WHAT HAPPENED to the conservatives and revolutionaries of this country? How is it possible that these two groups, separated by ideology, are nevertheless equally persuaded that the occupants of the Parliament grounds were ordinary, decent New Zealanders engaged in a political protest indistinguishable from a host of similar protests scattered across New Zealand’s recent history?
The most obvious answer is that on both sides of the political spectrum there is a powerful ideological and emotional need to portray protest as neither threatening nor unusual. Conservatives and revolutionaries have a common interest in constructing a narrative in which the “innocence” of the protesters and the “guilt” of the government are indisputable.
What could this common interest be?
One possible answer is that the protest offered spectacular proof that “the people” still possessed the power of independent action. As the New Zealand Herald‘s John Roughan said: “I was proud that a demonstrable minority of New Zealanders were not persuaded that lockdowns and vaccination mandates are a proportionate response to this virus.”
The fact that not everyone was willing to follow the science and put the interests of ordinary New Zealanders ahead of the demands of lobbyists and experts who were convinced they knew more than the experts, was clearly a comfort to Roughan. That the protesters were happy to show off their ontological certainty on the grounds of Parliament was even more heartening. The protest might be ignored by the Prime Minister (and all other party leaders) but it could not be denied.
Roughan’s column is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is the extent to which its author is willing to deviate from the principles usually dear to the hearts of most conservatives. On how many other occasions, one wonders, has he praised the police for ignoring the expectations of “politicians, the media and the public who believe that the law must be strictly enforced at all times”? Massive disregard for the rule of law is not the kind of behavior usually tolerated by conservatives!
Nor is it customary for conservatives to downplay serious harassment (up to and including physical assault) of innocent citizens going about their lawful business. Roughan refers to the many recorded incidents of Wellingtonians being accosted in the street, by protesters visibly exasperated by their attempts to protect themselves from infection, as nothing more than “mocking people in masks”. Such minimization of the actual harm suffered is, unfortunately, essential if the fiction that this was a “peaceful protest” is to be maintained.
It is instructive to compare the description of these same incidents offered by two Marxist revolutionaries, Daphne Whitmore and Don Franks. In an opinion piece published on theirRed line blog, they say, “There have been reported nasty scenes of scruffy-looking individuals walking down city streets yelling at them for wearing a mask.”
This description is a marked improvement on Roughan’s “mockery”. But, while the writers concede that for some the experience was “deeply traumatic”, they also explain how “[m]more just wandered around, ignoring the rants like you do with someone who seems a little off balance.
Above all, they then add: “These interactions, far from the lawns of Parliament, were later confused with the occupation as a whole.” Again, the aim is to immunize the occupation against accusations that this was anything other than a “peaceful protest”.
The inescapable problem for Roughan and Whitmore/Franks is how to explain the extraordinary violence of the twenty-third day of the occupation. They do so, however, by employing the oldest explanation in politics: the minority responsible for the fires and violence was in no way representative of the overwhelming majority of protesters.
Roughan refines his argument further by praising Police Commissioner Andrew Coster for his handling of this extraterrestrial violent element – presenting his final decision to clear the grounds of Parliament as a “relief” for all peaceful protesters, who have dutifully packed their bags and went home.
Whitmore/Franks are more direct. “After 23 days of camping outside parliament, the End the Mandates protest was stormed by 500 riot police. A few hundred die-hard protesters fought back all day and around 100 were arrested.
The cops did it.
At the heart of Roughan’s argument is a deep resentment that the opinions of people like him, powerful white Tory men, did not prove decisive in determining how the Labor government handled the Covid-19 pandemic. . Such men are not used to being ignored. The embarrassing fact that the young female Prime Minister who refused to accept their advice was re-elected in a landslide victory only stirred salt in their wounds.
It is not the fact that Roughan and his ilk represent a minority that infuriates them (the ruling class and its exegetes will always be a minority), it is that they have been forced to share the fate of minorities who, when the power was in conservative hands they were happy to ignore. The person they blame for this unbearable state of affairs is Jacinda Ardern:
“Once the ground had been cleared, the Prime Minister addressed the nation. She was not accommodating. She said the violence justified her refusal to take part in the protest for three weeks. She said the occupation would not define us.
Roughan’s last paragraph says:
“As prime minister in a pandemic, she ultimately decides pretty much everything we can do. She can decide to close stores, close schools, cancel events, keep us housebound. It even decides what is best for our health. But it does not decide what defines us. Not all of us.
Rarely has a conservative writer provided his readers with such a clear – or so chilling – view of his politics.
The clue to the intransigent position of Whitmore and Franks on this issue is contained in this paragraph:
“Ostensibly pro-working class groups portrayed the occupation as entirely negative and ‘reactionary’, with no acknowledgment of the social and economic deprivation that had driven many protesters to participate. Significant sections of the end-of-term protesters included shopkeepers and medical professionals who had lost their jobs. This is what prompted them to arrive at parliament with their families, asking for an audience with the government.
What neither author attempts to explain, however, is why so many other working-class New Zealanders – particularly Maori and working-class Pasifika New Zealanders – who are also victimized of “social and economic deprivation”, fought Covid by organizing collective action and mutual support. These are the “essential workers” who remained at their posts throughout the confinement because, if they had not done so, thousands of their fellow citizens would have died.
Protesters on the grounds of Parliament didn’t ‘lose their jobs’ – they gave it up because they refused to accept the social obligation of vaccination, then selfishly refused to accept the consequences of this refusal.
If the “Freedom Village” had been erected in the name of social justice, by workers determined to build a better world. If protesters hadn’t blocked city streets, assaulted passers-by and prevented the operation of schools, universities, businesses and courts. If they hadn’t been swinging nooses and making death threats. Then their brutal repression by 500 policemen would indeed have been shameful.
But the cold hard truth is that this protest was a display of narcissistic, sociopathic, passive-aggressive and violent behavior unmatched in New Zealand political history. It was a gathering of deluded and deranged people. The only freedom sought was the freedom to ignore the obligations of being fully human. And that’s pretty much the definition of “reactionary.”
No matter how much Daphne Whitmore and Don Franks might wish otherwise, a proxy revolution simply isn’t possible.