A headline grabbing protest against the UN Migration Pact was held in Auckland’s Aotea Square on Saturday, attracting about 100 people. But it was far from the only political expression being put to the public. Alex Braae was there.
The most committed came in early. Advertising for the protest against the UN Migration Pact, online and in the pages of the NZ Herald, had said it would start at four o’clock. But by three on a blazing hot Saturday afternoon, the gazebo and signs were already set up in Aotea Square.
They were there, they said, to exercise their freedom of speech, for sovereignty, and for New Zealand itself. Various small groups united for the event, some conservative, some alt-right, some self-declared patriots against globalism. The ACT party and New Conservatives were represented by speakers high up on their party lists. NZ First – who once held significant sway over this space politically, were represented only by a mocking caricature of Winston Peters. “NO to mass migration swamping us,” read a yellow flyer. “NO to political correctness and cultural marxism. YES to free speech everywhere.”
A few people were wandering around early, draped in high-visibility vests and New Zealand flags – the designated uniform of the day, which only a small number of people observed. They handed out flyers and sparked up conversations. Despite being sandwiched in between a pop-up bar and the town hall, their regalia dominated the Queen Street end of Aotea Square. A row of crosses lined the footpath, to represent New Zealand soldiers who had died for a free country.
Standing nearby were a group of Venezuelan migrants, who had come down to protest against the Maduro regime. I asked one of them if they were part of the UN protest – politics making for strange bedfellows and all that. “No,” she said, “we are here because of the dictator in our country.” She then spotted one of the signs attached to the gazebo. “But we don’t like socialists either,” she clarified.
Their respective protests didn’t have much of a chance to find even more common ground, because the Venezuelans ended up moving over to the other side of the square. That part had just been vacated by a Palestinian protest wrapping up – one of their regularly held demonstrations against the occupation of their homeland. Across the steps, an array of signs were laid out promoting veganism. They had been put there by a woman in a T-shirt that said “Fonterror: Dairy is Death.”
Up the hill at Myers Park, a picnic to show support for migrants had been put on by an anti-racism group, and also drew a healthy crowd. One of the people who had been there said it was deliberately set up to be non-confrontational, and a family friendly space. Some of the picnickers made the trip down, though, not to seek out a fight, but to show their opposition, and perhaps even convince some of the nationalist protesters to come around to their way of thinking.
That’s not what ended up happening, of course. Some of the most politically set-in-their-ways people in the country went hammer and tongs at each other, with arguments becoming increasingly heated. Point and counter-point were hurled like grenades, the battle of ideas descending into brutal trench warfare. It’s hard to imagine that, on this day, a single mind was changed.
So why bother? One counter-protester, who declined to give a name, said it was because she thought her opponent’s politics “were just an absolute joke.” But she was also worried about those ideas gaining momentum, after seeing it happen overseas. Her motivation for heading along was perhaps put best by someone from the other side – a socially conservative Christian named Dan. “You’ve got to get out and do something, you can’t just sit around and wait for God to sort it out.”
Then, when the bells struck four o’clock, the speeches began. The first was long, meandering, and explicitly against multiculturalism. “Integrate or get out,” bellowed a different fellow. One really put the idea of free speech giving you the right to say absolutely anything to a stern test, when a speaker made what he clearly thought was a checkmate point about multiculturalism. “It’s the year of the pig for the Chinese, but the Muslims don’t like pigs. So how does that work in New Zealand?” How indeed.
Myles, from the group NZ Sovereignty, neatly encapsulated the political dream of anyone who has ever protested in Aotea Square. “This is a small gathering,” he said to the 100 or so people standing in front of him. “And from small gatherings, big things happen.” He then pointed out the tent behind him, which was selling “Make New Zealand Great Again” mugs and hats. “The fear the left has is of our wallets. So let’s get our wallets out and make our voices heard.” They accepted Eftpos.
The biggest laugh of the day was also tangentially related to freedom of speech. Elliot Ikilei, the charismatic deputy leader of the New Conservative party, had the crowd in stitches with a line about the government’s priorities. “They don’t want you to discuss sovereignty, but they do want you to discuss weed.”
But the speech wasn’t completely free. Jesse Anderson, the organiser and MC of the event, said that everyone was welcome to have their say. Then a young woman put her hand up. She wasn’t wearing a yellow vest or a New Zealand flag, and Anderson was briefly thrown. “Uh … message me on Facebook about it,” he deflected. She didn’t get the chance to address the crowd, in the end.
What would she have said? Her name was Chrystal Thompson, and she hadn’t come down with any intention of being part of either side of the protest. She’s a recent politics and economics graduate, and part of a family who had to leave Fiji after the Rabuka coup.
“Everyone was standing there and having a civil discussion. Surely they should be open to opposing ideas and balanced discussion, and I should put myself forward and go for it,” she explained. “So I just wanted to ask them, considering New Zealand has a tradition of regular immigration policy, and the country has managed to maintain that in a safe manner, what stops that from continuing? The dialogue that I was hearing was quite divisive, and no wonder there were groups who they were labelling Marxists and Communists who were enraged by it.”
Thompson wasn’t particularly impressed with the response she got after asking to speak. “Telling me you’d rather filter me before I ask my question – that’s just adding more fuel to the fire.” She then talked with Anderson privately, and said they actually did manage to have a great discussion. But she wasn’t impressed with how she was told she couldn’t speak. “I didn’t argue back in front of them, because I could see they all felt uncomfortable about it.”
She said that while the protesters were provocative, in her view they had some valid points about ensuring that the immigration system is controlled, that there aren’t sudden and unmanageable influxes of new people, and that there are good support systems in place to help migrants integrate into communities, schools and the workforce. “So that’s why I wanted to stand up on the mic and ask a series of neutral questions.” It’s fair to say, had the questions been allowed to be asked, the response would have been fascinating.
The migration pact protesters kept pushing the free speech message all day. They weren’t going to accept being silenced, they boomed over the PA system. They were there to defend free speech, they said alongside their wall of banners. It’s a message they’ll be pounding out online, on social media, in calls to talkback, letters to the editor. It was their rallying cry during the furore over Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux’s visit to the country. They are the ones in favour of people being able to say what they want.
But by no means do they have a monopoly on defending and exercising free speech, as the sunny Saturday afternoon in Aotea Square showed.
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