Roger Fowler at the Mangere East Community Learning Centre. Photo / NZH.By Simon Collins
from NZ Herald
Almost 40 years after being knocked to the ground by a future New Zealand prime minister, Roger Fowler is about to take on two much tougher foes - the armed forces of Egypt and Israel.
Rob Muldoon was about as tough as Kiwi politicians get. As Mr Fowler tells it, the new National leader was “obviously under the influence of drink” as he and property developers Bob Jones and Pat Rippin emerged from a landlords’ meeting in Auckland’s Peter Pan Cabaret in August 1974 “pushing and shoving and thumping people” to get through a crowd of protesters.
“He came straight for me and threw a punch at me. We both ended up falling down in the middle of the street,” Mr Fowler said.
The Herald reported that Mr Muldoon turned back to the protesters when he reached his car and called out: “One at a time and you’re welcome!”
Mr Fowler, now aged 61 and with a Queen’s Service Medal to his name, was picked this week as leader of a six-person Kiwi unit, “Kia Ora Gaza”, to join an international convoy of 500 trucks carrying aid to Palestinians in Gaza next month.
His 25-year-old son Hone, who is working with troubled youth in London, was also chosen from about 25 volunteers to join the Kiwi team.
The high-risk convoy has no guarantee of getting through to Gaza. Previous land convoys have been blocked by neighbouring Egypt. Israeli troops stormed six ships in the last aid convoy on May 31 and killed nine people.
Mr Fowler has not checked to see if his life insurance policy will cover such a deliberate venture into dangerous territory.
“Yes, of course I’m anxious, and so is my family,” he said.
“But my level of anxiety does not compare to the gravity of the situation for the people of Gaza.”
His wife Lyn, he said, was behind him “100 per cent”. The couple met in the 1970s as activists in the Ponsonby People’s Union, which staged mass sit-ins to stop landlords evicting tenants in what was then a poor suburb. They married at Bastion Point while helping to occupy the site to stop a housing development in 1978.
By the end of that decade Ponsonby was being rapidly gentrified.
“The people moved out to South Auckland,” he said. “So did we. We were having our first baby ... and we moved to Mangere East.” He worked in a car assembly plant for nine years, spent three years helping to build the Aotea Centre, then drove buses for several years.
But his real passion was politics. He joined the Communist Party in the mid-1970s and still belongs to one of its successors, Socialist Worker. He was an active unionist in all his workplaces, took part in every Auckland protest against the 1981 Springbok tour, and opposed American wars from Vietnam to Iraq.
He has been jailed four times.
“Because people like myself had been in prison, we got to know prisoners and their families, and found that it was extremely difficult to get to both Paremoremo and Waikeria prisons,” he said.
“We set up our own prison visiting service in 1972 - a weekly free service to Paremoremo and a monthly one to Waikeria.”
He has driven the bus to Waikeria on the last Sunday of each month for 38 years now. The prisoners’ families nominated him for his QSM in 1998 - “behind my back,” he says.
In Mangere, when his own children needed after-school care and there was none, he and Lyn started their own after-school service in an empty hall behind the Mangere East library. Today Mr Fowler is its fulltime manager.
A founding member of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the 1970s, Mr Fowler had “no hesitation” in putting his hand up to join the Gaza convoy organised by London-based Viva Palestina.
“Ever since Viva Palestina was set up a couple of years ago I’ve been advocating that New Zealand should be involved, but it just seemed to be too far away, too difficult,” he said.
Ironically, the nine deaths on May 31 have created the opportunity to assemble by far the biggest aid convoy yet. The Kiwi contingent aims to raise $100,000 towards the costs.
“That incident has become a major tipping point in the world consciousness,” Mr Fowler said.
“There are enormous risks, but the massive size of it and the attention of the world media will be our best protection.”