Protest, police and our collective forgetfulness

Three weeks ago hundreds of people from all walks of life came together to blockade the Weapons Expo, euphemistically known as the New Zealand Defence Industry Association annual conference.

Despite violent police and a vast venue with many possible entrances, we were successful. Hundreds of conference delegates were blocked from entering the expo for the majority of the day, and the Weapons Expo didn’t go ahead as planned. It was an example of what can be achieved through people power.

The familiar backlash against protesters in comments sections all over social media and media outlets suggests that we have, as a nation, a very selective memory of how change has been created in this country, and of the moments in our history that we are most proud of. We also have a selective memory about the roles and the actions that the police have had in those moments.

The same platitudes get trotted out whenever a group of people engage in civil disobedience for a cause they care about: ‘The police are just doing their job’, ‘If you’re not going to move you deserve whatever you get’, ‘I respect your right to protest, but not to interfere with people’s lawful business’. And these are just some of the more polite comments.

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When it comes to police brutality, it seems that many of us are all too willing to accept that whatever the police are doing must be justified simply because of the authority that the police hold.

Peaceful protesters at the blockade were punched and kicked in the head, had their necks stood on, a wrist broken, fingers broken, and were picked up by the hair and thrown into oncoming traffic. Women were sexually assaulted. All of this was carried out by the police. People ended up in A&E and many were traumatised after being assaulted. Is this really the police just doing their job? And if this is the police’s job, is that something we should be comfortable with?

The police felt so strongly that their job was to protect this Weapons Expo going ahead unhindered that they repeatedly blocked one of Wellington’s busiest roads to allow buses of Weapons company delegates to travel in the wrong direction along the road to get through alternative entrances, and assaulted peaceful protesters to the point of needing hospital treatment.

As we saw at the blockade the police exist to reinforce the status quo and support those in positions of power, who are more often than not wealthy and white. This is not news for people of colour who are disportionately suspected, arrested and incarcerated, nor for women who have attempted reporting sexual assault and found a culture of endemic victim blaming and systematic scepticism by the police. As with every institution and more especially with one such as the police with a continually problematic history they should come under public scrutiny and their actions should not be accepted without question.

When we condemn protesters and tell them they deserve anything they get for stopping others going about their ‘lawful business’, we forget that even the most horrific of crimes were in many cases ‘lawful’ until people stood up, demanded better, and yes, got in the way. The slave trade was legal. Racial segregation was legal. Rape wasn’t always a crime. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that one day we might view war profiteers with similar moral condemnation.

When we look back on the important social milestones of our history, sanitising our victories does a disservice to us all. Women gaining the right to vote, our nuclear free stance, homosexual law reform, workers’ rights, our stance against apartheid in South Africa; all of these campaigns and victories have something in common: people put their bodies in the way and at risk, and people’s ‘lawful business’ was disrupted.

The rights that we all enjoy, even those telling protestors to get jobs and laughing at the injuries they sustained from police, were fought for and won by people willing to go against popular opinion, to be criticised, mocked and even assaulted by those who hold power.

If we could look back with a little more honesty at these past struggles, perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to condemn protesters as radical, or ‘too extreme’ when they do what people have always done, all over the world, to achieve change that does not favour those with money and power. And perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to deny the violence of the police that stand at the ready to protect the powerful, no matter how unconscionable their ‘lawful’ actions may be.

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