Echoes of the June 1 march in Auckland in solidarity with the protests against the police murder of George Floyd continue to reverberate across New Zealand. The march was an early sign of big political changes in this country, like many of the other marches around the world.
The rally and march were organised at very short notice by a group of mostly musicians and entertainers, including several of African and African-American descent, and built through social media. Despite the short notice, it drew a crowd that filled Aotea Square to capacity and spilled out across Queen Street. It was impossible to do an accurate count, but my rough estimate was between five thousand and ten thousand participated. Like its counterparts in other countries, it was overwhelmingly young – about 90% of participants were people in their teens and twenties, with a few of the older generations, and a number of families with children.
“Black Lives Matter!” and “No justice, no peace!” were the main slogans. Rally speaker Mazbou Q demanded that the government of Jacinda Ardern publicly condemn the police murder of Floyd and demand the arrest of all the killer-cops. “The silence [from the New Zealand government] has been deafening” he said to applause. Other speakers gave accurate descriptions of the many forms that racism can take, and drew attention to the connections with struggles in this country: in particular, with the moves to broaden arming of the police. Speakers noted the fact that Māori and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately targeted by the police.
The march was well-organised and prepared, with a team of marshals and a plan to deal with any provocateurs who might try to turn the demonstration into a riot: at the first sound of breaking glass, the marshals were to get the demonstrators to ‘take a knee’. As it turned out, there were no provocations. The police blocked off traffic from Queen Street, but otherwise kept well out of the way. They appeared to be under orders to keep their distance and avoid any confrontations.
This march was also the first public demonstration in Auckland since the Covid-19 lockdown began in late March. I can only speculate about this, but it seemed to me that impatience to come out of social isolation in individual homes, and re-establish the social fabric that binds us together as a class was one of the factors contributing to the large turnout at very short notice. Frustrations with the mass layoffs due to the sharp economic downturn no doubt also added fuel to the fire.
The supposed violations of remaining Lockdown restrictions (despite repeated appeals from the speaker’s platform, there simply wasn’t enough space for people to keep distant from each other) became the angle from which conservative politicians opposed to the march attacked it politically. This seems to have struck a chord amongst those who regarded lockdown as the central or only public health strategy for combatting Covid-19. On the other hand, small businesses used the crack in the lockdown to press for a further and faster relaxation of restrictions. Since moving down to Alert Level 2, shopping malls, restaurants, hairdressers, small retailers and bars have been permitted to open, but requirements for spacing mean in many cases halving the number of customers permitted in the shop or restaurant. Despite the relief at being able to re-open in this limited way, many small businesses still face ruin.
Political shifts which take place as a consequence of gradual economic and social changes can go largely unseen for long periods, before they suddenly burst into plain view. This demonstration was a moment of ‘bursting into plain view.’ In its weaknesses it reflected the present moment, and in its strengths it gave us a glimpse of the future of working class struggle.
First, the ways in which it reflected the starting point – a starting point of decades of relative quiescence of the working class political life, years of retreat and disarray in the most basic self-defence organisations of workers, the trade unions, and years of little united action by workers.
One sign of this was the fact that, with the honourable exception of the Unite Union, which helped in the organising work and which publicised the action to its membership, the organised union movement was all but absent from the organisation and leadership of the march. Unions were absent from the speakers platform. Even Unite didn’t bring its own banner, as far as I could see. Unsurprisingly, in the absence of the unions, the speakers also reflected the lack any orientation to unions and their potential to bring the economic power of the working class to bear in the fight.
Equally conspicuous by its absence was the slightest trace of class consciousness. In its place, pouring down from the university on the hill above the protest, was false consciousness – a divisive, race-baiting, reactionary lie in the form of the ideology of ‘white privilege.’ More on that later.
But the remarkable thing about the march was not these weaknesses, but its strengths: the size of the overwhelmingly youthful crowd, its militant spirit and self-discipline, and above all, its multi-national character – the crowd was a rich mix of Africans, East and Southeast Asians, people from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, Māori, Pasifika, and Europeans. This was a new generation entering political life for the first time.
In its size it was probably only exceeded in recent years by the numbers participating in the Māori land occupation at Ihumatao last year, with which this demonstration had a deep connection. Its large Māori and Pasifika component (more than half of the participants were Māori or Pacific people, by another rough guess) was further proof of another important shift in politics in recent times: Māori and Pasifika youth stepping forward to lead in struggle. The importance of this fact should not be underestimated. The rulers do not underestimate it – their nervous response to the march showed that they have felt the tremors.
The question of increasing powers of the police was a major point of discussion at the rally and march. This was the issue which bound this incipient movement in New Zealand to the events in the United States.
During the Covid-19 lockdown period two men were shot and killed by police, in separate incidents. On 20 April Auckland police reported that Hitesh Lal was using a machete to smash windows and damage cars, and was shot when he refused to put down the weapon and advanced on the police. There were no other witnesses. A month later Alan Rowe was shot dead in Taranaki after reportedly aiming a firearm at police. Once again there were no witnesses other than the police.
After the massacre at the Christchurch mosque in March 2019, the police carried out a six-month trial of three Armed Response Teams, whose members carry weapons on their hips during routine activities. (In New Zealand, police are not routinely armed, although they normally have quick access to firearms stored securely in squad cars.) Given the vast over-representation of Māori among people shot dead by police, this step towards routine arming of the police met with strong opposition from Māori across the country. Between 2009 to 2019, two-thirds of all people shot by New Zealand police were Māori or Pasifika, despite those groups together making up only about 25% of the population.
After the trial ended it was revealed that police had filled in their reports on only 17% of the Armed Response Team callouts, even though the trial required them to write up every incident. Auckland University professor of biostatistics Thomas Lumley said this level of reporting damaged the integrity of the data. “Having a low response rate like that, to forms that were supposed to be filled out 100 percent of the time, and where the police were the ones who had made the choices as to which forms were filled out, completely undermines this as an evidence-based summary of what was happening in the trials,” Dr Lumley said.” “If they’re going to choose which ones are reported, they might selectively report ones where they felt that having armed police there was helpful. They might be less likely to report ones where they didn’t feel it was helpful.”
It has also been revealed that a police “high tech crime unit” conducted an unauthorised trial of facial recognition software, using it to conduct dozens of searches for suspects, and, according to one leaked email, “submitting images of wanted people who police say looked to be of Māori or Polynesian ethnicity.” This was done without consulting the Privacy Commissioner, or obtaining authorisation even, apparently, from the Police Commissioner himself.
Māori were also active during the lockdown period. One of the more controversial aspects of the lockdowns was when Māori communities in Northland, Bay of Plenty and the East Coast set up their own roadblocks to enforce restrictions on travel into their communities. Many cited the death rate among Māori eight times higher than among Europeans in the 1918 influenza epidemic as proof of their need to take special steps to protect their communities. After some negotiation, these roadblocks received the approval and active cooperation of the police. The leader of the opposition National Party at the time, Simon Bridges, called these checkpoints ‘illegal’ and charged that there were incidents where members of the public had been intimidated by Māori gang members.
The government’s Covid-19 strategy of various degrees of lockdown in the long term depended on police enforcement, using special powers that were granted for the duration of a State of Emergency. The State of Emergency was declared on 25 March, and renewed weekly until it expired on 13 May. It granted power to the police and officials of Civil Defence to, among other things, close or restrict access to roads or public places, enter onto premises, evacuate premises, and stop people doing activities that may contribute to the emergency.
On the expiry of the State of Emergency, the government passed, under urgency and with very little public discussion, legislation which effectively extends those draconian emergency powers into the future. They originally sought a two-year extension, but in the end this was whittled down to 90 days, which may be renewed. In the name of enforcing mandatory distancing practices and confronting threats to public health, the police are granted powers to enter premises without a warrant, disperse groups of people, forbid public gatherings, close roads, prevent people from travelling, close businesses, and order people to stay home. These powers are also extended to any ‘enforcement officer acting under the authority of a constable.’
The inclusion of marae among the list of premises that police could enter led to an outcry from Māori, and so the legislation was amended to remove the word; however the only change to the powers granted under the law was that the relevant marae committee be informed prior to such a raid taking place.
As people’s tolerance of lockdown measures began to break down, the number of arrests over violations of the regulations began to increase sharply. Similarly to such police actions in other countries, by far the greatest number of arrests took place in Counties-Manukau, which includes the large working class concentrations of south Auckland. Police stopped giving figures for Covid-related arrests from the time of the move to Level 2.
All of these issues simmer away, unresolved, and it is only a matter of time before they erupt into the open again. A further protest march is planned for June 14.
Finally, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider the jarringly discordant note sounded by one of the speakers, who admonished the rally participants who were white to ‘check your privilege.’ It was so contrary to the spirit of the rally that the final speaker did his best to repair the damage. The last speaker, champion kickboxer Israel Adesanya, said, “Shout out to all the people of different races here because we need you.”
The fact that the oppressed and exploited are unequal in all things, that some layers of us enjoy conditions of life that are denied to others of us, that some feel the lash of economic insecurity, poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor housing, police brutality, and unequal treatment in the courts more heavily than others – this fact is so obvious it should scarcely need to be stated. We are a class divided along a thousand lines of fracture.
For at least four hundred years – years of African slavery, of the subjugation and plunder of the peoples of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific – the capitalist ruling class has peddled a lie. For four hundred years they have said to those among the exploited who have a white skin, “You’re not like them. You’ve got a white skin, like us. You’re one of us.” Any white-skinned worker who buys into the lie is a dupe, a sucker, and is demeaned and de-humanised by it. This lie has been used to keep the real “us” divided, and to keep us all in a state of subjection.
Now that lie has been polished up and re-packaged and is back on the market in a new form: “If you have a white skin, you’re privileged – you’re one of the oppressors, or at least complicit in racist oppression, no matter what you actually do.” You are an oppressor by an accident of birth which can never be undone, and the only solution offered is penitence.
The term for this reactionary lie in its new package is race-baiting. Once it had a radical edge, but today it is part of the liberal mainstream. A columnist in the Chicago Tribune – hardly a bastion of radical change – lays it all out: “White people, you are the problem… Regardless of how much you say you detest racism, you are the sole reason it has flourished for centuries… Admit it. You enjoy the opportunities and privileges that white supremacy affords you.”
Note that bit well: “Regardless of how much you say you detest racism”. In other words, it makes no difference what you think, say, or do. You are the sole reason for racism, and will be forever.
But the crowning idea is this: “Black people, for the most part, are powerless to stop racism. If we could, we would have done it a long time ago… you [white people] are the only ones who can stop it.”
First, the real, concrete problem of murderous brutality by a racist cop is dissolved into a vague accusation against all white people, regardless of what they do. Then a servile appeal is made to those same ‘white people’ to stop the oppression.
What an abject surrender to the oppressive myths of race lies beneath this ‘fighting talk’! What a capitulation to the idea of the permanence of race and of racism! And what a stark contrast to the course of Malcolm X, one of the greatest revolutionary fighters against racism in human history, when he said “And I for one will join with anyone, don’t care what color you are. As long as you want change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”
The ‘white privilege’ idea is, to say the least, not a sound basis for building a political movement. And the editors of the Chicago Tribune know that well.
The correct response to the racist lie has been given by many revolutionary uprisings of the oppressed in the past. It is to demand equal rights for all. Being able to walk into a shop without being treated as a criminal is not a ‘white privilege’ – it is a right, one that is often denied to people of colour. Being stopped by the cops for a traffic violation without having to fear for your life is a right denied to people of colour, not a privilege.
That’s the difference between rights and privileges: a privilege exists for some only by denying it to others. A right, on the other hand, can only exist for anyone – and can only be defended – when it is extended to all. An injury to one is an injury to all – the old slogan of fighting unionism. When the cops murder a Black man with impunity, the primary target is Black people, but the lives of workers who are not Black also become that much more unsafe. While people of colour who bear the brunt of it, we all have a stake in fighting cop brutality and racism. A placard carried by someone on the march captured the idea perfectly – it said “No lives matter until Black lives matter!”
Racism cannot be ‘stopped’. It is built into the system of social relations in which we live, capitalist social relations. It oozes from every pore of this society; capitalist social relations constantly reproduce it. Racism must be overthrown, together with those social relations. Black people can’t defeat racism on their own, nor can ‘white’ people. But an alliance of all the oppressed and exploited, of all skin colours, ethnicities and nationalities, an alliance of all those who have a material interest in putting an end to cop brutality and racist discrimination, can overthrow those social relations that give rise to racism. That is what Malcolm X gave his life trying to build. And that alliance is what we saw beginning to take shape in Auckland a week ago.