He walked into the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron dressed in a suit and tie. When police escorted him out he was wearing the Māori-sovereignty T-shirt he had hidden underneath, and the America's Cup was practically destroyed.
Benjamin Peri Nathan, who later changed his name to Penehamine Netana-Patuawa, used the short-handled sledgehammer he had carried in a canvas bag to strike the glass casing some 20 times, puncturing it, before inflicting a further 15 blows on the three-foot tall trophy itself, causing what the jewellers tasked with its repair estimated was about $60,000 worth of damage.
During the act, in a mixture of Māori and English, he exclaimed words to the effect of: "This is Māori land you white bastards." One employee of the squadron feared for her life, later telling the court she thought that Nathan was going to attack those in the room with the sledgehammer. When police arrived, according to the Court of Appeal, he laid the sledgehammer on the ground, and offered no resistance to his arrest.
It was early 1997. National's Jim Bolger had been Prime Minister since 1990, Winston Peters was his deputy, and the lucky red socks that had apparently inspired Team New Zealand's 1995 America's Cup victory had most probably all disappeared from washing lines or been stolen by flatmates. The Māori Party didn't yet exist; the Waitangi Tribunal was debating the Muriwhenua land claim. The Court of Appeal later acknowledged that "Mr Nathan's motivations were to him idealistic, moralistic and designed to enhance te tino rangatiratanga of his people, the Māori people."
With his act of destruction Nathan was protesting, among other things, perceived non-recognition of the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi, and that the cup itself was representative of an elitist sport that embodied the idea of the rich getting richer as the poor get poorer.
Nathan was convicted of wilful destruction of property and sentenced to two years and 10 months in prison. His sentence was later reduced to one year on appeal.
Andrew Delves, PR and sponsorship manager for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, says a similar attack now would be essentially impossible, like trying to smash through the Popemobile. "It's fully bullet-proof, alarmed, it's got this big wooden protector around it so if the alarm goes off, this wooden cover just drops down and even covers up the bullet-proof glass. It's pretty safe this time."
While the cup itself may be safe—and Kiwis rightfully celebrate an incredible achievement—that's not to say the conditions that led to Nathan's protest have eased. A report released earlier this year by Victoria University's Institute for Governance and Policy Studies found that the richest tenth of the country owned 60 percent of the country's total wealth, a five percent growth from 2005.
One of the researchers behind the report, Max Rashbrooke, told Radio New Zealand while New Zealand has traditionally celebrated its egalitarianism, in reality it has little reason to do so. "We are very unequal and we're not doing any better on that scale than other developed countries are."
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