Branko Marcetic: Protest can force this government to “be kind”

Branko Marcetic: Protest can force this government to “be kind”

There’s a popular story from the early days of the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the US counterpart to our own Michael Joseph Savage. As he embarked on what would be one of the most transformational presidencies in the country’s history, a group of activists — sometimes labour leaders, sometimes civil rights campaigners, sometimes nondescript “leftists,” depending on who tells it — met with the president to make their demands known. “I agree with you,” he replied. “I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

The story probably never happened, and it’s not important if it did. Like Biblical parables or the tales of Māui, it’s not about recording what really happened in the past, but a way of making sense of the world and imparting important lessons: in this case, that even the most ambitious, progressive leader sympathetic to a movement’s goals isn’t going to do anything without a little bit of pressure.

We’ve seen this lesson proven yet again in the wake of the massive global protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Protests and the activists who organise and populate them are often thought of as do-nothing wasters, people out in the streets because they lack or job or are simply out to cause trouble. If you want to change something in politics, according to this mindset, cast your vote every three years and maybe, at a push, join a political party.

Yet already in the United States, the massive, sustained protests that erupted around the country have not just blown up the limits of what’s possible — defunding the bloated police budgets of US cities is suddenly a mainstream idea — but have resulted in actual policy wins. Activists forced the mayor of Los Angeles to reverse course from plans to put more money into police and instead divert funds into youth jobs and health care. New York state, where police have long been untouchable, has passed sweeping legislation banning chokeholds, allowing the release of disciplinary records and more, over the vehement objections of powerful police unions. And in Minneapolis, where it all began, a veto-proof majority of the city council has vowed to disband the city’s police department and start over from scratch.

We’ve now seen similar results here at home. It’s not a coincidence the police decision to disband its ill-advised Armed Response Teams (ARTs) — a magnet for controversy and criticism from the day they were announced — came after thousands of people marched down Auckland’s CBD and hundreds more gathered in Wellington and Christchurch in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, with thousands planning to march a second time in our country’s biggest city. Protesters and organisers made clear they had taken to the streets not just in outrage at US police violence, but connected it to demands to do away with ARTs in New Zealand.

These protests were just the final stage of a long-running pressure campaign over the issue by Arms Down NZ. The organisation’s spokesperson, Emmy Rākete, explained how the group helped organise and give voice to communities alarmed by the prospect of armed police patrolling their neighbourhoods. New Zealand Police themselves made clear that the decidedly unenthusiastic feedback they received from the public played a role in ultimately scrapping the idea.

Protest works, and these recent events are only one example we can point to. The only reason Ihumātao hasn’t been paved over by Fletchers is because of the occupation and protest actions that halted development and created a political headache for the prime minister, forcing her to turn around on her earlier reluctance to intervene and step in to broker a resolution. Before that, the government magically found money it insisted it didn’t have to invest into education and health care due to massive teacher and nurses strikes.

We might also think back to how protest and public outcry forced the Key government to back down on plans to mine national parks. Or the way that era-defining protests, from the 1975 hīkoi and Bastion Point occupation to anti-nuclear activism and the anti-apartheid Springbok tour, reshaped our country’s political priorities and augured real change in public policy, before being canonised in our national consciousness.

The wins notched by activists, protesters and strikers under this Labour-led government are still limited. But events here and in the United States remind us that the surest way to spark political change is by making those in power uncomfortable, even those ostensibly sympathetic to your cause. Politicians follow the path of least resistance, and even the most well-meaning and genuine are tempted to avoid controversy for the sake of staying in power, reasoning that this will, in the longer run, better aid the cause. Yet if the only pressure they feel comes from their right, then that’s the direction they’ll end up going. Change has never happened care of the good will of those who hold power in society, and government benevolence has never come out of a vacuum.

There is much else this government will need to be pushed on, from taking real, concrete measures to decarbonise the economy, to creating the kind of kind, compassionate society we’ve heard much about but have only seen glimpses of so far. These things won’t just be handed down from on high; for them to happen, the massive crowds that aired their outrage at police brutality can’t be a one-off.

If you care about the things your political heroes want to accomplish, coddling them won’t cut it. Do the prime minister a favour, and make her do it.

Branko Marcetic is co-host of the podcast 1 of 200 and a staff writer for Jacobin magazine

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.