I have been thinking about 15 year old Pihema Cameron and Bruce Emery, the man who killed him, since Friday. Mr Emery was sentenced to prison for four years and three months for the manslaughter of Pihema, who he caught trying to tag his house.
Tim Selwyn has written an angry, provocative piece at Tumeke about why this sentence is racist.
Deborah at the Hand Mirror also hears white privilege, and points out the Judge did not sentence Mr Emery to the maximum 7 years for manslaughter with a knife because:
there were mitigating factors, including Emery’s “family standing” and that he supported himself in the community.
Self-appointed protectors of victims of violence in our communities, the Sensible Sentencing Trust, can usually be relied upon to thunder and rage at what they describe as lenient sentencing of violent offenders.
This verdict, they say, is a shame. The reason, according to head Garth McVicar?
…the frustration Emery was going through when he caught the tagger at his house. He says the trust would have liked to have seen Emery discharged altogether. Mr McVicar says this would have sent a message that minor crimes like graffitti need to be dealt with seriously.
Maybe you can only be a victim if you own a house.
This case is splitting New Zealanders – in radio talkshows, on blogs, where many of the comments to the Tumeke piece for example rejoice in the 15 year old boy’s death. He was “tagger scum” apparently. It provoked a heated conversation in my family, where Father Luddite proclaimed sagely “the Cameron family have to take some responsibility.”
We have been told Mr Emery’s story in detail. He is a decent, middle-class working sort of a family man, whose property had been tagged before. When he saw Pihema Cameron and his mate trying to tag him, he went inside his house, selected a knife, and chased the two boys several hundred metres down the street.
There was a confrontation. Mr Emery either thrust the knife into Pihema, or Pihema moved onto the knife.
Pihema died. Mr Emery went home to wash the knife, not telling his wife what had happened.
Much of New Zealand identifies with only one person in this case – and it’s not the boy who was killed.
Mr Emery was protecting the property he worked to buy, the family he was responsible for. The tagging had happened before. He was scared of the two drunk and stoned teenage boys, and took a knife to protect himself. It’s a shame, but what was he supposed to do?
What about if we turned this whole thing around though? How many of us started experimenting with drugs and alcohol as teenagers? How many of us were not always well-behaved or law-abiding?
In my case, I’d been both drunk and stoned by 15, and shoplifted the occasional magazine to try and fit in with the other kids at school.
Did my nice Pakeha father think, had the dairy owner caught me, that stabbing would be an appropriate punishment he, as my family, should “take responsibility” for?
As I said, the argument was heated.
The white man, protecting his property from badly behaved Maori? Haven’t we heard that one before?
How about we try it the other way around again? A marae is defaced by a Pakeha teenager. The marae groundsman, Maori, chases the teenager down the street, stabs him, and he dies. Where would public sympathy be? And what would be the sentence?
Pretending Mr Emery’s skin colour and home ownership have not protected him in this case is, quite frankly, obscene. I have compassion for Mr Emery – I imagine cleaning off graffiti is irritating as hell, and he probably was intimidated by the two boys – although they were running away.
But I have more compassion for the 15-year old boy who died that night, and the lack of kindness much of New Zealand society has shown him since in our eagerness to judge his actions.
Lack of compassion and empathy are ugly, ugly traits for a society to develop. At the moment, here in Aotearoa, we are showing less and less kindness to some groups of people. And sadly, those groups of people are all too easy to spot by the colour of their skins and their bank balance.
Rest in peace Pihema Cameron. Your death was a preventable tragedy.