Call it the NZ Defence Industry Association Forum or the Weapons Expo – peace activists want it stopped. As the 2017 forum gets ready to open on Tuesday, Alex Braae discovers how protesters are planning to disrupt it.
The lines of protesters are sitting on the ground, arms linked. They’re blocking the door behind them, resolved to not let anyone through. A squad of tall men with heavy boots are thundering towards them, stopping a metre in front. There’s a short pause, everyone waiting to see who will take the initiative. The protesters look up warily in the brief moment of silence. And then it starts. “MOVE,” scream the squad as one, reaching out to grab collars, arms, pulling and dragging. Sound and fury rains down on the protesters, now ducking heads and battening down in an attempt to hold their ground. “MOVE.”
It’s not yet real, but it will be soon. The protesters are part of Auckland Peace Action, who are taking a group down to Wellington for the NZ Defence Industry Association Forum, colloquially known as the Weapons Expo. They’re training for a blockade, with the goal of stopping as many conference delegates as possible getting inside, for as long as their line holds. Those playing the role of police are veterans of past blockades; they’ve seen and experienced dislodging tactics first hand. The training involves a series of simulations that give a brief glimpse of what they might face on the day. Those who go on the blockade know it could range from insults, to arrests, to injuries.
The training is necessary for a few reasons. The first is to build up group cohesion. Picket lines can be lonely places when hostility erupts. They’ll be facing off primarily against disciplined and uniformed police officers, who have trained and worked together for months or years. The second reason is to teach newer activists how to make quick decisions in volatile situations, or in the high pressure environment of an arrest. An older activist likened direct action protesting to giving a public speech – it goes a lot better if you’ve rehearsed. The third, and most important reason, is to make sure everyone who’s going to be participating will stick to the strict plan of non-violent resistance. Otherwise, they’re out.
Sam Murphy, who is running the training session, choses his words carefully when asked why the only viable tactics for his group are non-violent. “It wouldn’t be strategic for us to lash out,” he says. “The police have a monopoly on violence, so we have to keep a cool head.” He says there is a duty of care from the organisers for everyone joining the blockade, even though they can’t guarantee safety. If a member of their group gets seriously hurt, regardless of how it happens, the organisers will still be the ones who took them into that situation.
Generally speaking, protests in New Zealand aren’t the ugly shit-fights that can end up leading the news. Mostly they’re characterised by both sides trying to stare or shout each other down, with brief flurries of contact. It’s very rare for police to be deployed with weapons, and there’s little chance of the disgraceful scenes of police violence in Catalonia being repeated in Wellington. Police officers are, according to a spokesperson, “well practiced in dealing with events, such as protests.” That said, there’s little love among the activists for the police as an institution.
A book given to everyone at the training – titled The Little Book of Legal Rights and Police Wrongs – catalogues how protesters can find themselves in deep trouble. Saying anything to an officer other than a name, date of birth and address can help them build a case. Touching an officer can be considered assault. A section titled ‘Unfortunate Realities’ opens with a bald, two word statement: “Police lie.” Part of the training session is taken up by a seminar on legal advice. The mood of the room is summed up by a different Sam, who has this to say about arrests: “This is not a friendly conversation. It’s an exercise of power.” He pauses, before adding as an afterthought, “of bastards.”
One big fear that Auckland Peace Action have is that there are agent provocateurs in their midst, or simply “loose units” spoiling for a fight. The police repeatedly refuse to discuss operational tactics when asked whether they ever have, or intend to use undercover officers to provoke protesters into violence. The concerns are understandable, given paid infiltrators have gone undercover in activist groups in the past, such as the notorious Rob Gilchrist, who infiltrated Greenpeace and trade unions.
One simulation deals with this scenario, with Sam Murphy playing the role of someone looking to kick off. He wanders through the protest lines, muttering about wanting to “smash some pigs.” The other protesters try out various tactics to calm him down. When ‘police’ come back into the room, he leaps up, throwing wild theatrical haymakers before being wrestled to the ground. In his debrief afterwards, he praises those who tried to de-escalate the situation, “but I did still manage to punch seven cops, which is not good.” Protesters who get violent endanger everyone else on the blockade.
The contingents making the trip to Wellington know they may spend the entire protest dealing almost exclusively with the police, rather than the forum delegates, who are the real objects of their protest. The NZ Defence Industry Association, for their part, says the protesters are completely misconstruing what they do. Deputy Chairman Andrew Ford dismisses the term ‘Weapons Expo’ as misleading, because “there is no weapons trade, contracting or procurement conducted at the forum.”
“People who want to oppose what we’re trying to achieve, it’s convenient for them to label this as a Weapons Expo, because that is a motive, and rightly so. The New Zealand Defence Industry Association has never held a Weapons Expo, or an arms fair,” says Ford. For him it’s about getting New Zealand firms in the mix when the military needs to procure support equipment and supplies. The Defence Force has a budget of $2.1 billion a year, potentially a lot of business for contractors.
The NZDIA also strongly backs the reputation of the Defence Force itself. In a separate release Ford states that “an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders are very proud of the men and women who serve our country and the work they do.” As a carefully worded statement, it’s hard to argue with, except that much of what the Defence Force does is classified. New Zealanders suddenly seem much less proud of the Defence Force’s work when some of it comes to light, such as the recent revelations from Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson about a cover up of civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
Back at the training session, that point is made by an activist who doesn’t want to be named. He says New Zealand likes to see itself as peaceful country, but because of our involvement in overseas conflicts and alliances like the Five Eyes, that’s not really the case. “There’s a lot of things said about the glory of war and its necessity, but the majority of wars are about powers exercising their force on weaker bodies, in a bid to get resources or keep their geopolitical dominance.” He adds that he sees protest as “a bit of a fuck you to the big powers.”
New Zealanders might notice protests in Wellington, but decision makers in the big powers are unlikely to hear about them, or care. The most realistic outcome that would constitute success for the protesters would be to prevent delegates from getting inside the building for a day. NZDIA’s Andrew Ford stresses that he respects the right to protest, and notes that the NZDF “are frequently active in supporting that internationally as well – the right for individuals to live in free and open democracies.” But he isn’t happy about protesters obstructing a “legitimate business activity, that generates economic benefit for New Zealand.” It’s not the protests that bother him, it’s the blockading.
So should those blockading simply stand on the concourse at Westpac Stadium, glaring at attendees without getting in their way? Sam Murphy is incredulous at the idea. “These people are working for companies that are profiting from people getting bombed, or houses getting bulldozed. I don’t care if we’re stopping their right to murder people, that’s what it comes down to. It’s our duty for us here in a country where we aren’t getting bombed to show solidarity with those who are.”
Logistics, supplies or weapons – it doesn’t make much of a difference to the Auckland Peace Action protesters. It’s all part of a military machine they believe New Zealand should have nothing to do with. During the simulations, one chant strikes a chord with the group. It’s simple, rhythmic and direct, and will come out if delegates try to walk through their lines.
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