This picture was taken at an end of year celebration hosted in the early 2000s by the Green Party at a trade union hall on Great North Road. In it are three individuals whose paths crossed at that moment in time. One is a university lecturer. One is a university student who was a Green Party activist at the time. One is a young political commentator/stirrer/gadfly. At the time of the photo the three were connected by the fact that the student was in the professor’s class on Revolutions and Insurgencies and the commentator sat in on the class as well as interview the professor from time to time on political subjects. All were supporters of the Green Party at the time (the Donald, Fitzsimons, Tansczos, Bradford, Locke years when it was truly a “watermelon” party).
The young guy was on the rise in media circles, the young activist was idealistic, energetic and enthusiastic in promoting environmental causes, and the academic was known more for his love of triathlons than anything else.
Flash forward twenty years. Who are they and what are they doing now?
It seems fair to say that we currently live in a problematic political moment in world history. Democracies are in decline and dictatorships are on the rise. Primordial, sectarian and post-modern divisions have re-emerged, are on the rise or have been accentuated by political evolutions of the moment such as the growth of nationalist-populist movements and the emergence of demagogic leaders uninterested in the constraints of law or civility. Wars continue and are threatened, insurgencies and irredentism remain, crime proliferates in both the physical world and cyberspace and natural disasters and other climatic catastrophes have become more severe and more frequent.
One of the interesting aspects to this “world in turmoil” scenario is the global surge in social protests. Be it peaceful sit-ins, land occupations, silent vigils, government building sieges, street and road blockades, pot-banging and laser-pointing mass demonstrations or riots and collective violence, the moment is rife with protest.
There are some significant differences in the nature of the protests. Contrary to previous eras in which they tended to be ideologically uniform or of certain type (say, student and worker anti-capitalist demonstrations), the current protest movement is heterogeneous in orientation, not just in the tactics used but in the motivations underpinning them. In this essay I shall try to offer a taxonomy of protest according to the nature of their demands.
Much of what is facilitating the current protest wave is global telecommunications technologies. In previous decades people may have read about, heard about or seen protests at home or in far-off places, but unless they were directly involved their impressions came through the filter of state and corporate media and were not communicated with the immediacy of real-time coverage in most instances. Those doing the protests were not appealing to global audiences and usually did not have the means to do so in any event. Coverage of mass collective action was by and large “top down” in nature: it was covered “from above” by journalists who worked for status quo (often state controlled) media outlets at home or parachuted in from abroad with little knowledge of or access to the local, non-elite collective mindset behind the protests.
Today the rise of individual telecommunications technologies such as hand-held devices, social media platforms and constant on-line live streaming, set against a corporate media backdrop of 24/7 news coverage, allows for the direct and immediate transmission of participant perspectives in real time. The coverage is no longer one sided and top down but multi-sided and “bottom up,” something that not only provides counter-narratives to offical discourse but in fact offers a mosaic landscape of perspective and opinion on any given event. When it comes to mass collective action, the perspectives offered are myriad.
The rise of personalised communication also allows for better and immediate domestic and transnational linkages between activists as well as provide learning exercises for protestors on opposite sides of the globe. Protestors can see what tactics work and what does not work in specific situations and contexts elsewhere. Whereas security forces have crowd control and riot training to rely on (often provided by foreign security partners), heretofore it was difficult for protest groups to learn from the experiences of others far away, especially in real time. Now that is not the case, and lessons can be learned from any part of the world.
The nature of contemporary protests can be broadly categorised as follows: protests against economic conditions and policy; protests against central government control; protests against elitism, authoritarianism and corruption (which often go hand-in-hand); protests against “others” (for example, anti-immigrant and rightwing extremist protests in the US and Europe); protests over denied rights or recognition (such as the gay and pro-abortion and anti-femicide demonstrations in Argentina, or indigenous rights protests in Brazil); single-issue protests (e.g. climate change); or mixtures of the above.
The literature on mass collective action often centres on what are known as “grievance versus greed” demands. One side of the continuum involves pure grievance demands, that is, demands for redress born of structural, societal or institutional inequalities. On the other side are demands born of the desire to preserve a self identified right, entitlement or privilege. In spite of the connotations associated with this specific choice of words, greed demands are not necessarily selfish nor are grievance based protests always virtuous. For example, greed demands can involve respect for or return to basic civil liberties as universal human rights or demands for the preservation of democracy, such as in the case of Hong Kong. Conversely, grievances can often be selfish in nature. Thus, although the pro-Brexit demonstrations are construed as demands that politicians heed the will of the people, the underlying motivation is defensive and protective of a peculiarly defined form of nationalism. A particularity of the modern era is that although most of the protests are portrayed as grievance-based, a considerable amount are in fact greed-based and not always virtuous, as in the case of the Charlottesville white supremacy marches and anti-immigrant demonstrations in Europe.
Protests against economic policies and conditions have recently been seen in Chile, France, Ecuador and Iraq. Protests against centralised government control have been seen in Catalonia, Indian Kashmir and Hong Kong. Protests against authoritarianism, elitism and corruption have been seen in Lebanon, Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Iran and Nicaragua. Protests against elitism are seen in the UK (over Brexit), and against state repression in Greece. “Othering” protests have occurred in the US, Italy, Hungary, Greece and South Africa, among other places. Interestingly, the majority of contemporary protests are not strictly economic (structural) in nature, but instead concentrate on superstructural factors such as the behaviour of government, restrictions on voice and representation and/or the vainglorious impunity of socioeconomic elites.
Often, such as in Chile, the protests begin as one thing and morph into another (starting out as protests against economic policy and conditions and then adding in protests against heavy handed state repression). The more new actors join the original protestors, the more likely the protests themselves will adopt a heterogenous or hybrid nature. That also extends to the tactics employed: while some protesters will choose passive resistance and civil disobedience as the preferred course of direct action, others will choose more confrontational tactics. The precise mix of this militant-moderate balance is determined by the prior history of protest and State repression in a given society (see below). The idea is to clear space for a peaceful resolution to the dispute with authorities, something that may require the use of confrontation tactics in order for authorities to accede to moderate demands. Remember: in spite of the language used, the protests in question are not part of or precursors to revolutionary movements, properly defined. They are, in fact, reformist movements seeking to improve upon but not destroy the status quo ante.
In recent times the emergence of leaderless resistance has made more difficult the adoption of a coherent approach to direct action in which moderate and militant tactics are used as part of a unified strategy (or praxis) when confronting political authorities. This is an agent-principal problem before it is a tactical problem because there is no core negotiating cadre for the protest movement that can coordinate the mix of moderate and militant actions and speak to the authorities with a unified voice and grassroots support. Under such conditions it is often difficult to achieve compromises on contentious issues, thereby extending the period of crisis which, if left unresolved by peaceful means, can lead to either a pre-revolutionary moment or a turn towards hard authoritarianism. That again depends on the society, issues and history in question.
Introduction of new actors into mass protest movements inevitably brings with it the arrival of criminals, provocateurs, third columnists and lumpenproletarians. These seek to use the moment of protest as a window of opportunity for the self-entered goals and use the protest movement as a cloak on their actions. These are most often the perpetrators of the worst violence against people and property and are those who get the most mainstream media coverage for doing so. But they should not be confused with the demographic “core” of the movement, which is not reducible to thugs and miscreants and which has something other than narrowly focused personal self-interest or morbid entertainment as a motivating factor.
The type of violence involved in mass collection action tells a story. Attacks on symbols of authority such as monuments and statues, government buildings or corporate entities general point to the direction of discontent. These can range from graffiti to firebombing, depending on the depth of resentment involved. Ransacking of supermarkets is also a sign of the underlying conditions behind the disorder. Destruction of public transportation does so as well. Attacks on security forces in the streets are a symbol of resistance and often used as a counter-punch to what is perceived as heavy handed police and/or military responses to peaceful protest. In some societies (say, South Korea and Nicaragua) the ability to counter-punch has been honed over years of direct action experience and gives pause to security forces when confronting broad-based social protests.
On the other hand, assaults on civilians uninvolved in security or policy-making, attacks on schools or otherwise neutral entities such as sports clubs, churches or community organisations point to either deep social (often ethno-religious) divisions or the presence of untoward elements hiding within the larger movement. Both protest organisers and authorities need to be cognisant of these differences.
In all cases mass protests are ignited by a spark, or in the academic vernacular, a precipitating event or factor. In Bolivia it was president Morals’s re-election under apparently fraudulent conditions. In Chile it was a subway fare hike. In France it was the rise in fuel prices that sparked the Yellow Vest movement that in turn became a protest about the erosion of public pension programs and and worker’s collective rights. In Ecuador it was also a rise in the price of petrol that set things off. In Hong Kong it was an extradition bill.
One relatively understudied aspect of contemporary protests is the broader cultural milieu in which they occur. All societies have distinctive cultures of protest. In some instance, such as Hong Kong, they are not deeply grounded in direct action or collective mass violence, and therefore are slow to challenge the repressive powers of the State (in the six months of Hong Kong protests three people have been killed). In other countries, such as Chile, there is a rich culture of protest to which contemporary activists and organisers can hark back to. Here the ramping up of direct action on the streets comes more quickly and involves the meting out of non-State violence on property and members of the repressive apparatuses (in Chile 30 people have died and thousands injured in one month of protests). In other countries like Iraq, pre-modern sectarian divisions combine with differences over governance to send protests from peaceful to homicidal in an instant (in Iraq over 250 people were killed and 5,000 injured in one week of protest).
Just like their are different war-fighting styles and cultures, so too are their different protest cultures specific to the societies involved.
The differences in protest culture, in turn, are directly related to cultures of repression historically demonstrated by the State. In places like Hong Kong there has been little in the way of a repressive culture prior to the last decade or so, and therefore the Police response has been cautious and incremental when it comes to street violence (always with an eye towards what the PRC overlords as well as Hong Kong public will consider acceptable). In Chile the legacy of the dictatorship hangs like a dark shadow over the security forces, who themselves have enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy from civilian oversight in the years since the transition to democracy (in what can be considered, along with the market-driven macroeconomic policies that favour the dictatorship’s economic supporters, another authoritarian legacy). In places like Egypt the repressive response is predicated on belief in the utility value of disproportionate force: any demonstration, no matter how peaceful, is met with degrees of (often extra-judicial) lethality so as to serve as a lesson and set an example for others.
The way in which state security organisations respond to protests is also a function of the degree of security sector coherence. Issues such as inter-service rivalries, factional disputes within the armed services, different perspectives on civil-military relations and standards of professional autonomy all factor into if and how those charged with the management of organised violence will respond to differentiations types of protest.
It is therefore in the dialectic between social protest and State repressive cultures where the physical-kinetic boundaries of collective mass action are drawn. Some societies are restrained or “polite” and so too are their notions of proper protest. In others, the moment for restraint ends when protests begin.
Underlying different approaches to contemporary protests is the issue of consent and toleration, or more precisely, the threshold of of consent and toleration. Basically popular consent is required for democratic governance to endure and prosper. Consent is given contingently, in the expectation that certain material, social and political thresholds will be met and upheld by those who rule. When the latter fail to meet or uphold their end of the bargain, then consent is withdrawn and social instability begins. Although it is possible for consent to be manipulated by elites, this is a temporary solution to a long-term dilemma, which is how to keep a majority of the subjects content with their lots in life over time?
Contingent mass consent also depends on a threshold of toleration. What will people tolerate in exchange for their consent? The best example is the exchange of political for economic benefits in dictatorships: people give up political rights in order to secure material benefits. But the threshold of toleration is often fragile and unstable, especially when grievances have been festering for a time or demands have repeatedly gone unmet. When that is the case the spark that precipitates the withdrawal of mass contingent consent can be relatively minor (say, defeat by a national football team in a World Cup or the assassination of an innocent by the security forces).
Each society develops its own threshold of contingent consent and toleration. What people will tolerate in Turkey is not the same as what people will tolerate in New Zealand (assuming for the purposes of this argument that Turkey is still a democracy of sorts). In fact, the very basis of consent differ from society to society: what Turks may consider acceptable in terms of material, social and political conditions may not be remotely acceptable to the French. Even outright authoritarians need to be conscious of the threshold of consent and toleration, if not from the masses then certainly from the elites that support them. But that only adds to their governance dilemmas, since pursuit of elite contingent consent can bring with it an intolerable situation for the masses. At that point the cultures of protest and State repression will come into play.
Ultimately, the current age of protest is the product of a global crisis of governance. Belief in the combination of market capitalism and democratic forms of representation as the preferred political-economic combination has eroded significantly. Rapid demographic and technological changes, increased income inequalities and other pathologies associated with the globalisation of production and exchange have undermined the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats under liberal democratic conditions. Authoritarians have increasingly filled the void both in countries that have democratic traditions as well as those that do not. Using the power of the State, they propagate fear-mongering and scapegoating between in- and out-groups in order to consolidate power and stifle opposing views.
The irony is that the turn to authoritarianism may be seen as the solution to the crisis of democratic governance, but it is no panacea for the underlying conditions that produced the current wave of protest and in fact may exacerbate them over the long term if protest demands are repressed rather than addressed. If that is the case, then what is currently is a global move towards reformism “from below” could well become the revolutionary catharsis than recent generations of counter-hegemonic activists failed to deliver.
That alone should be reason enough for contemporary political leaders to study the reasons for and modalities of the current wave of protests. That should be done in an effort not to counter the protests but to reach compromises that, if not satisfying the full spectrum of popular demands, serve as the foundation for an ongoing dialogue that reconstructs the bases of consent and toleration so essential for maintenance of a peaceful social order. It remains to be seen how many will do so.
Activist and former Auckland mayoral candidate Penny Bright is in the last stages of her last battle in this physical realm, and I thought that I would share a few words in recognition of her. She represents an old breed of citizen activist in the sense that she was not so much an ideological diehard championing a party line as she was a person who took personal grievance and turned it into political action. She was neither a “soft” or “hard” leftist but instead a progressive who understood the leeway and limits of direct action in a liberal democracy. He causes were “glocal” in that she focused on things both global and local in nature, and there was rarely a good demo or protest that she would pass on. In that sense she was “organic” and grassroots in essence: self-taught and from the streets rather than the product of elite institutions protected by a comfortable position.
I know that there are millennial activists who have a dim view of Penny, arguing that she was mean to some of them and bullying in her personal ways. I tend to think of her as more headstrong and determined than bullying, and while I cannot speak for the young’uns experience with her I can say that in her dealings with me she came across as principled and steeled by the courage of her convictions. Not that I agreed with (most of ) her views on particular matters and in fact some of her causes had a tin foil hat aspect to them in my view, but I respect the fact that she put herself out there in defence of them. Her high beams were on all of the time in a country where most would opt for dimmers.
She may not have vanquished the windmills that she tilted at or moved the mountains that stood in her way. But she did get under the skin of officialdom and the retrogrades that populate the blogging Right, and that is a good sign as far as I am concerned. She fought hard, lost more than she won and yet persisted. Were it that we all could say the same when it comes to living true to our ideals.
So as Penny prepares for her next chapter may I simply say that I respect her for who she is, I recognise her actions on behalf of others, I appreciate the influence she has had when contesting the official narrative and I am grateful for her contributions to the commonweal. It may not be immediately apparent but her legacy has left its impression far beyond the immediacies of the actions that she was involved with.
Yesterday the Green Party released its Climate Tax Cut policy proposal comprising, mostly, a carbon tax offset by an income-tax-free threshold for individuals and a decrease in the company tax rate. There’s much to be said about the cleverness of the tax-swap policy and so on, but I’m more interested in the cultural differences I observe in Green supporters (who love climate-change mitigation policies) from the rest of the populace at large (who regard them as a necessary evil at best).
Seeing that this cultural gap results in an amount of criticism from greens directed at those less enthusiastic, this morning I put it into the form of a twitter-treatise, as follows:
On Resistance to Climate Change Politics: a treatise in 8 tweets.
[1/8] There are two axes to climate change mitigation politics:
This seems to me a pretty fundamental map/territory problem: people are cognisant of the threat of climate change and might be willing to do something about it, but are alienated by alarmist rhetoric, guilt-trips and castigation, and policies that might inconvenience them.
The Greens as an increasingly professional and mainstream political operation are, for the most part, pretty good at staying positive on this topic. But how are they to mobilise their activist base without bringing out the elitist and badgering tendencies that come so naturally when people are so convinced of their rightness that they genuinely can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t agree with them?
Whatever your opinion regarding the Urewera Terror raids, you have to admit that the Police and Crown Law have failed.
The so-called “Urewera 4” were convicted on about half of the least-serious charges brought, and the jury was hung on the more serious charges of participation in an organised criminal group. The defendants may be retried on these latter charges, and they may yet be found guilty. But the paucity of the Police and Crown Law operation is pretty clear regardless.
Let’s put this in context. The Crown sought initially to lay dozens more charges against many more people than the four who eventually stood trial; leave to bring charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act was not granted, and most of the other charges were dropped after the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence upon which they were founded had been illegally obtained. A year of fancy intensive surveillance; an extreme and unprecedented police assault on an unsuspecting community, including violent treatment of old people and children; four and a half years of lawyering comprising the most expensive trial in New Zealand history, held almost as far from the homes of the defendants as is possible; leaks and publicity tactics designed to bring about a de-facto trial-by-media — and the best they convict on is Arms Act offences such as about half the adult male population of rural New Zealand would be guilty of at some time or other? This, we are supposed to believe, is Aotearoa’s finest at work.
Not only did they fail at the nominal objective of securing convictions, they totally failed at the personal, punitive motive of punishing TÄme Iti and shaming him before his people. Iti has been literally the face of MÄori activism, at least since Hone Harawira took the institutional path, and it is impossible to see this trial as anything other than utu for his temerity in escaping conviction for previous acts of defiant political theatre, most notably shooting a flag at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing in 2005. By going in loud and heavy, attempting to show them uppity MÄoris who was boss, the Crown set themselves an ambitious target: they had to actually show who was boss. By failing to convict him on the serious charges at a canter, they failed. TÄme Iti is now a celebrity. His mythology is greater than his deeds, except inasmuch as resisting such a legal and ideological onslaught with dignity is a significant deed in itself. He has, in the view of a significant minority of the population, been victimised by the system, and that victimisation provides proof of Crown oppression he had previously struggled to demonstrate. For the rest of the population, Iti represents a brown, tattooed bogeyman, an object of fear, and of loathing that ranges from mild to virulent depending on who you talk to. Iti isn’t standing for office, he doesn’t need to be loved by 50%+1; he just needs to engender fervent support among an active minority, and vague feelings of unease in the rest. Notoriety differs from fame only in its polarity. The Police and the Crown have granted TÄme Iti this sort of fame. He should probably thank them for it.
As if the particular and the personal weren’t failures enough, the Crown also failed at the strategic project of redefining “activism” as “extremism”. Despite all the preceding factors weighing in the Crown’s favour, that a heavily-vetted jury was split indicates that they have failed to blur this crucial distinction, and failed to reframe left-wing and MÄori activism* as a threat to civilisation, rather than a legitimate expression of dissent in an open society. This suggests that, in spite of years of Police infiltration and surveillance, of decades of stigmatisation and propagandisation of groups from NgÄ Tamatoa to Ploughshares to SAFE, in spite of the better part of two centuries of official attempts to elide the gulf between dissent and insurrection, the public doesn’t really buy it. The jury — and, I would suggest, the people of Aotearoa — quite like and value that distinction and although it is been somewhat eroded, there it remains.
For that finding alone, and regardless of the result of any retrial, yesterday was a good day.
* MÄori and leftist because, let us not forget, the Right Wing Resistance are free to continue with their training camps and their pseudo-secessionist projects, unmolested.
The “Waihopai 3” have been acquitted. Their act of civil disobedience, which resulted in damage to one of the domes covering eavesdropping equipment at the Echelon Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering station near Blenheim, was deemed by a jury of their peers to be justified because of their sincerely held beliefs that the listening post contributed to human suffering on a world scale.
This is a remarkable verdict. The Plowshares group clearly trespassed and clearly did damage to the dome (they cut through both a perimeter fence and then the dome in order to access its interior). But their motives clearly outweighed, at least in the minds of the jury, the criminality of their actions (the charge of burglary against them was a grave mistake on the part of the Crown). The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges of trespass, burglary and criminal damage and left the court as free men and as an inspiration to other direct action activists discontented with the status quo. One wonders if this Â decision will establish not only a legal precedent but also encourage others to follow suit in pursuit of anti-status quo objectives.
I must confess to being at a loss for an explanation. As I wrote in “A Brief Comment on Spy Bases and Civil Disobedience” over at Scoop, (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0805/S00039.htm), active acts of civil disobedience involving direct action (as opposed to the passive act school of civil disobedience exemplified by Ghandi and followed by his adherents after he was murdered) are most often premised on the perpetrators willingly understanding that their actions are in violation of conventional law, and that their actions will be punished accordingly. More often than not they plead guilty in order to make their political case at sentencing, something that spares the taxpayer the court costs of defending the charges while at the same time providing a courtroom soapbox for dissemination of their claims. Seriously committed activists often/sometimes (depending who is talking) never reach trial because they die trying. None of that occurred in this case.
I am sympathetic to the Plowshares cause although I seriously disagree with their view of the Echelon network. I applaud their willingness to stand up for their beliefs, and their use of unconventional, yet basically peaceful means to make their case. But for the life of me I cannot understand why they were acquitted, and I fear that the verdict has opened a Pandoras Box of unintended and perhaps dangerous consequences. But then again, we are talking about activities that occurred in New Zealand, although to be honest, if this action merited acquittal, what does that say about the case against the Urewera 18, who did not trespass, damage or burglarise anything?
Imagine what the outcome would have been had the Plowshares engaged their direct action in the US, UK or Australia. I reckon the verdict would have been different, and the sentences severe.
A few thousand primary school kids, dressed mostly in high-visibility gear and carrying (or wearing) makeshift traffic cones, lollipop signs and banners, have just marched through Wellington CBD escorted by police motorcyclists, ambulances and led by a highland band (bagpipes and all).
I work in a media office. Most of us spend hours every day scouring the news as it comes in – on paper, over the airwaves and on the interwebs – as a matter of our daily work. Not one of us had the faintest inkling what the march beneath our window was about, who had organised it or what end it aimed to achieve. We guess from the (excellent) adornments worn by the wee nippers and their guardians that it’s to do with proposed speed limit reductions around schools. But that’s just a guess.
Whoever organised this has achieved a remarkable feat: coordinating thousands – ok, maybe it was hundreds – of kids (which is like herding cats), gaining approval from their parents, the police, the City Council and signing up a marching band, without anyone in our esteemed media establishment hearing a word about it. That person should probably be put in charge of corporate communications for a big company or government department with a lot of bad news – one of the power companies, perhaps, or a trading bank.
Incidentally, if school speed limits is the cause being protested, then I fully support it. There’s a school near where I live which is at the bottom of a 70k/h hill, and the thought of sending their precious dear things down that road each day must give local parents conniptions. I have it on good authority that the local AOS sergeant, who has a kid at the school, spends his off hours parked up there issuing tickets in addition to his ordinary policing workload. Not ideal.
Paul Henry led TV One’s Close Up the other evening with disbelief that GetAcross – “just a few protesters” – could bring Auckland to “a virtual standstill”, and that the police were “powerless to stop them – almost unwilling to stop them”.
Yes, that is amazing.
But he goes on:
But that’s what happened yesterday when protesters broke through barriers and walked across the Harbour Bridge, raising the spectre of just how vulnerable we are to civil disobedience.
Hang on a minute. “Vulnerable” denotes susceptibility to attack, and this construction therefore defines “civil disobedience” as an attack on society, or at least on Auckland. But civil disobedience as a form of activism, an agent of social change or a means of engaging people in the wider political process is by definition not an attack, but one of the `institutions of societal democracy’ referred to in Pablo’s recent post on the topic; a civic duty, to use Thoreau’s formulation, rather than an act of social destructiveness. That the police didn’t – or couldn’t – prevent it by force seems to me a good thing for our society, and I might add a refreshing change from former attitudes toward peaceful protest.
This wasn’t an attack which weakened society, it was an action which could strengthen it by demonstrating that when you want something, there’s no better way to get it than to make your views known. The GetAcross action didn’t result in violence, property damage, serious disorder or anything of the sort – all it did was show up a critical weak link in Auckland’s infrastructure chain. When a couple of thousand – at most – people on bikes can cause tens of thousands of people to become stuck in traffic just by crossing one bridge, once, there are more serious problems than the protest action. If by simply adding a lane two metres wide, ARTA could prevent this from ever having to happen again – then why wouldn’t they? If not, then aren’t they asking for the weak link to be tested, again and again?
Update: To my great delight, James at Editing The Herald has skewered Garth George’s latest set of authoritarian mutterings about this topic on the sharp spike of the the black civil rights movement. Party on, James.
Hand crafts have been woven into many forms of activism over the last few decades; as symbols o the rejection of mass produced consumer goods, as opportunities for individual expression, and as a way of challenging the sterile cities we live in. Rayna Fahey of the Radical Cross Stitch and the Melbourne Revolutionary Craft Circle will be speaking in Wellington this Tuesday night about crafts and social justice.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where I learned to cook, sew, garden, embroider, knit and do origami. My extended family repertoire included pottery, batik, awesome cookery, and a variety of other fabric and craft arts. I remember the people who have shared new crafts with me over the years; the women who taught me to pour candles, the girl with whom I made incense, the woman who showed me how to reweave in threads to fix embroidery mistakes.
Every one of those people has left an imprint of caring on my life â€“ that is a big part of what craftivism is, valuing each individual and each conversation, remembering our unique skills and talents. Without that we would be no more than cogs in a factory line.
The 2007 police raids on an assortment of activists sparked heated debate amongst progressives throughout the country about the merits of direct action. Some, whom I shall unfairly label the “soft” Left, argue that under Â no circumstances should violence be used in pursuit of political ideals. Others, who I shall flatter with the label “hard” Left, argue that under certain circumstances the resort to violence is justified. How do we reconcile these views?
Please note that I shall not be referring here to issues of right wing praxis. Besides the fact that I think that the ultra-Right are beneath contempt, I do not want to offer any pointers they might not already have. I will note, however, that it is curious that the Police and SIS focus their attention on Left activists and appear singularly uninterested in according the same treatment to neo-nazis, skinheads, anti-Semites and Aryan survivalists even though these losers openly advocate violence against people on their websites and in their communiques, and have a history of violence against those they hate. Perhaps it is a bias on the part of the Police and SIS; perhaps it is because the ultra-Right are inept, but either way, the double standard seems weird.
Getting back to the point, what constitutes legitimate direct action in Aotearoa? Let us begin with two simple definitions. Direct action is the use of non-institutionalised (to include illegal), highly symbolic methods of resistance, protest, grievance or voice in pursuit of political objectives. Praxis is the melding of theory and practice into a coherent strategy of action. From a praxis standpoint, the nature of the cause matters less than the nature of the action (although the people involved may disagree). The resort to extra-institutional forms of redress is designed to highlight the cause or issue that is the focus of the action. But to be successful, direct action has to follow some simple rules: 1) it must raise public consciousness about the issue in a way that institutionalised channels and agencies can or do not; 2) it must force a government and/or private agent’s reaction that otherwise would not obtain; 3) it must elicit majority sympathy for the action or empathy for the cause. This last point is important because it brings up the issue of the threshold of toleration, which is the point at which favourable public reaction tips over into rejection. The key for direct action adherents is to get as close to that threshold of toleration without stepping over it and producing a negative backlash against both the activists and their cause. So long as they stay within the threshold of toleration, their actions will be successful (whether or not they are arrested or charged for violating criminal or civil statutes). Finally, direct action adherents must accept the legal consequences of their actions and be prepared to use the judicial system as an echo chamber and bully pulpit in which to reiterate the justice of their cause.
The main issue confronting the direct action advocate is to ascertain the limits of the permissible. In Â New Zealand, it appears that regardless of cause, violence against people is not acceptable to the majority. The irony of NZ government-ordered Â brutality against protestors notwithstanding (say, during the 1954 dockworkers strike or Springbok tour), it is clear that the majority of New Zealanders abhor political violence against persons. Hence, “terrorists” will find little fertile ground here, and anything that results in physical harm or the threat of harm to people is likely to elicit a negative reaction from the pubic. But what about things such as spitting or throwing excrement or blood on others? Is that within the threshold of toleration? In NZ, I would think not.
On the other hand, violence against property, be it public or private, is more open to discussion. Â With sedition laws no longer in force, where are the limits to physical assaults on property? Is throwing a brick through a bank window an acceptable protest against corporate greed? Is painting a statue or monument in blood legitimate? Is setting fire to a mosque or synagogue acceptable protest against the perceived transgressions of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Israel? Is trying to occupy NZDF headquarters acceptable protest against NZ involvement in foreign conflicts? Is destroying animal testing facilities OK? Is sabotaging rail lines to impede coal shipments within the threshold of toleration? Is tree-spiking a legitimate tactic? Is running around the bush throwing molotovs while talking trash about race wars and traitorous politicians a valid direct action precursor (or sidebar)? Â Although the specific answers to these questions may or may not be easily found, the broader issue is finding the appropriate threshold of toleration for a given type of direct action given the context in which it is engaged.
By the rules I outlined above, the Waihopai Plowshares direct action was a success. Some may think it ineffectual since the Echelon eavesdropping stations remain operative, but the point was never to physically stop the operation (which is why the activists did not damage equipment once inside the dome). It was done in order to raise public awareness and questions about NZ’s participation in the Echelon network, and the action most certainly did that. On the other hand, threatening the spouses and children of pharmaceutical company executives over the latter’s role in animal testing is an example of crossing the threshold of toleration. Whatever the justice of the cause, threatening to harm people not directly involved in animal testing–especially children–is bound to elicit a negative reaction from the public majority. It is therefore counter-productive, even if many believe that executives need to be held directly and physically accountable for the corporate logics of profit that justify the exploitation and torture of animals for human benefit.
I could go on but the thrust of my argument should by now be clear. Direct action is an effective political tactic if it follows certain guidelines. It must differentiate between the target of the action (let’s say, the US embassy, which has been chosen to be flour-bombed ), the object of the action (to raise awareness of, lets say, extraordinary rendition and secret detention centres in which torture is practiced as an interrogation technique), and the subject of the action (the NZ government and public, so as to put pressure from both on US diplomats that NZ does not condone or accept such practices). Â The purpose of the hypothetical illustration is not be polemical but instead to chart the ends-means sequence that needs to inform direct action for it to be successful.
The bottom line is this. Direct action is a legitimate political tactic when institutional channels fail. The nature of the action depends on the cause espoused and the society involved, since the threshold of toleration varies from culture to culture and political society to political society. What might be an acceptable form of direct action in Nigeria may not be so acceptable in NZ. Thus the main “problem set” for activists is to determine the toleration threshold for a given form of direct action in a particular socio-political context, Having done that, it is on to the barricades, comrades, y hasta la victoria, siempre, companeros!