GUEST BLOG: Alastair Reith – Seek truth from facts – a reply to Ian Powell

Serious debate is politically healthy, so when I wrote a piece for Stuff about how the history of the 1981 Springbok Tour is being distorted, I was pleased to see Ian Powell publish something on his blog in response.

Unfortunately, he spends most of his time responding to arguments that were never made and doubling down on historical inaccuracies.

The entire premise of Powell’s article is false. He writes that “although Reith does not say so, the practical effect of his article is to assert that the anti-racist tour protests of 1981 were as morally (or immorally) equivalent as the anti-vaccination protests of 2022 (with particular emphasis on the Wellington occupation).”

If the author does not say something, it’s safe to assume it might not be their argument.

The article asked a simple question – why can’t we stick to the facts? It’s in the fourth paragraph from the bottom. Not far above, you’ll read “nobody is obligated to support the anti-mandate protests, even if you support the right to protest in the abstract. I wasn’t enthusiastic about the occupation myself.”

It’s difficult to see how a reasonable person could draw from that, as Powell did, the following: “If one read Reith’s article in complete isolation (without knowing anything more about him) one would find it difficult not to believe that he has much more empathy with the anti-vaccination protests than the earlier anti-racist tour protests.”

Despite what Powell claims, the Stuff article was not an attack on the anti-tour movement, and it certainly wasn’t ‘red baiting’. It did not comment on the morality of protesters either in 1981 or 2022, largely because there’s been too much moralistic commentary already. It’s more useful to focus on the facts.

Powell writes: “Reith identifies several cases of violence or allegedly [sic] violence but he lacks perspective… Further, Reith [sic] claims of violence have to be taken with a grain of salt. His reference to the use of a small truck to ram through gates at the first game in Gisborne is contradicted by a recent review article published by the Gisborne Herald (21 July 2021) which makes no reference to such an incident. frightening intensity .”

Firstly, if a news article written in 2021 doesn’t mention how protesters smashed through the Gisborne gates with a truck, that does not contradict the fact it happened. It could simply mean the authors failed to mention it.

Secondly, it did happen. Before the July 22 game in Gisborne, a driver smashed his Land Rover through the gates with three women in the car. They did several laps of the field, scattering broken glass as they went, before all were arrested.

A HART spokesman denied his organisation was involved, but he made no attempt to deny the incident took place. Why would he? A TV crew filmed it happening. Don’t take my word for it, you can see it with your own eyes. Start watching from three minutes in. In case there’s any lingering doubt, protester Mereana Pitman (described as an anti-Tour strategist) talks on camera about why she did it.

It appears Powell’s confident claims about what did and didn’t happen in 1981 should be taken with a grain of salt.

No doubt any response to this point will involve shifting the goalposts around our definition of ‘violence’, but I know one thing for sure. If the protesters outside parliament had scattered broken glass as a tactic, it would be condemned as violent and despicable by many of the same people who lionise all aspects of the anti-Tour movement.

Powell argues such tactics were insignificant and divorced from the movement, but Mereana Pitman seems to disagree. She argues it was a significant moment which inspired others to take similar action for a worthy cause. I see no reason to disagree with her, let alone condemn her actions, but given I hold that view I’m wary of indulging the hysteria about disruptive protesters who deny access to the grass outside Parliament today.

Perhaps the most egregious claim in Powell’s blog post is the following: “[Reith] then resorts to nasty anti-communist redbaiting against what he describes as the “…leading role of a radical Marxist minority, in Wellington most notably the Workers’ Communist League. These days the Party’s paper would be declared a source of extremist misinformation.” I didn’t agree with everything in the “Party’s paper” but his accusation, in addition to being false, is absurd. His rebaited [sic] target includes people I know well and greatly respect.”

At no point does the article say the WCL’s paper is or was a source of extremist misinformation. It says it would be declared such a thing today, as it was at the time. The role of Marxists in the 1981 protest movement is a historical fact. It’s not red-baiting to point that out. Forty years later, who’s trying to hide it? How many government appointments or career opportunities are being held back by previous association with the WCL or similar groups?

The anti-mandate protests today are condemned for being infiltrated and influenced by extremists. Well, so were the protests in 1981. Every protest is accused of this. There’s not much new under the sun.

Facts matter. They are stubborn things. Unfortunately, too many people have responded to the events outside Parliament by retreating into familiar, comfortable narratives, largely imported from the culture wars overseas. A consensus emerged across much of the left that the anti-mandate protests presented some uniquely dangerous threat, that they were an embryonic white supremacist uprising, and that therefore this justified calls for the police to go in early and hard with whatever means were required to clear the camp.

Thankfully – and on this point Powell and I appear to agree – cooler heads prevailed in the higher echelons of the state and its ‘bodies of armed men’. For the most part, when they eventually did disperse the protest, they used shields, pepper spray, and hands. They didn’t clear the grounds with a front line aggressively thrusting batons into ribs, even though plenty of New Zealanders would have cheered as bones got broken. They waited weeks, gave the protesters a chance to have their say, and gave them plenty of chances to retreat in good order. Unlike much of the left twittersphere, it appears New Zealand’s police leadership aren’t eager to violently repress people they disagree with. It could potentially have been avoided, but it could definitely have been worse.

What remains dangerous is the political precedent set by how so much of the left reacted. It’s worth thinking beyond the moment, as some seek to deepen a political consensus in favour of state repression toward disruptive protests. Hard pickets are mostly a thing of the past, but what will happen next time there’s a sustained strike which blocks ferries or shuts down airports, causes real disruption and refuses to be cowed by injunctions? What if we see a ‘progressive’ uprising in this country, similar to the anti-austerity revolts in Greece, Spain, Chile and elsewhere?

If things drag on, tensions will inevitably escalate and behaviour which is bad for PR will take place on the fringes. Violence will occur, unpleasant things will be said and done – including by the Goodies, depending on your point of view – and in this day and age, someone will capture it on video.

The media will zero in on this, not because of some conspiratorial agenda but because it gets the most clicks. Comment pieces will flow in about the role of dangerous far-left agitators, perhaps with ties to extremists overseas. Anyone who tries to argue against the exaggeration of organised radical influence will find themselves confronting an established narrative they very well might have helped construct.

If you called for police repression in recent weeks, good luck with the reception next time you condemn cops cracking skulls on a union picket line. It hasn’t happened on any significant scale for some time, but if history is any guide it will again. When it does, your friends may not see you as a hypocrite but plenty of other people will. They’ll be a lot less likely to listen.

Alastair Reith lives in Wellington and works near Parliament. He has participated in many protests, some of which were worth attending.

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