Saturday, February 24

The tightrope of protest

A few years back I sat down with Bill Logan, a Wellington activist and famous Trotskyite who was one of the central strategists of the campaign for Homosexual Law reform as part of a research job I had for a potential documentary on the law change. A major revelation for an outsider to the gay community was that to call it a community at all was quite a stretch: just ask Lesbians of the era, and Lesbians today, for that matter. But all the factions did seem to come together when it counted and helped get the transformative law change over the line.

As with many campaigns, there was much disagreement over strategy, mainly whether to pursue a diplomatic approach, or something more grassroots and disruptive – street protest, and even the odd stunt.

For some of the Auckland activists, many affluent, professional, and connected, the thought of gays out on the streets, making noise and potentially inviting violent responses, was terrifying. For them the campaign would live or die on the case that gays were not any sort of social threat: they were brothers, sons, and uncles, who worked, as indeed they did, in respectable employment, such as the courts. What they weren’t, was rabble. Some activists I spoke to even claimed Fran Wilde was against street protest, at least initially, as she was worried about a spectacle that could turn public opinion, though when I spoke to her she told me her concern was squarely on the safety of those who took to the streets. This was New Zealand in the early 80’s remembers, so these fears were hardly unfounded.

For Bill, street protest wasn’t just about the campaign: having worked at a phoneline for gay men in the early 80’s, he was aware of how many held a self-loathing. Protesting, as he saw it, would finally give many of them a chance to puff out their chests, and claim a place in the world.

The protests happened and the law was reformed. But as central as protest is – and indeed the ability to protest will tell you very quickly how free a state is or is not – that doesn’t mean street protest is always smart. Your street protest can help, but can also be what thoroughly destroys your cause

Full disclosure: I never attend street protests. I have never been comfortable being a part of them. I am an activist, and I would say a pretty successful one, but I always questioned the usefulness of street protests. My strategic brain seldom reaches for them. One issue is they are come-one, come-all, meaning anyone can show up and attach to a cause, even a random Nazi or, arguably worse, a dreadlocked hippy riding a unicycle blowing on a kazoo. When a handful of far-Right agitators showed up to a Posie Parker rally in Melbourne, her opponents made a meal out of this. Ironically, many of the same detractors stood shoulder to shoulder with neo-Nazis and Jihadis at recent anti-Israel events, but we’ve been told not to read too much into that.

Odd.

After Oct 7th there was a desire by many supporters of Israel to take to the streets to show our numbers, especially after the showing by anti-Jewish mobs. Like the gays of yesteryear, Jews around the world were traumatised after Oct 7th, and no doubt saw participation in protest as a way to reclaim their dignity and courage. But as close as the terror was to us (Quite literally, with Hamas closing our own kindergartens after calling for an International Day of Rage) this was, and will remain, a distant foreign conflict for many Kiwis. Most likely haven’t chosen a side and never will. They probably think Israelis and Palestinians need their ‘heads banged together’ and endless parades of foreign flags are likely only to irritate the shit out of them and make them detest us both.

The Hard-Left doesn’t share my reservations. And I am frankly glad of that. They have convinced themselves that weekly protests, an undulating sea of putrid placards decrying dreamt-up genocides, will do them favors.

But with whom?

I know the anger many felt after Chloe Swarbrick’s frothing display at the Auckland domain, in which she whipped up an already seething crowd with a genocidal chant. But these were the actions – despite her party’s election success – of a politician in decline. Once touted, Chloe never regained the composure and charisma that set her apart from other NZ Green politicians (James Shaw being an exception) after her wounding defeat in the cannabis legalisation bill. Angry and hurt, her response was undignified, accusing her opposition of misinformation, and not for a moment reflecting on how completely unsexy her statist approach to a libertarian issue was. The scowl turned up in interviews and never left. This led to a nose-dive back into a crass student politics that has made her indistinguishable from Golriz Ghahraman, another crank who has heavily leaned into anti-Jewish activism to make up for a lack of political talent.

It is hard to gauge whether the visibility of the gay protesters back in the mid-80s helped the overall movement. The arrival of AIDS in New Zealand likely played a larger role. Still an enigma, and a terrifying one, many people became convinced the barriers of an anti-gay law may see sufferers deny themselves treatment, which in turn could become an existential crisis for all. But, as Bill said, protest was unquestionably a success if the mana of gay men and women was your measure, and that made it worth any risks.

What is more likely is the public display on parliament’s steps by the anti-gay predominantly Christian Right, handing in a petition with the disconcerting uniformity and coordination of a Nuremberg rally, did draw the same comparison at the time. Kiwis don’t tend to do bullies, or at least once upon a time, this was true. This was a piece of street theatre that backfired thunderously.

For the contemporary antisemite, drunk on anti-Jewish disinformation, I would argue, even for our community, better out than in. The Nurembergian flourishes are already visible, and the more they take their bile public, the more chance their movement will take the next fatal step. Because public protest is a game of Russian Roulette, people. Even a win on the day can start to fester over time and turn a cause gangrenous.

Just ask Shaneel Lal. 

Author