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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Protest, Democracy and the TPPA

The TPPA protest raised some interesting questions. One that interested me was whether  the protest was effective? I’m in two minds. I mean, what other options do we have to express opposition to our government? Yet, the government just don’t listen and they employ tactics to minimise the effect of dissent. 

The image below (not from the TPPA protest - see credit below the image) sums up how many of us probably feel especially in relation to the TPPA negotiations and the recent comments made by PM John Key. 

This image was posted by @OpBigBrother on Twitter, a demonstration organsied by the group Anonymous - the slogan was simple but effective:  see 

I’m sure most readers would have come across the error notice when trying to open a website where the domain no longer exists. Pretty sweet analogy.  

The TPPA protest involved around 300 people who met at Aotea Square and made their way to the Sky City conference centre where the TPPA negotiations were taking place. 

Socialist Aotearoa report that: 
“After the Conference declined to accept the Petition against the TPPA, people demand to be let in to observe just what is being negotiated in secret behind Skycity's closed doors”  
(The Socialist Aotearoa webpage has a write up including photographs and video footage see:
The New Zealand Herald headline depicted the demonstration as follows - Police attacked at TPP protest and reported that: 
“Police have condemned "violent" protesters who attacked two police officers and set fire to cardboard boxes as they tried to force their way into free trade negotiations”.
This opening line fails to acknowledge why the protest erupted into violence. 

The beauty of social media is the eyewitness accounts shared when inaccurate or biased reporting occurs. 

Most witness accounts I have seen posted on social media make it clear that there was an intentionally provocative strategy taken by Police at this protest, while others suggested this was more typical Police practice. But do not be dismissive, such provocation and tactics results in a restraint on democracy. 

The strategy is simple: increase Police presence, raise adrenalin levels of the crowd, force a reaction to justify the use of Police force. One witness posted on Twitter that they saw a Police Officer punch a young female in the face causing those in the vicinity to react. That is the strategy in action, evidenced by the fact that some officers were armoured up indicative of their role in this strategy. 

The Officer in this picture was seen to punch a young female in the face by the person who took this photo and reportedly was particularly provocative in his approach to the protest

While I do not normally condone fighting or violence, witness accounts make it clear that the protesters had little option but to respond to the Police confrontation; however, it is wholly inexcusable that a protester took to stomping on the head of a Constable on the ground. 

My overall assessment of this protest is that it was ineffective. This is contrary to those who attended so I want to explain why. 

The aim of protests is to persuade those in positions of power to listen to the dissent. This happens most often when there is a majority support or at least visible widespread support. The protest yesterday did not gain that visible widespread support and as Police intervened to disempower the dissent and demonise participants, this played into the hands of the 'ruling elite'.  

The mainstream media ran with the ‘protester violence’ angle and many New Zealanders rely on those reports for informing their opinions. It is most likely, that public sympathy lies with the Police (although I hope I am wrong on this assumption). 

Additionally, some of the video footage reinforced the media angle despite the Police force visible. This is because all you can hear are the following phrases: 
  • “F* the Police/Pigs!” 
  • “F* off Pigs/Police!” 
  • Or a generic “F* off!” 
NZ audiences (generally speaking), particularly those who watch mainstream media are a reserved and even conservative bunch and are unlikely to sympathise with demonstrators who themselves sound like they are provoking the Police and are likely to view such phrases as tired and typical. But to be fair, it is extremely difficult to view these videos in context because the context was preset by the media. 

Visibility of organisations. Neoliberalism has successfully divided the activists from the 'reasoned' public, notwithstanding that these groups are visible at all causes and demonstrations for social justice.  Unfortunately, their reputations among the wider public lacks support - at least on the broad scale required to be effective. 

Protest requires public participation. Polls suggest that a majority of the public are opposed to the TPPA or at least want the negotiations made public. The support for the cause is there. The support for the groups involved in organising demonstrations is not. It is likely that many of those who oppose the TPPA also oppose socialism and unions and do not want to be associated with those groups by participating in the protest. 

I mean no offence. Championing social justice is highly admirable. But my personal assessment is that the protest lacked wider public support despite clear public opposition to the TPPA negotiations for the above reasons and this is why I think the protest was ineffective. 

For the sake of transparency, I did not attend the protest. I intended to, but backed out about half an hour before. I was most concerned about being in a large crowd and becoming overwhelmed, and I also questioned whether my presence mattered. In effect, I lost faith in the process. And the Police actions reaffirmed my despondency. 

My view is that democracy in NZ is under attack and this is clear for the following reasons (the list is not exhaustive): 
  • Police engaged in strategies to silence protest; 
  • PM advised the general public and the TPPA negotiators to ignore the protesters because he thinks they are wrong and then revokes permission for NZ’s leading academic on the TPPA to deliver a petition to the TPPA meeting; 
  • Perseverance with state asset sales in the face of widespread opposition and refusing a referendum; and 
  • Secret TPPA negotiations that involve the trade off of freedom, privacy and sovereignty which adversely affects every person who is a citizen of a signatory to that agreement. 

Protest needs to take a new track. It needs to involve more people by removing ties to particular groups. If the Anonymous movement has taught us anything, it is that when we act as one voice on issues we have in common despite our diversity and without compromising our diversity, we can achieve a great deal.

If your interested in watching a short video on the TPPA protest by @OccupyEye see: