Stop Telling me to Protest Pretty

Friday’s direct action event protesting the budget was a success. I attended. I participated. I pushed and I got shoved. I yelled and I got angry. Without Auckland Action Against Poverty’s event the latest budget would have been rolled out with almost nothing more than some mild mannered platitudes and hand wringing. Yet even though we managed to send a loud and angry message to the government and everyone that attended the event there are still those detractors that are decrying our actions. Those patronising and uninformed paternal voices from the cheap seats that want us to either sit down and shut up or protest more politely. Essentially, its middle aged white men & women telling us to protest prettier.
This happens with regular monotony after an AAAP direct action or in fact any action when the protestors show any kind of emotion. While I expect it from the right wing as a form of discrediting and neutralising our message, what is disheartening is when we hear it from those who claim to be on the left. When people that claim to be our allies start embracing the right wing rhetoric and ignoring the opportunity to support our message you know that something is wrong. In this particular instance I’m going to put it down to ignorance. Ignorance around the methodology of direct action and ignorance of the issues regarding campaigns involving beneficiaries.
This event was planned. It was advertised publicly on Facebook and through our various networks. The police and the politicians knew we were coming. So did the media. It was an organised non-violent direct action. We were not armed with anything other than our voices and our conviction. Our numbers were not huge, but we were vocal and many of us were angry. Why wouldn’t we be angry? $25 a week or $3.60 a day is not a game changer. Winter is here. $3 doesn’t buy a lot of power on a Globug. It also comes at a great cost. Women must return to work when their child hits three regardless of whether this is into meaningful work or in the best interest of the child. This ridiculous offering is far too little and much too late.
 Our messaging on our banners, our press releases and all the media following the demonstration reflected why we were there and why we were angry. That is a successful action. We weren’t there to win hearts and minds. None of us believed that anything we could say would alter the position of the people inside. We were there to challenge the perception that everything was fine. We were there to challenge the narrative. By doing this we also opened a space to further the conversation. Following the action there was a window of time where anyone could contribute to the conversation. In effect, we kicked a field goal, and everyone was talking about whether it was between the posts. This is the opportunity for other groups and political parties that support our position to jump in and translate the messaging. Instead what we got from some quarters was whining about how we shouldn’t even kick the ball because they thought we were offside.
Tim O’Shea and Lisa Er from the newly formed Awareness Party are perfect examples. Instead of using the opportunity to focus on the facts and add meaningfully to the discourse they spent the weekend on Facebook decrying our rowdy actions. They are proponents of peaceful protests. Their contribution to the discussion about the budget was two single paragraph Facebook updates. Neither of them seemed to have any idea of what AAAP does, or how we do it. Neither have given any thought to the nuance around campaigning for the rights of beneficiaries. Tim O’Shea used Unites Zero Hours Contract campaign as a comparison. No argy bargy there he points out. He also mentions some of the marches he has attended. Good for him. I’m totally in support of a range of different action. Who doesn’t love attending Banners on the Beach on a sunny afternoon with the family and a picnic? The thing is beneficiaries aren’t baby pandas. ‘Dole bludgers’ don’t have the same emotional pull as dolphins. If, as suggested, we had a nice, pretty and polite protest down Queen Street, highlighting the plight of the poor, what discourse do you think would follow? If we organised for hundreds of mothers with their children to walk down Queen Street can you imagine the commentary and abuse that would attract? Do I need to spell it out?
Another great tool for campaigning, and one used effectively in Zero Hours, is the personal narrative. It is a great thing when you can get the people affected to share their story, in every day terms and language, with a large audience. The stories of workers trying to manage with no idea of what income they would receive in a week resonated with the workers of NZ. How does that work out for beneficiaries? Remember what’s happened in the past when Paula Bennett then went and revealed personal information about someone prepared to go on camera. For some issues this is effective. We tried it with prostitution law reform. I was one of the people publicly outed. Actions have reactions. The plight of the prostitute, like the plight of the sole parent has been hijacked.
The other aspect of this conversation that I haven’t yet touched on is how patronising and paternal much of the negative commentary is. Perhaps if we had more experience and were smarter we would know that this kind of action makes people uncomfortable. We, who choose to go and participate in these actions, are sentient adults. Most of us spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the greater political picture. We are not novices. The direct actions are only a part of what we do. AAAP also lobbies at a legislative level and we operate an advocacy service for beneficiaries. We are at the front line. Many of us have a history with a range of other issue, many of us work within community focused organisations and we also have no shortage of academics in our network.
There is a place for peaceful protest. There is also a place for civil disobedience and a time when more vocal and physical direct action is required. Where would The Awareness Party have been when Hone Heke was cutting down the flagpole and what advice might they have had for him? Instead of jumping on the right wing bandwagon and condemning our behaviour why not use the opportunity to discuss the issue. We were committed enough to create the space. We need others brave enough to continue the conversation. If our actions and yelling make you uncomfortable, good. Poverty is not pretty.

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