Over the years I have been on many protests. Springbok tour, climate change, anti nuclear, Pro Palestine, Maori wards for Tamaki Makaurau, anti mining, even those against the TPPA. They all are similar but different, good ones have some common features. Witty intelligent signs, a feeling of unity, the meeting of long term contacts and friends and regular catch ups with hard core protesters such as Penny Bright, god bless her.
Music is often important, I can still recall vividly Herb’s French Letter being played at an anti nuclear protest in the early 1980s while someone sporting a huge Robert Muldoon head mask danced. And there is so much relevant music, a desire for a better planet and a desire to create beautiful music appear to go hand in hand.
And a purpose and agreed goals were important, whether it was education of the general population or symbolic disruption of specific events such as Springbok tour games. When Nelson Mandela thanked the anti tour leaders and said “You elected to brave the batons and pronounce that New Zealand could not be free when other human beings were being subjected to a legalised and cruel system of racial domination” it really brought home to me how important the Springbok protests were.
Like many of you I have been following recent events in Wellington. At one level it feels so familiar, Tracy Chapman’s talking ’bout a revolution booming out, ordinary people raging against the machine, and a collective response to a perceived injustice, part of me almost wants to be there in support. Almost.
But dig further and sympathy evaporates.
For a start who would bring their kids onto a protest which is designed to be confronted by the authorities? And abusing teenage girls for wearing masks is not the sort of behaviour that a public relations expert would recommend. Nor threatening harm or worse to elected representatives and the media.
And stuffing up the city’s bus network? Disrupting ordinary people’s ability to travel is not high on the list of actions designed to endear your movement to others.
As for their complaints about the police’s behaviour all I can say is that as a Springbok tour veteran who had the misfortune to witness the Red Squad at its worst the current police approach is remarkably restrained. Senior police officers talk about the need to respect the right to protest and this is exactly what they are doing.
There have been some very good pieces written on the protests which I invite you to read.
Morgan Godfrey in the Guardian said this:
In normal circumstances protesters arrive in the capital with a concrete demand whether it’s ending student fees, repealing the Foreshore and Seabed Act, or opposing the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. But the “freedom” convoy came to town as simple catharsis. There were the anti-vaxxers and anti-mandates types, who range from American-style conspiracists to misguided anarchists, but alongside those familiar archetypes were evangelical church leaders, Steve Bannon-backed Counterspin media “journalists”, and people calling for tino rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty).
Like the Occupy movement, the group was leaderless. But not out of principle or ideology. It’s just the convoy couldn’t agree on anything because most of them were in Wellington to pursue their personal fantasies and grievances. That meant negotiation was impossible. The government was in no position to meet their demands because they were endless and, frankly, psychotic. An end to paediatric vaccinations. The execution of journalists. An end to vaccine mandates. The execution of academics. An end to mask mandates. The execution of health workers. It felt vaguely Trumpian in that a good number of the convoy were clearly taking pleasure in the spectacle of it – the threat of violence, the collective thrill of causing a scene in the most temperamentally conservative of countries.
Bernard Hickey in Spinoff said this about the protest:
They flew Trump flags, spouted QAnon conspiracy theories about global elites running child trafficking rings and demanded “freedom” to spread a deadly disease and paralyse a health system that is barely able to deal with the illnesses of the 96% of their fellow adult citizens who got vaccinated and wear masks in public. They threw eggs at students for wearing masks.
They demanded their “right” to opt out of the social contract to try to look after those around us in exchange for protection from bigger threats, under democratically agreed laws, to get on with our lives in peace, health and safety. We pay taxes and vote for governments and laws with the understanding we’ll be protected from external and internal threats to life and liberty.
That’s the deal, and for the past three days these protesters have broken it repeatedly, aggressively, violently and without any sense of empathy for those trying to go about their daily lives and jobs. And without consequence. Protestors happily sat and blocked traffic and pedestrians for hours on end. They harassed and abused others without a police officer in sight on Tuesday. By Wednesday, the police in their high vis vests were there, but only after loud and repeated threats of a plan to “storm” parliament. Even yesterday, the police were playing rock, paper, scissors with protesters on the front line. Some kind soul even arranged for portaloos for the protesters to do their own personal business in peace.
His description of the causes is prescient:
… a significant portion of the population get most of their information and have most of their public debates in online landscapes of misinformation, disinformation and hyper-emotion. These debates are often purely performative demonstrations of tribal fealty and rarely become genuine attempts to understand and come to some new joint position.
This is no accident. The algorithms developed by Facebook and Google’s YouTube are designed to amplify the most engaging comments, news and videos. The ones that attract the most likes and shares. The most hate and love. The most extreme positions. Since the widespread distribution and adoption of smart phones, public debate has become ever more extreme.
Apparently normal, functional people who would seem rational colleagues and family members appear to slide down holes into plainly wrong views about politics, health, technology and science. It is a collective descent into madness, that often goes in tandem with, and can worsen, mental illness.
And Mark Daalder in Newsroom provides this disturbing description of the background forces at play. He notes that the Canadian Trucker’s convoy was traced back to a Q Anon activist. Some people only want to see the world burn.
Hattotuwa said the Covid-19 misinformation pages he tracks on Facebook had more interactions on Thursday than the mainstream media pages – and nearly as many video views. The leading misinformation page, run by anti-vaxxer Chantelle Baker, garnered more video views with five posts than the leading media page, the NZ Herald, got with 73.
“I don’t think people realise how consequential Thursday was. Not so much for what happened in front of the Beehive, though arguably that’s what people are most fixated on. But it’s the informational landscape. It’s extraordinary,” he said.
“Chantelle Baker is, with five videos, generating more video views than 73 videos put out by NZ Herald in the same 24-hour period. There are dynamics here that are unprecedented. You are talking about a small misinfo/disinfo community who are pushing out real-time footage and coverage and framing about something that is happening that is fundamentally different to what the mainstream media is putting out.
“And they are being engaged on parallel and par with the mainstream media who obviously have a larger following. There’s something going on here that’s actually quite disturbing in terms of splintered realities and the lack of a shared narrative.”
These splintered realities risk setting us on the course towards splintered societies, Hattotuwa said.
“There are three different ways the convoy is being perceived and I cannot stress that enough. There is nothing that remotely connects what Counterspin is putting out about the convoy, in real time, to what the convoy’s chatter on Zello is, like for example at the start of Thursday. It’s totally disconnected.
“This is hitting, hard, social cohesion right now. It’s a very sophisticated playbook. It is not original because it has been played out in developing countries like mine and also on both sides of the Atlantic, but here, it’s playing out right now.”
If you want to see how bonkers some of the beliefs are check out this powerpoint which was highlighted in David Farrier’s blogpost. The legal advice offered is of the quality displayed by Brett Power in his High Court application to have Andrew Little arrested. It reads like someone was on a Coromandel Gold bender. The application was uncerimoniously thrown out by the High Court.
The protestors have some really way out there ideas, have threatened politicians with detention, bodily harm and worse, abused and threatened the media, and have disrupted a major city.
The right to protest is important but it has limits. Actual threats of harm are normally on the wrong side of the line. And having a rational debate with them? The level of removal from conventional thought processes displayed is normally cause for medical intervention.
Trevor Mallard upped the ante last night by, checks notes, playing Barry Manilow and the Macarena at full volume and turning on the sprinklers. Some have interepreted this as a full on attack on the right to protest and an invitation to insurrection. I think a certain amount of reflection, and well as a giggle, are more appropriate. If the protestors are willing to take symbolic action then Mallard is perfectly entitled to do the same.
Hopefully this protest peters out. If not it looks like we have a viable Trump like movement for who reason and understanding are not in their playbook. Putin must be grinning from ear to ear.
Update: Here is the list of the protestors’ demands.