GUEST BLOG: Alastair Reith – Seeking truth from facts – a response to Ian Powell

Serious debate is politically sound, so when I wrote an article for Stuff on how the history of the 1981 Springbok Tour is twisted I was glad to see Ian Powell post something on his blog in response.

Unfortunately, he spends most of his time replying to arguments that have never been made and repeating historical inaccuracies.

The whole premise of Powell’s article is wrong. He writes that “although Reith does not say so, the practical effect of his article is to assert that the anti-racism protests of 1981 were as morally (or immorally) equivalent as the anti-vaccination protests of 2022 (with particular emphasis on occupation of Wellington).”

If the author doesn’t say something, it’s safe to assume that it might not be their point.

The article asked a simple question: why can’t we stick to the facts? It’s in the fourth paragraph the bottom. Not far above you will read “No one is obligated to support anti-mandatory protests, even if you support the right to protest in the abstract.” I was not enthusiastic about the occupation myself.

It is hard to see how a reasonable person could draw from this, as Powell did, the following: “If one read Reith’s article in complete isolation (without knowing anything more about him), one should have hard not to believe that he has much more empathy with anti-vaccination protests than previous anti-racist protests.

Despite what Powell claims, Stuff’s article was not an attack on the anti-tourism movement, and it certainly wasn’t “red baiting.” He made no comment on the morality of protesters in either 1981 or 2022, largely because there have already been too many moralizing comments. It is more useful to focus on the facts.

Powell writes: “Reith identifies several cases of violence or allegedly [sic] violence but it lacks hindsight… Further on, Reith [sic] allegations of abuse should be taken with a grain of salt. His reference to the use of a small truck to drive through the gates in the first game at Gisborne is contradicted by a recent review article published by the Gisborne Herald (July 21, 2021) which makes no reference to such an incident. scary intensity .”

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Firstly, if a news article written in 2021 does not mention how protesters smashed through the gates of Gisborne with a truck, that does not contradict the fact that it happened. It could just mean that the authors failed to mention it.

Secondly, it happened. Ahead of the July 22 game in Gisborne, a driver rammed his Land Rover through the doors with three women in the car. They made several laps of the field, scattering broken glass as they went, before all were arrested.

A HART spokesman denied that his organization was involved, but he made no attempt to deny that the incident took place. Why would he? A television crew filmed it. Don’t take my word for it, you can see it with your own eyes. Start watching from three minutes. If in doubt, protester Mereana Pitman (described as an anti-Tour strategist) explains to the camera why she did it.

It seems that Powell’s confident claims about what did and did not happen in 1981 should be taken with a grain of salt.

No doubt any answer to this point will involve moving the goalposts around our definition of “violence”, but I know one thing for sure. If protesters outside parliament had scattered broken glass as a tactic, it would have been condemned as violent and despicable by many of the same people who adore all aspects of the anti-Tour movement.

Powell argues that such tactics were meaningless and separate from the movement, but Mereana Pitman appears to disagree. She says it was an important moment that inspired others to take similar action for a worthy cause. I see no reason to disagree with her, let alone condemn her actions, but since I do so, I am wary of indulging in the hysteria of disruptive protesters denying access to the grass in front of Parliament today.

Perhaps the most glaring claim from Powell’s blog post is: “[Reith] then resorts to nasty anti-Communist attacks on what he describes as “…the leadership role of a radical Marxist minority in Wellington, notably the Communist Workers’ League. These days, the Party newspaper would be declared a source of extremist disinformation. I didn’t agree with everything in the “Party newspaper” but its accusation, besides being false, is absurd. His discount [sic] target includes people whom I know well and whom I respect enormously.

At no point does the article say that the CMT newspaper is or has been a source of extremist disinformation. He says it would be declared such today, as it was then. The role of Marxists in the protest movement of 1981 is a historical fact. It’s not red-baiting to point that out. Forty years later, who’s trying to hide it? How many government appointments or career opportunities are blocked by prior association with WCL or similar groups?

Anti-mandate protests today are condemned for being infiltrated and influenced by extremists. Well, the 1981 protests too. Each manifestation is accused of it. There isn’t much new under the sun.

Facts matter. These are stubborn things. Unfortunately, too many people have reacted to events outside Parliament by retreating into familiar and comfortable narratives, largely imported from culture wars abroad. A consensus emerged across much of the left that the anti-mandate protests posed a particularly dangerous threat, that this was an embryonic uprising of white supremacy and that, therefore, it justified calls for the police to intervene early and harshly with whatever means necessary to empty the camp.

Fortunately – and on this point Powell and I seem to agree – colder heads prevailed in the upper echelons of the state and its “corps of gunmen”. For the most part, when they finally broke up the protest, they used shields, pepper spray and their hands. They did not clear the field with a front line aggressively ramming batons into the ribs, although many New Zealanders would have cheered as bones were shattered. They waited for weeks, gave the protesters a chance to have their say, and gave them plenty of chances for an orderly retreat. Unlike much of the left-leaning twittersphere, it seems New Zealand police leaders are not keen on violently cracking down on people they disagree with. It could have been avoided, but it certainly could have been worse.

What remains dangerous is the political precedent set by the reaction of so much of the left. It’s worth thinking beyond the moment, as some seek to deepen a political consensus in favor of state repression of disruptive protests. Hard-line pickets are mostly a thing of the past, but what will happen the next time there is a prolonged strike that blocks ferries or closes airports, causes real disruption and refuses to be intimidated by injunctions? What if we see a “progressive” uprising in this country, similar to the anti-austerity revolts in Greece, Spain, Chile and elsewhere?

If things drag on, tensions will inevitably escalate and bad public relations behavior will occur on the fringes. Violence will happen, nasty things will be said and done – including by the Goodies, depending on your perspective – and these days someone will capture it on video.

The media will focus on this, not because of a conspiratorial program, but because it gets the most clicks. Comments will pour in on the role of dangerous far-left agitators, possibly linked to extremists abroad. Anyone who tries to argue against the exaggeration of organized radical influence will find themselves faced with an established narrative that they could very well have helped to construct.

If you’ve been calling for a police crackdown for the past few weeks, good luck with the reception the next time you convict cops who smash skulls on a union picket line. It hasn’t happened on a significant scale for some time, but if history is any guide, it will happen again. When you do, your friends may not see you as a hypocrite, but a lot of other people will. They will be much less likely to listen.

Alastair Reith lives in Wellington and works near Parliament. He participated in many demonstrations, some of which were worth attending.