviction rate, she said.
A message that women were solely responsible for looking after themselves was damaging.
"The message needs to be one - don't rape and, two, that everyone in the community has got a responsibility to ending sexual violence in New Zealand."
She said Nixon appeared to manipulate "not just individuals but the whole system" by coming across as a good guy.
It took bravery and strength to come forward, and Macmillian said it often took one person to go forward first with others to follow.
"With these kind of offenders it's never just once."
She said people who went to police about sexual assaults needed support to do so, and should consider professional support as well, like SASH or Rape Crisis.
A police spokesperson said police would continue to work with any further individuals who spoke with police and take appropriate action as a result, and urged any victim of crime to contact police to discuss any incident that has happened.
Rape Crisis New Zealand 0800 88 33 00
 - Stuff