Saturday, June 2, 2012

In Defense of Blockade The Budget: Protest Like The Greeks

I was among the students who protested on June 1st 2012. We were protesting against the 2012 government budget that puts in place more restrictions in access to support for students while studying and increases the mandatory rate of repayment once we start working. While you may or may not think these issues in and of themselves justify protest, this isn't the end of the war on higher education, and it certainly isn't the beginning. Access to higher education has been under attack for over 20 years in New Zealand now. If we roll over and just accept whatever changes that our dear leaders dish out to us, sometime in the future students will look back and say "Why did they let it get so bad?".

So now that I've hopefully convinced you that something has to be done let me try to at least get you to understand what happened on Friday and help you understand our tactics.

What Went Down
We had initially planned on marching down Alfred street (where we had gathered outside the library) onto Symonds street to make our way to our final destination, the bridge over Wellesley street. The police obviously knew that something was going to be happening today (an article about the action had been published on a news site), because they had a presence on the streets about half an hour before we started gathering (3pm). When we started marching down Alfred street the police formed a line at the bottom, to try and prevent us from getting onto the road. We went around them on the footpath and as people started making their way onto the road the first arrests were made; just minutes into the march.

We continued on up Symonds street only to be met by police about 2/3 of the way to our destination, we couldn't push through them obviously so we sat down. This is when things started getting rough. The next people to get arrested were sitting on the outside of the group and one young woman was grabbed by the scarf around her neck and lifted by her head onto her feet. We were expressing our democratic right to peaceful assembly, but Auckland's finest wouldn't have it. They told us that if we didn't move off the road we would be arrested and prosecuted. The police then continued to periodically dive in to grab random people from the outside of the group. Occasionally when the police's tactics weren't working they would resort to punching students. We tried to hold on to our friends who were being taken away by the police, but often they would have ended up getting hurt even more and the police were not going to back down so the numbers actually on the road whittled down (there were plenty more people on the footpath).

Some of the tactics used by the police in arresting people (mostly students) were very violent, many being grabbed by the head, neck and ears and repeatedly yanked until the police got them out of the crowd. In some grabs where the police were trying to target who they perceived as the leaders of the protest police would jump on top of other students often trampling them underfoot. Even when people had been removed from the crowd and no longer trying to resist arrest, the police continued to twist their arms, or kneel on top of their heads, squashing their faces into the asphalt.

When it got to the point that there were very few people left sitting down on the road the police gathered and made a concerted push to force us onto the footpath. We held there for a short while before marching back down towards the intersection from where we first embarked. The police wouldn't allow us to cross the road again (at the pedestrian crossing) so we carried on down grafton road (on the footpath). The police blocked us off there again, this time blocking the footpath, preventing us from going any further down the road. We headed back up the road towards the intersection again and when we went to cross the road we were met with more police in what could be best described as a 'strike-force'. Around 10 officers came barging through into the crowd to snatch up some more 'leaders'. This is when some of the most brutal police action occurred. Dozens of students were knocked over or hit by police officers including me (a police officer hit me in the face). One other student is seen in this video footage to be bent backward over a manhole cover so his head and shoulders were bent below his back while an officer pinned him down grabbed him around the neck and yelled in his face. This was the climax of the confrontation.

From there we actually managed to get past the police and run through our university campus (where I don't think the cops could go and arrest us), across princes street, into Albert Park and down onto Victoria Street. We gathered on Victoria street while people caught up who were still coming down from Albert Park. Once everyone had arrived we made our way down onto Queen Street. We stayed there for about 10-15 minutes before heading off up Queen Street. We intended to make our way up to Aotea Square and on to the Central Police Station where 43 of our friends were being held prisoner. The police formed a line preventing us from going any further, so we ran through an arcade onto Elliot street, where police had formed another line preventing us from moving onto Wellesley street, so we changed directions and went towards Victoria street.

From there we went towards SkyCity casino and then onto the Auckland Central Police Station, where we stayed until 6:00. Finally, the protest headed on down to Aotea square, where a news camera was filming.

That's about as complete an account as I can give without turning it into a book.

Why Block Streets?

To start with, we were completely within our rights. The Bill of Rights Act gives the freedom to peaceful assembly. We were not being violent at all, the only physical resistance we offered was to try and prevent the police from unjustly arresting our friends. Many people have said that all we're doing is pissing off the public. This was not our intention at all. We realise that blocking a road does inconvenience motorists, so we had actually made a banner to put up across the road that read something like "Sorry for the inconvenience". Since we never made it to our destination we were never able to erect the banner.

Couldn't we just protest without disrupting anyone's day? Well technically we could, but it wouldn't be much of a protest then would it? Does anyone besides those who already strongly support a cause pay any attention to a protest that has no public impact? We have had rallies before with hundreds of people around the quad in support of the workers around campus, rallies against fee hikes that ended in students taking control of a building around campus for hours and hours. Police even showed up to many of these events. Our occupation of the University Clocktower in October 2011 had a very strong police presence, and we ended that with a march down to Aotea Square where at the time Occupy Auckland was residing. Did anyone know about these events besides those that were directly affected or directly involved? Barely. I could count the number of news articles devoted to all of these events combined on a single hand.

On the other hand, our two blockades made headline news on both of the main news Channels. On budget day, the blockade was the first item on the 6:00 news. Our first highly impacting blockade was however rubbished by the Minister of Finance, Bill English. His message to us was that he doesn't care what we think or do, and that our protest wasn't going to change anything. He taunted us, saying we needed to take some protest lessons from the Greeks. Obviously the arrogance of the government to not even contemplate taking into consideration the opinions of many of the constituents that its budget directly affected was something that we were not just going to take in our stride. We needed to plan something else. On top of that, the first semester was coming to a close, and we figured that we needed to end the semester on a really solid note of resistance to these changes to solidify the movement for next semester.

That's why we planned 'Blockade The Budget Part II: Protest Like The Greeks'. Here was the description of the event:
"Finance Minister Bill English has taunted student protesters who protested against the Budget saying "they need some Greeks to show them how to do it."

Let's make him eat his words.

Meet outside the library again, Friday @ 3pm.

...

Join us for a public show of defiance against this injunction to be violent, and an open forum on the Budget, Resistance and Education.

Featuring:
- How the budget will affect you and your family;
- Speakers on Austerity Politics, Resistance and Public Education;
- Exam preparation and study advice from lecturers and tutors;
- A call for the investigation of a minister's incitement to violence."

It was quite clear that our intentions were non violent. The 'Protest Like The Greeks' was taken facetiously, as I assume Bill English meant. However, we wanted to show we were serious, though seriously non-violent. We had explored various other options for protest none of which seemed to have the clout of a blockade though, and really, how would it look if in response to his taunt we just had a non-impacting rally? So we settled on another blockade, though in a different location. Unfortunately our action was stifled by police and instead of having a strong message against the austerity on students it was turned into a spectacle of students facing off against police. While the police may have been excessive in their reaction to our peaceful assembly they are not our enemy (though perhaps certain individual police officers who assaulted my friends are). The real enemy is this budget, which is what the event was intending to protest against.