I arrived at the TPPA protest march in Wellington the intent of making my voice heard. The protest started well – enlightening speakers, a funny MC and raucous chanting. However, when we got to parliament, the march was confronted by a waist-high green fence blocking our way up seven stairs to the main courtyard in front of the parliament. How we dealt with this seemingly insignificant obstacle does not bode well for the political left in New Zealand.
The march organisers were surprised by the fence, spoke to a nearby parliamentary security and pointed out they were always allowed to speak at the top of this seven stair platform. They had set up their PA equipment up there, but it had been moved down. The organisers were told “this was the deal”. After a few sputtering complaints, we held the final speeches down in front of it.
The essence of politics is expanding the horizons of what is possible – what is acceptable to say, think, and what we deem a possible way of living. Power is about who can move these horizons. We fight the TPPA precisely because it narrows our horizon of action through a raft of foreign and corporate control. In a similar, albeit smaller way, the state’s decision to move the fence was a profoundly political act – it changed where we could march, speak and express political dissent.
I attempted to convince a few of the people I recognised at the march to get together and move the fence. However, I was told we “didn’t have enough people”. After all the chants of “Whose go the power? We’ve got the power” and “TPPA? No way! We’re going to fight it all the way”, this crowd of several hundred people were corralled and halted by this small green fence.
It is worth emphasising that there was no police line assembled behind the fence, just an interspaced scattering of parliamentary security wandering aimlessly around the courtyard. This fence was not a physical obstacle – a dedicated band of militant pacifists could have moved up those stairs without undermining their beliefs. We made it a barrier. We collectively decided it would not be appropriate or allowed. We admitted we did not have the power to move up that flight of stairs. Because the government implied it might be a bit naughty.
If we are unwilling to move such a small obstacle for a right to speak slightly closer to parliament, what hope do we have against stopping the amalgamation of governments and corporations pushing for the TPPA? If the TPPA is really as bad as the speakers claimed, and I believe it is, what would inspire enough people to move that fence?
If all the left is willing to do is act within the boundaries set out by the government, we are no longer practising anything resembling resistance and dissent. We could have pushed through that fence and realised the political power we all have. We could have dictated the terms where we believed we had a right to speak. We could have left the march feeling empowered, excited and rejuvenated, ready to continue fighting against the TPPA.
Instead, we decided we did not have power. This pattern has been repeated again and again across this government’s two terms. Protest by the left is increasingly become part of the acceptable theatre of political action – making us feel as though we ‘did something’, but ultimately doing nothing to expand what we can and cannot do.
We need to start moving fences.
See also Chris Trotter’s “Protest Futile In The Absence Of Consensus Politics” for a different view on the same topic.