Kinds of Protests

On Friday March 15, there were two major protests – school students concerned about the future, a terrorist facing toward the past. What are we to think?

On the Ides of March 2019, thousands of New Zealand school students – and hundreds of thousands of the world’s – marched to say that not enough was being done to stop global warming.

Their grandparents’ generation had marched against nuclear arms. Each generation saw their future threatened; one that the world would be blown to pieces by nuclear war and the remnants suffer the catastrophe of nuclear fallout; today’s that rising sea levels and climate change could transform their world as devastatingly. The protestors wanted action.

I have pondered how effective were those of us (yes, it included me) who campaigned for nuclear disarmament fifty years ago, for there were other forces which contributed to the reduction (but not elimination) of the nuclear threat. I cannot tell you how effective today’s school students will be.

The assessment is complicated by the way social media protests seem to flare spectacularly but are often unsustainable. There was no social media then. The campaign was led by a small, committed, core community, with many others loosely attached.

The core was a diverse community. While the unsympathetic described it as pro-Russian and anti-American – it is so easy to simplify beyond recognition – the epithets did not apply to the vast majority; they were only anti-nuclear. We knew New Zealand would do less badly out of a Northern Hemisphere nuclear conflict – it would still be terrible – but our commitment was to the entire world.

A saving grace for the current protestors is that it is difficult to label them as being against particular nations. You could say they were against some corporations or even anti-capitalist, but that too would be an oversimplification.

Within the anti-nuclear core there was much debate about the limits of protest. Everyone ruled out deliberate injury and death. That was not true among nineteenth century anarchists, and some of the resolve might have cracked in, say, Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Damage to property was more contentious. Painting slogans – including on visiting warships – was acceptable if you had the skills and the courage. On one occasion, the stay holding a military aerial at Weedons (near Christchurch) mysteriously snapped. Once at a meeting, Tim Shadbolt smashed a window with a chair (I was not there) to contrast the audience’s shock with its complacency over big issues.

Certainly we should be neither complacent nor neglectful of the intensity of the feelings of the protestors. I was appalled by the reaction of some school principals to the proposed march. It was a brilliant educational opportunity to discuss global warming and the importance of peaceful protest in a civil society – that we must tolerate such protests, even if we deeply disagree with the sentiments underpinning them. They should also have offered the student demonstrators and the fainthearted a way to meet the formal requirements. (I have made up missed lessons in similar cases.)

Instead, some principals publicly threatened the protesting students with reprisals – such as being recorded as truants. I conclude we cannot respect those principals when they talk about the proposed Tomorrow’s Schools changes for they lack educational judgement.

On the Ides of March 2019, a lone gunman massacred fifty or more Moslems praying in Christchurch mosques. To what extent he belonged to a community which discussed the rules of protest, I do not know. He clearly broke the rules of every protest group that I have ever been associated with.

It is no defence to argue that there are Islamic terrorists. I doubt that there was a single person in the mosques who would defend terrorist behaviour; they would certainly not justify Islamic terrorism by listing the long history of terrorism by Christians.

I shall not either, but forgive one example. I have considerable affection for William Tyndale, whose translations are the foundation of the language and poetry of the King James Bible which I so greatly love. For his efforts he ‘was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned’. The Islamic terrorists may be medieval but so was the pro-Christian terrorist who committed the Christchurch atrocities.

As I write, the precise reasons for the massacres have to be settled. I note that the terrorist does not seem to have been a full New Zealand resident and that he seems to have been greatly influenced by Islamophobia from the Northern Hemisphere.

Our national culpability seems to have been slack gun laws – slacker than Australia whence the terrorist came – and an over-concentration of concern about Islamic terrorism and not of other types of terrorism. (Some of the experts on gun control are friends who once marched for nuclear disarmament.)

This is not to excuse or lessen our culpability, but it reminds us all, once again, that we cannot pretend to insulate ourselves from the world. This column has regularly said that in regards to trade, investment and technology. Now it says the same with respect to the control of guns and the prevention of terrorism.

Yet high policy should not ignore the hundred-odd New Zealanders and our guests who were killed or severely injured and the pain to their family and friends. In part it was because we were not alert to the need for appropriate measures, because we have been complacent.

John Kennedy said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’; I say, ‘I am a Muslim’; ‘I am a secondary school student’.