Bryce Edwards: When, where and how to protest

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Protest appears to be on the rise, and some of it can be highly provocative. The trial of National MP Chester Borrows over his actions towards protestors last year is just the latest example, raising questions about what is and isn’t appropriate in the arena of political protest.

We live in an era of escalating protest. Around the world, politics has become more radicalised and polarised, particularly since the global financial crisis, which has led to a decline in the authority of the Establishment and economic system, as well as the rise of new movements challenging racism and sexism. The increasing popularity of protest even led Pepsi to recently attempt to align their cola brand to youth revolt in a lame and badly received TV ad.

Elites everywhere are under challenge, and new political leaders have emerged who are often populists or radicals of the left and right. These leaders are sometimes at the forefront of protest movements, or indeed the subject of protests from citizens opposing their apparent extremism. 

And with the continued disillusionment of many with elections and electoral options, we might expect that militant forms of protest will become more common, raising questions about what sort of political protest is acceptable. How aggressive or physical can opposition be? This is sometimes a legal question, and sometimes simply a moral one. And how do authorities, or those offended by protesting, respond? 

I discussed some of these issues on TVNZ’s Breakfast this morning, suggesting New Zealand political culture is quite tolerant of and sympathetic to protest, but there also seems to be firm limits on what the public finds acceptable – especially in terms of physicality and aggression. Any violence is probably very counter-productive to the protestors’ cause.

The Chester Borrows trial

Yesterday, National MP Chester Borrows was declared not guilty of the charge of careless driving causing injury to two anti-Trans Pacific Partnership protesters. For the best coverage of the trial and outcome, see Andrea Vance’s National MP Chester Borrows cleared of careless driving causing injury charge, says he’s ‘pretty annoyed’ matter went to trial

According to this report, “Borrows today told the court he was worried a dildo being waved by another protester, Philip Rewiti, would be used to break the windscreen, or a protester would climb onto his car.” Furthermore, “A week before the protest, Mr Rewiti had posted a picture on Facebook of Ms Bennett crying, a dildo printed with her name and the message, ‘See you shortly, bitch’.”

The now Deputy Prime Minister, Paula Bennett, spoke in trial of how she and Borrows felt threatened, saying “It had only been weeks since fellow National Party MP Steven Joyce had a dildo thrown at him, so party members were aware something else may happen” – see Jono Galuszka’s Deputy PM found sex toy image ‘aggressive’

For more about the dildo incident, see Zaryd Wilson’s Protester posted message to Paula Bennett: ‘See you shortly, b****’. In this, Rewiti is quoted saying “The police had told me not to show it or anything. I think I left it in the car at the time, otherwise I’d be arrested”. The protestors’ point of view is also covered in RNZ’s Women describe ‘horror’ as MP’s vehicle struck

The women who tried to block Borrows and Bennett’s car were rather mild and “pathetic” in comparison to protest activity of an earlier era according to Barry Soper, who argues that not only should the case never have gone to court, but perhaps it’s the women in front of the car who should have been charged instead – see: The days when people knew how to protest

But the most interesting part of Soper’s argument is his comparison with more radical protest in the early 1990s: “Those were the days when people knew how to protest. Impeding the progress of ministerial limousines was common practice in anti Government rallies. The most celebrated case was back in 1991 when today’s prominent barrister, who continues to fight the establishment, Felix Geiringer laid down in front of the then Finance Minister Bill Birch’s limo at a protest in Dunedin and was dragged from beneath the car by the heavy police contingent. Geiringer suffered a few cracked ribs and bruising and was charged with disorderly behaviour. He unsuccessfully appealed to the High Court against his conviction, pleading his right to freedom of expression.”

Is it legitimate to protest on Anzac Day?

The other contentious protest recently was the presence of  anti-war protestors at Anzac Day events. This became a particularly interesting debate when Newshub broadcast video of a fascinating conflict between a 12-year-old boy, Jason Broome-Isa, and protestors – see Matt Burrows’ ‘Give me strength’: Anzac protest boy’s full barrage.

The news report states, “A poll on The AM Show on Wednesday shows two thirds of New Zealanders (67 percent) agreed with Jason, and believe protesting on Anzac Day is inappropriate.” See also, Mei Heron’s ‘I just tried to listen’ – Anzac Day protester on 12-year-old’s interruption.

Yet much of the published commentary has dissented from this view, with a number of editorials and columns backing the right to protest on Anzac Day. 

For example, Alison Mau found the issue fraught: “Whew, this is a tough one. I’ve never felt as conflicted about a column subject before. Free speech versus the right to a peaceful commemoration of our sacred day. Which one to choose?” – see: Anzac Day – a time for protest or quiet reflection?

But she concluded: “I don’t like the way it’s threatening to develop into a day-long muzzle for free speech. Here in New Zealand we’ve not got to that point yet, not as much as the Aussies. But lest we follow them along that road, I’m going to have to come down on the side of the protesters this time.”

Newshub’s Tony Wright expressed a similar concern about ‘Anzackery’, saying in Australia “it is now an anglo-saxon styled cult or religion. On occasion, it threatens to become this in New Zealand as well, and Jason Broome-Isa’s ‘shout down’ is a worrying symptom of it” – see: Anzac Day ‘shout down’ went against dignified remembrance

The problem is caused by a “rising nationalism in New Zealand” according to Heather du Plessis-Allan – see: The bad things about nationalism. She worries that nationalism is being used to close down protest and debate: “it shuts down dissenting views by demanding uniformity. Actually, some New Zealanders don’t participate in Anzac Day because they hate the way the war broke their grandfathers and they don’t want that war glorified. They welcome protest on Anzac Day to remind us never to go back to war.”

Barry Soper is in no doubt that Anzac Day should be a day for protest, and the 12-year-old-boy was out of line: “If it was my son, I would have taken him by the ear and led him away, although legally that’s not permissible these days. But at the very least his dad should have explained to him before his clearly designed-for-television rant that the day’s remembered for the freedoms we have and the part our soldiers played in ensuring that was the case. It’s a day that should be used to talk about what it means to be a New Zealander and the diversity that comes with that. Anzac Day was through the 60s and 70s seen as the ideal time to debate the issues, whether it was the Vietnam War, the peace movement or women’s rights, given the number of women who have been raped and killed during war” – see: The lesson we should be teaching our kids on Anzac Day

The Dominion Post was equally strong about the right to protest: “People have the right to protest, even on Anzac Day. Those who say the day is “sacred” and therefore that political protest action should not occur then are badly confused. The right to disagree does not take a forced vacation on our national day” – see the editorial: The right to protest doesn’t disappear on Anzac Day.

The newspaper also pointed out the changing way older New Zealanders are thinking about Anzac Day and politics: “For some, Anzac Day represents a thinly-disguised apologia for war and militarism. This is not a popular notion nowadays, but for many years baby-boomers saw the day that way and they did not like the official ceremonies. Some boycotted the ceremonies or disrupted them in various ways, such as by laying wreaths for the war dead of Vietnam. Nowadays the boomers have become more pious about Anzac Day, and some may even want to ban a new generation of protesters. That is a bad move and it would be a striking form of generational hypocrisy.”

But RNZ’s Colin Peacock highlights what much of the media seemed to miss about the politics of this year’s Anzac Day: “At the National Commemoration Service on Anzac day, Mr English read an extract from the book The Silent Division by First World War veteran Ormond Edward Burton. Burton became a resolute christian pacifist who was jailed for his beliefs. The day after the Second World War was declared, Burton condemned it before a crowd outside Parliament – a stone’s throw from the cenotaph where Wellington Peace Action made their point peacefully on Anzac Day” – see: Peaceful protest stirs ANZAC day dissent.

The article points out that English was supportive of the rights of peace protestors to participate in Anzac Day commemorations: “What we’re remembering on Anzac Day is people who gave their lives for freedom and part of that freedom is the ability to protest… As long as people are acting within the law, they’re allowed to express a point of view”

Other protesting this year

There have been plenty of other political issues highlighted by political activism so far this year. Environmental protests are again growing in prominence and RNZ’s Robert Smith surveys some different points of view about how to protest in the environmental arena – see: Do environmental protests actually work?

In this, environmental historian Graeme Wynn explains the “decades-old split in the environmental movement, between those who take direct protest action and those who work in the system to try to introduce regulations.” Greenpeace senior campaign advisor Steve Abel explains the need to use a variety of methods to affect change: “If you can achieve what you need by going through the government, then great, but if the message is falling on deaf ears of vested interests, you have to resort to other means available in a democratic and non-violent tradition.”

Of course, gender and sexual politics continue to be an important part of the resurgence of protest, and the most interesting and important example of this was March’s protest at Parliament organised by students from Wellington East Girl’s College against perceived rape culture in schools. This was best reported in Laura Dooney’s Protest at Parliament against rape culture in schools

Finally, for a good example of a humorous, and possibly offensive and boundary-pushing, political protest, see Charlie Gates’ Canterbury artist Sam Mahon takes on Nick Smith again