Let's not forget the value of protest

OUT OF LEFT FIELD

ROSS HENDERSON
Last updated 08:55 22/02/2014

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Like many nations around the world, New Zealand's history is littered with important civil conflicts. Some of these were armed and some were demonstrations of civic protest.

Perhaps this country's most famous, and possibly defining, civil protest was in Taranaki. It was a peaceful protest on which it is claimed Mahatma Gandhi based his form of peaceful civil disobedience.

Parihaka, the Maori village set up on the Mt Taranaki hinterland after the bloody and destructive land wars, was a protest. It was a rallying point in opposition to the massive land confiscations and poor treatment of local Maori. The community, under the leadership of Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, had a deliberate policy of peaceful and unarmed resistance. What developed was as much a religious movement as it was a sanctuary for Maori ravaged by years of conflict.

Their forms of protest included ripping out survey pegs and sitting on land to stop or slow down work on it. No-one was hurt and there was no violence.

The fact the community had lived in peace for some years did not stop local Pakeha from getting nervous about a community that grew to nearly 2000 people. Government troops, supported by local militia, stormed the settlement in November 1881. The amped-up troops were offered food and friendship, but responded by tearing down buildings and destroying the place. Blood was spilt.

Comments about an anti-oil drilling protest in New Plymouth at the end of last year - that the protesters "should get a real job" - highlight where we have got to when it comes to protesting. The protest involved a march along Devon St, eventually winding up in front of the offices of a local oil company where the local company representative was confronted by the group.

The group was definitely strident and it wasn't in a mood to afford the oil company manager much of a hearing. The protesters used some tactics, such as shouting down the manager, that I'm not sure I would use. But their emotions on the issue were clearly running high.

Those who didn't criticise the protest outright offered another view - that it was fine for them to protest, but they shouldn't have caused any inconvenience.

This is an equally Right-wing view of citizen protest. Protest is meant to cause disruption. It is intended to challenge establishment forces and cause the smug and the self-satisfied to sit up and take notice.

Te Whiti o Rongomai knew what he was doing.

He wasn't violent or aggressive. He was the master at doing things that would unsettle and niggle and annoy.

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The purpose of protest is to change the minds and actions of those with the power to make decisions.

Think of the great anti- establishment protests of our short history. They weren't about politely and meekly expressing a view. They confronted and challenged.

The 1890 maritime strike. The 1913 waterfront lockout. The pacifists during World War I. The unemployment demonstrations of 1932 which resulted in riots, usually provoked by the police. The 1951 waterfront lockout. The Treaty protests of the 1970s. The Springbok Tour marches in 1981.

In each of these protests, ordinary people climbed out of the comfort of their settled lives to take up a fight against the powerful on a matter of principle and for a better life for all. Each was regarded as a failure at the time events erupted. But you can see that each led to change in the years that followed.

We are in danger of losing an appreciation of the importance and value of civil protest, whether or not it means civil disobedience. As we see in distant countries, a thriving protest movement is vital to democracy.

We in New Zealand have always been prone to the forces of conservatism who say "they're wasting their time". These are the words of a quisling, the weak and spineless who quickly cuddle up to the establishment, regardless of its values, because there they will be protected.

We have lost the value of freedom of expression as something valuable in its own right. The right to protest and to challenge isn't justified by whether it "adds value" or leads to an immediate result. Protest starts with challenging an accepted idea, an old wisdom.

We see it today in the response by the forces of corporate power to Labour MP Shane Jones' allegations about Countdown. They shout "abuse of parliamentary privilege", as if this somehow excuses the alleged corporate behaviour at the centre of the complaint.

Good on the MP for using the special rights he has as a politician to shine a light on what he says is ugly behaviour towards supermarket suppliers. The power of corporate wealth is just like the forces of the state going after Te Whiti. But now, a latter- day Te Whiti has turned the establishment institution of Parliament against them.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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