A Walk Around the Park

Eden Park, Auckland, September 12, 1981. The day of the third rugby test between the All Blacks and the Springboks

By Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Photographs, text and narration by John Mercer

Portrait of John Mercer (2021-09-13) by Debra TaylorAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

My name is John Mercer. I'm a photojournalist from New Plymouth, New Zealand. During the infamous 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour of New Zealand, I documented the protests at three of the game venues around the North Island: Hamilton, Rotorua, and Auckland.

Two days in 1981 were particularly pivotal: July 25, the day protests stopped the Hamilton game, and September 12, the day of the Third Test, at Eden Park in Auckland.

I had travelled to Auckland from Hamilton to protest the Springbok Tour, the Third Test, and apartheid. These photographs tell the story of that day from many different angles. I simply shot what I observed, and the audio narration that is included here is my recollection of events and people, thirty-plus years on.

Protesters gather under the Hamilton banner at Fowlds Park (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Protesters gather at Fowlds Park

All looking expectant and waiting to be organised. My role, as I saw it, was to record events...

John Minto addresses protesters from the back of a truck (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Speaking from the back of a truck

John Minto reminds protestors how important their protest is and how they should comport themselves during the demonstration.

Media at work – TV, press and more (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Biko Commemoration at Fowlds Park

It became clear there were different protest groups. This was the front row, all of whom had shields, crash helmets, and substantial padding underneath. There's a banner above that says "Amandla", which means "power".

THE, Fowlds Park (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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The Protest Warriors of the Day

A closer look at the front line protestors.

MOST – red crosses, white overalls (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Mobilisation Opposed to the Springbok Tour

A protest marshal stands between protest teams and MOST Medics who provided medical support to injured protestors. At no point during the action did I feel personally threatened.

Ron Don roots rabbits, Fowlds Park (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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The clowns, the rabbit and the bumblebee

They had been regular protestors early on in the tour, but changed tack and thought humor, wit and satire was the way to engage with the police. 

One of the clowns and the bumblebee were severely batoned and hospitalised at the end of the street battle later in the day.

Protesters assemble under the HART banner (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Protesters assemble under the HART banner

People gathering on the road to go out of Fowlds Park. There's not a lot of helmets, not a lot of protective gear. It's a different formation from the earlier images.

Bad Puns Christian pro Tour group (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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A Christian group opposed to the Anti-Tour movement

A set of bad puns feature on their banners.

Leaving Fowlds Park the protest marches with sound and passion (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Leaving Fowlds Park

You can clearly see there were a lot of people at the protest. At the front of the march they are helmeted, they have shields. People with passionate voices and determined faces heading towards Eden Park.

An alternative view as the march reaches New North Road (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Another anti-Anti-Tour banner on New North Road

There's always an alternative view. I'd like to have seen these people further around later in the day when the Red and Blue Squads 'slipped their leashes'.

Vantage point, film crew on Mt Albert Borough Council Chambers (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Vantage point, film crew

On the portico of the Mt. Albert Borough Council Chambers Building, New North Road. Could have been a news crew or police.

Eden Park Auschwitz 1981 (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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"Eden Park, Auschwitz 1981"

Morningside Drive, Auckland. The lumber mill had been cordoned off.

Batons for sale, Morningside Drive (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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"For sale: police batons (slightly damaged)"

"Ph. 111".

First puff a moment of quiet amid rugby fans heading towards Eden Park (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Rugby fans entering

Intersection of Shaw Street and Royal Terrace, Auckland

Onlookers 123 Sandringham Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Onlookers

123 Sandringham Road, Auckland

The protest group continues along Ethel St/Burnley Tce towards Marlborough St (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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The protest group continues towards Marlborough Street

Ethel Street/Burnley Terrace, Auckland

The protest group continues along Ethel St/Burnley Tce towards Marlborough St (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

The protest group continues towards Marlborough Street

Ethel Street/Burnley Terrace, Auckland

Police and Biko squad struggle (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Police and Biko Squad struggle on Sandrigham Road

I've turned 180 degrees from the previous photo, but it's not the same time frame. This is a struggle between Police and protestors trying to block peoples access to Eden Park. This was the point at which Police got involved, trying to keep the roadway clear for rugby fans.

The struggle over, Superintendent Davies, head of 'Operation Rugby' keeps this protestor down. (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Protestor held down

Superintendent Davies, head of 'Operation Rugby' keeps this protestor down. Sandringham Road, Auckland.

Face Off, Biko Squad confronts police on Sandringham Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Lined-up

Looking back at 123 Sandringham Road again. The front yard is now full of onlookers and people with movie and still cameras. All are poised and waiting for something to happen.

A MOST medical team at work in the front garden of 123 Sandringham Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Shields, cameras, and medics

Again outside 123 Sandringham Road. MOST medics tend to someone who has been injured.

Rugby fans heading down Bellwood Ave towards Eden Park watched by fence sitters (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Rugby fans heading down Bellwood Ave

Rugby fans dance and others sit on the fence.

John Minto considers options, Marlborough St and Bellwood Ave (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Making plans

John Minto at centre, conferring with Marshals. Two photographers to the right, one of whom is Terry O'Connor.

Tutu squad approach the rear of a police group (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Three-abreast

In the distance, a group of several thousand protestors walks up Malborough Street. Police turn around to see what's coming up behind them, and probably felt surrounded by this point.

Cops n Clowns, the anti-Tour protest clowns mock and satirise police as they march down Onslow Rd towards Kowhai St (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Protest clowns mock and satirise Police

The clowns, the bumble bee, and the two rabbits were engaged in satirising the Police

Day of Rage – Patu squad is ready for action on Onslow Road (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Patu Squad ready to confront Police

Intersection of Marlborough St and Onslow Rd.

Wait for the word: Red squad officers man the bin barricade on Onslow Rd and face several confrontational charges by Patu squad that stop abruptly a foot or so short of them. (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Getting psyched-up

"You will hit your target; you will hurt your target. You will not stop until I say the word."

Stand off by the church: the police cordon faces off the Patu phalanx amid a mass of anti-Tour protestors at the corner of Marlborough St and Walters Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Police confront Patu Squad outside the church

My impression was that Patu Squad had become a bit disorganised. The young man at the left who appears to be yelling was, I think, a protest marshal. At this point things were being thrown from the back, and some of it was hitting police and also the front of the protest squad.

Kick it away’: smoke bombs and debris fall between the police cordon and anti-Tour protestors by the church at the corner of Marlborough St and Walters Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Kick it away

Smoke obscures the front of the church, while a policeman kicks at one of the smoke bombs trying to get it away.

The flying wedge is about to punch into the front line of anti-Tour protestors at the corner of Marlborough St and Walters Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Flying wedge

Things might look quiet here, but the police have formed a "flying wedge". Within minutes, it goes straight into the front of Patu Squad: shields up, batons flying… The ripple of that event travels across the intersection towards me.

Red Squad officers order a group of anti-Tour protestors trapped against a waist high wall to "move, move, move!" but continue to baton them. (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Protestors trapped against a wall

The police continue to strike with their batons and say "move!", but the protestors can't: they're trapped against a retaining wall.

Trapped against a low wall a group of anti-Tour protestors are repeatedly batoned by Red Squad officers (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Police baton the Protestors

People are trying to help the trapped protestors. To the right are two apparently disinterested young men: are they on-lookers or "not-lookers"?

A Red Squad officer repeatedly strikes a woman anti-Tour protestor trapped against a wall as a friend on the wall tries to assist her (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Over and beyond the call of duty

A young woman, unable to clamber backwards over a retaining wall—you can see it's up to her shoulder blades—is assaulted by a police officer as another, at right, looks on. A "MOST" medic is to the right of the frame in a white coat.

A protest marshal escorts an injured anti-Tour protestor up Marlborough St as a Red Squad officer menaces her with his baton (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

A marshall rescues protestor

A protest marshal escorts an injured anti-Tour protestor up Marlborough St as a Red Squad officer menaces her with his baton.

A young police officer with raised baton prevents the photographer from slipping past the police cordon at the corner of Marlborough St and Onslow Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Stay back!

Ordered by a senior officer to stem the flow of protestors moving from Marlborough St onto Onslow Road, this visibly shaken police officer raises his baton to within inches of my camera lens. In the background, two people with their hands on their heads walk down a driveway.

Street Battle: Angry anti-Tour protestors advance towards the Red Squad cordon on Onslow Rd while a larger group waits and watches on Dominion Rd (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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A street battle ensues

In the preceding years there had been major riots in the UK, and in my opinion this battle in Onslow Road was as fierce and violent as the ones in Brixton and Toxteth. Debris, including red-and-white-striped 40-gallon drums and rocks pulled out of gardens, litters the roadway.

Retreat: Another group of anti-Tour protestors arrive on Cromwell St on the way to Onslow Rd as a Red Squad charge is driven back in disarray (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Red Squad retreats

This photograph is taken looking across Onslow Road toward Cromwell Street. Officers duck and defend themselves from falling debris. The non-violent protest groups (Artists Against Apartheid and the HART group) arrive in the background.

Arriving on the scene: a large non-violent anti-Tour protest contingent arrives on Cromwell St to find a running street battle between police and protestors well underway (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Confrontation continues

Across Onslow Rd to Cromwell St. The non-violent “Artist Against Apartheid” protest group watch on as other protestors confront police.

The Red Squad regroups on Onslow Rd amid the debris of stones, sticks, rocks and other missiles while watching for more thrown objects (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Red Squad reform for last charge

Officers re-form with batons at the ready. One has a shield. The road is littered with debris—stones, rocks, rubbish and so on—and this last charge up Onslow Road cleared people from the top end round onto Dominion Road.

The petite frail form of a young girl dressed to amuse and mock lies on the ground comforted by a local woman. The Bumblebee and her fellow clown pay a high price for their part in ending the battle between protesters and police for control of the streets around Eden Park (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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"A high price to pay for being a clown"

Two "clowns" and a "bumble bee" were sheltering behind a hedge on the left-hand side of Onslow Road. Heavily uniformed police came upon them and batoned them to the ground. For me, this event signalled that the protest action should probably come to an end.

Flanked by two police commanders, an anti-Tour protest marshal delivers the message that there will be no further protest action and provides instructions for the now assembled anti-Tour protest contingent to move off in a peaceful and orderly manner (September 12, 1981) by John MercerAuckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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Protestors and Police agree to end the action

A protest marshal with shield and helmet, flanked by two senior police officers, uses his megaphone to stand the protest group down and to get people ready to leave the area down Dominion Road.

I arrived without a plan—just intent and attitude—and no knowledge of the organisers’ plans for the day. This may have been to my benefit in knowing where to be to get great iconic photos or whether serendipity placed me at key events anyway. There was a lot going on all over the place regardless.

I adopted documentary mode—anything and everything is photographable, shoot first and tell stories later. Now, much, much later, viewing my photographs retrospectively, I am still able to recognise people in the crowds that I didn't discern while I was engaged in photographing the events, people and action on the day.

About John Mercer

John Anthony Mercer (born 12 December 1949 in New Plymouth, New Zealand) is a photographer, photography teacher, and photojournalist who was active in New Zealand from 1980 to 1986, after which he moved to Adelaide, Australia, where he resides today. He still teaches photography (while working as a public servant), and photographing in a documentary style, exhibiting his work regularly.

Mercer was Director of The Photographer’s Workshop, a collective of Waikato-based photographer-teachers who held exhibitions and provided fellow-photographers studios and darkrooms for hire.

He has aimed his camera at many different aspects of New Zealand life, particularly in the Waikato—including local activism, the local and international rock-music scene, the changing urban landscape, and numerous events and visits, both local and international.

Credits: Story

Photographs, text and narration by John Mercer

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