Content warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of police violence.
Yesterday, people watched aghast as thousands of anti-lockdown protesters converged on Parliament. In the lead-up to the protest, people were posting threats of violence on Telegram under their real names, and several placards carried similar threats; at least one protester was carrying a noose. Unlike other anti-lockdown rallies, this one had a somewhat substantial police presence, but the police mostly stood by, making no arrests. A tepid police statement read that the protesters were peaceful, but that their decision to break Level 2 restrictions was ‘disappointing’.
What fewer people know is that last week, the police sent 6+ police cars to coerce, brutalise and arrest people from a group of 25 or so climate activists in Wellington. Our protest was actually peaceful — not at death threat to be seen — but took the form of direct action, meaning that we confront people in power directly rather than appealing to the authorities to fix things. This work is crucial for climate action, as it’s abundantly clear that governments are unwilling to legislate against climate pollution in an effective or timely way.
Direct actions usually (though not always) involve a much smaller group of people than the big rallies. They are often more time-consuming, require greater planning, and carry higher risks of arrests and police violence. On Friday the 5th of November, Parihaka Day, climate activists around the country attempted to disrupt climate polluter businesses during their working hours. In Taranaki, activists chained themselves to the gates of a Fonterra factory and briefly disrupted their production chain. In Wellington, we paid visits to the offices of Fonterra, Todd Energy, Bathurst Resources, and the New Zealand stock exchange.
All the places we visited had locked off the office floors, so we could only make it into the lobbies. At the Fonterra headquarters, we dropped a pile of cow manure on the tiled floor, symbolically asking them to take their shit back. By the time we got to our next location, police were on the scene blocking off our access to the lifts and pushing us around. As we walked down the road, the police ran up behind us and tackled an activist to the ground. They pinned back the activist’s arms (let’s call them T), kneeled on their back and severely bruised their wrists. T yelled in pain as we filmed the officers and tried to de-escalate the situation. “T, breathe, breathe, look at me,” said M, keeping eye contact with T through the legs of the police. The officers told us to stand back so they could do their work, pushing a couple of young women backwards. T screamed again as the police slammed them into the ground. “Stop resisting!” shouted one of the officers.
As they put T in the back of a car and we walked on, I felt sick with anxiety. For various reasons, I wasn’t willing to get arrested, which made the situation almost more frightening for me because I did not know how to emotionally prepare for what might happen. I had not technically done anything wrong, but police are unpredictable and can be violent while only rarely receiving consequences. The New Zealand Police did it at the Weapons Expos, they’re doing it on Waiheke, and they do it to minorities for simply walking around.
After we left our last location, the police followed us and arrested one of us. As they put cuffs on her, another activist tried to hold on to her bag, so they arrested her as well for ‘obstruction’. “Now, you have a right to protest — ” began one of the cops. “Let’s go,” said M, “We don’t need to listen to any of their bullshit.” Legally, you don’t have to listen or speak to cops unless they’ve told you that you’re being detained and read your rights, and once detained you only have to give them your name, address and date of birth.
Speaking to cops voluntarily can very occasionally work as a strategy; reportedly when it was employed at Ihumātao, a few Māori officers wound up quitting the job. Extinction Rebellion members often try to debate cops into supporting climate justice, since ultimately it’s in the best interests of everyone on this planet, but in the process have often alienated minoritieswith greater understanding and experiences of police violence. Besides, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it’s very difficult to get a cop to understand something when their salary and power are reliant on them not understanding it. For the most part, speaking to cops simply gives them extra information to target activists.
The cop’s unfinished sentence meant what it almost always does. You have a right to protest, but only if it doesn’t affect anything important. After that point, the police, the courts, and private security will crack down. The liberal belief that a ‘good’ state will stop climate change ignores that states are defined by geo-political control of a specific landmass, taken and maintained by force, and usually the exploitation of that landmass’ natural resources. It also misunderstands the relationship between the state and private industry. Christian socialist David Bentley Hart wrote that the two entities are deeply intertwined: “Global capital depends upon the state’s power, its diplomatic access to other nations and markets, the trade treaties it negotiates, and (if needed) its judicious deployments of terror. States depend upon capital for revenues, material goods, and political patronage.” The ‘deployments of terror’ here involves sending state police to violently defend Fonterra.
While we waited for our arrested friends for an hour or so in the cold, R chalked on the sidewalk next to the police station. A few cops harassed us, with one saying that chalking on the building would count as willful damage and a ‘temporary reduction in the building’s valuation’ — as if they were planning to sell it before the time it would take to remove chalk. “See, this is why you’re bad at your job,” said R, trained as a lawyer, “because you don’t know what willful damage is.” Police in New Zealand only train for four months, while lawyers train for upwards of four years; much of the time, police literally do not know what the law is. They’re often just throwing intimidating statements at you to see what sticks.
When you do direct action, it’s often shocking, if not always surprising, just how much the state, corporations and the police overreact. The worst that the corporates had to deal with on Friday was a little bit of litter in their offices, easy enough to clean up. Most people wouldn’t beat someone up for this, but many are content to get the police to do it for them. One of our activists was charged with being a criminal nuisance and endangering public safety. It should be obvious that their actions don’t compare to the massive environmental damage, animal cruelty and worker exploitation carried out every day by the oil, coal, meat and dairy industries in this country.
It should also be obvious that our actions did not endanger public safety in the way the anti-lockdown rallies did. The sixth Labour Government has been oddly passive in response to a huge group of aggressive people threatening to lynch the Prime Minister. In contrast, when Māori and leftist activists even faintly talked about rebellion in the 2000s, the fifth Labour Government spied on them for two years, raided their houses and threw them in jail. However, gesturing at these hypocrisies still falsely presumes that they come from a malfunction in the system that can be fixed. As many radicals say, the system isn’t broken, it was designed this way.
The New Zealand Police seem to believe in the ‘thin blue line’, judging by their use of its image on social media. This worldview believes police are the only thing standing between today’s society and what they see as chaos. As this essay by a former US cop describes, police training inculcates officers to believe that everyone else is either a dangerous wolf or a mindless sheep, and that they can only trust their colleagues. It partially explains how on edge the police were, why they sent so many officers to intimidate a small and peaceful group of us.
Of course, police are also known to enjoy the violence they dole out; the histories of New Zealand Police leveraging their power to commit sexual assault shows that clearly enough. If police brutality is supposedly an excessive part of doing their job, what does this imply about the job’s baseline purpose? New Zealanders like to argue that our cops aren’t as bad as the US, or point to the few good apples in the rotten barrel of policing. However, the numerous cases of New Zealand Police violence highlighted above show these are extremely low bars.
Many progressives don’t do direct action because they think it’s unseemly, and believe that strong arguments will eventually get through to the government and climate polluters. However, many of us also refrain from direct action because dealing with police, the courts and prison is fucking scary. Although I was expecting the police to get violent, it was still upsetting, and I cried and cried once I got home.
However, once direct action builds up enough power, it can be immensely liberating. Andreas Malm’s book How To Blow Up A Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire makes a compelling case for the climate movement to escalate their tactics to property destruction and sabotage. Direct action managed to halt the Keystone XL pipeline in the US, a major win for climate justice. Part of our actions on Friday were to get people used to the idea of taking action themselves. Climate denialism and fatalism are two sides of the same coin, from a belief that regular people can’t — or shouldn’t — do anything out of the ordinary to change things.
If we are truly serious about how climate change is urgent and business as usual can’t continue unchecked, we need to broaden the strategies and tactics of climate activism. A lot of direct action for climate has already been happening in New Zealand, although it doesn’t get much media airtime. Climate justice ties in directly with anti-colonial struggles to protect Māori land, such as the stands taken at Ihumātao, Pūtiki, Marukaikuru and more. Although many anti-lockdown picketers flew the tino rangatiratanga and United Tribes flags, they seem fairly disconnected from these struggles.
The anti-lockdown people and the police have much in common (including resistance to getting vaccinated). No matter how much the former talk about resisting tyranny, they are wholesale parroting US-based propagandaand NZ corporations’ demands to end lockdown, as endorsed by mainstream media outlets like the New Zealand Herald. The white supremacists in their ranks are reflected in the police force, as statistics of police violence against Māori and other people of colour show. Neither group will meaningfully oppose the other, both are a threat to people’s safety — and ultimately, both have a defeatist view of the world. Standing up to them directly is terrifying, but may become our only option.
Ari Wilson is a New Zealand-based writer and activist. Follow them on Twitter @hydratedthreat