Former VUWSA student: “Once were radicals”

Former VUWSA student: “Once were radicals”

A leftwing Wellingtonian who used to be a student at Victoria University of Wellington laments anonymously about how students now orientate differently towards protest and authority. A response from VUWSA or other students is very welcome.


On Monday, the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association called for “law enforcement to take action” against protesters, in order to remove obstacles to traffic and eliminate disruption to classes on Pipitea campus.

Hard to believe this is the same organisation whose website proudly remembers the “spontaneous storming of Parliament” by student protesters in 1964, under the heading ‘Our Story’. On VUWSA’s website you’ll also find praise for “dozens of students… arrested outside Parliament in 1997”, and fond memories of the general meeting which approved sending two thousand dollars to the Viet Minh to purchase a tank.

Now they call for police violence to drive dissenting minorities off campus grounds, and let’s be clear; that’s what “action” means in this context. Violence. Not the ‘violence’ of rude words or heretical opinions, but the actual violence of men and women acting on behalf of the state.

How times have changed. “No cops on campus” used to be the member-endorsed policy of student unions around New Zealand.

On the Salient front page in April 1974, an article criticised drunken rowdiness in the Union Hall precisely because it could give police an excuse to enter student territory.

In March 1975, a VUWSA Executive meeting addressed two instances of police intrusion. Salient reported that “Alfonso’s food bar was burgled recently and Byron Buick-Constable, Managing secretary of the Union, called the cops without consulting any member of the Exec. The Exec passed a motion of censure against him.” The next paragraph notes “two detectives were allegedly on duty at the Gay Lib Ball. An extremely annoyed Exec swore for a while.”

On multiple occasions in the 1990s, Otago University students voted to “condemn the presence of police on campus”, committed their Student Association to “support its members’ active opposition to the presence of police”, because cops being there “would tend to undermine the free and open exchange of ideas and impede the development of an effective learning environment, and would provide no solution to the problem of crime on campus.”

In March 1993, an article in the University of Waikato’s student magazine Nexus described fierce opposition from members of the Waikato Student Union to the proposed introduction of a permanent community constable on campus. The article includes supporting comments from Auckland University Student Association President Richie Watson, who noted that in the 1960s an agreement was reached between AUSA and the police, stipulating cops weren’t allowed on campus unless invited.

In 2003, a VUWSA Student Representative Council overwhelmingly endorsed a motion echoing the OUSA position statement, adding “the police should not have routine access to campus that could be used to monitor or interfere with political activity.”

VUWSA broke with tradition when they called for police to enforce law and order on campus, but it was hardly a conscious rejection of the past. “No cops on campus” didn’t just happen. Many students in the 60s, 70s and 90s knew what it was like to protest against foreign wars and domestic neoliberalism, and how it felt when police violently dispersed them. If students protest these days, they’re more likely to have a police escort.

VUWSA President Ralph Zambrano told media the “dangerous gridlock” makes his members feel “anxious, afraid, and vulnerable”, due to “notable incidences of harassment and vandalism.”

This part of the call for a crackdown is light on specifics, but given the ever growing list of things which make today’s students feel anxious, we may hear more pleas for police protection down the road.

Much has been made of a few badly behaved protesters, but let’s get real. This is a mildly disruptive protest, boring by international standards. Nobody has been hurt worse than you’d expect in an average game of indoor soccer, and most not even that. The bus trip home from Lambton Quay takes maybe three minutes longer without access to Molesworth Street. There’s far less threatening and violent behaviour than you can expect after dark on Courtenay Place – not even close. This coming Friday you’ll be much safer outside Parliament than outside the Establishment.

Protests are loud, messy, sometimes confrontational, often inconvenient. We’re not used to that in this country, so we find the occupation of Parliament lawn shocking. A few deep breaths would go a long way. What separates the Freedom Convoy from student “strikes” over climate change or the June 2020 Black Lives Matter protests (which openly flouted lockdown restrictions, without penalties) is not its uniquely despicable character, but rather its determination to defy the state and the law, even when facing the threat of violence.

Wild talk of a menacing far-right and white supremacist mob poised to storm the Beehive is embarrassing hysteria. Yes, some far-right activists have attended the demonstration. They’ve even posted a video on Twitter. They’ve written poorly spelled slogans on a handful of signs and car windows, some threatening violence toward politicians and journalists. Such behaviour should be condemned, but not exaggerated.

Anyone who has ever attended or organised a sizeable protest knows how difficult it is to prevent idiots from showing up and opportunists from latching on, and how difficult it is to prevent the media from highlighting those outliers. They get the most clicks.

If the presence of a small number of people with far-right politics makes this a white supremacist demonstration, anyone who’s attended an anti-war, environmentalist, unionist or feminist demonstration should be expected to justify their involvement in Marxist mobilisations to replace bourgeois democracy with a proletarian dictatorship. Zoom into the photos and there they are! Handing out their poorly xeroxed newsletters, marching for climate justice under the hammer and sickle.

Radical leftists have every right to attend those demonstrations, many of which rely on background organising by far-left groups and individuals. But would anyone seriously claim that because Trotskyist sects and anarcho-communist polycules are in the crowd, a protest against free trade agreements becomes an attempt at anti-capitalist insurrection? If there are avowed Marxists in a union’s leadership, should liberal democrats and religious believers shun protests by supermarket or fast food workers seeking higher wages? Must we fear creeping communism and reds under the bed?

On Monday morning, two left wing academics went head to head on Radio New Zealand over these questions. Bryce Edwards, who has visited the occupation multiple times, argued the overwhelming majority of protesters abhor and reject calls for violence against politicians. Morgan Godfery hasn’t spent a second there, but has done enough research on Twitter to form an opinion.

In Godfery’s words: “If they abhor the idea, then they should be rejecting these elements, but these elements keep being welcomed into the protest. Because so-called moderate organisers are trying to maintain a big tent, and a big tent that includes these very, very nasty elements.”

It’s been a wee while, but this rhetoric has grown no more logically coherent in the years since September 11. How many times were so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ held responsible for the actions of a minority? How many times were mosque leaders, Islamic organisations and random individuals expected to denounce or apologise for the handful of deranged fundamentalists in their community? How many times did their attempts to do so get far less attention than the unrepresentative self-promotion of fringe fanatics?

Of course, Godfery would never dream of applying this line of reasoning to the Muslim community, because his world view allows him (indeed, requires him) to see them as humans; oppressed ones, at that. To this day he rejects attempts to apply this argument to the anti-TPPA campaign.

He certainly never applied it to the 2019 Ihumātao land occupation, where protesters assaulted and spat on police and racially abused those who looked “foreign”. Where were the calls to reject these nasty elements when they were shouting at people of South Asian descent to “fuck off back to your own country?”

Apparently some protests are more entitled to good faith than others.

In contrast to the hysterics, it’s more accurate to describe a protest like the Freedom Convoy as a lightning rod. The same was true of the anti-TPPA campaign and Occupy before it, and no doubt will be true of others to come. Events like these attract a disparate array of ideas and individuals, including many which  are inarticulate, extreme, or delusional. The structurelessness and leaderlessness of the movement makes it difficult for most New Zealanders to understand what they’re doing and why, but when asked to explain themselves on camera or in print, very few have responded with a Roman salute.

Some oppose the vaccines entirely, but not all. Most have said they don’t want to be told what to put in their bodies, they want freedom, and they’re angry to have lost their jobs because of the mandates.

Those who insist this is a white supremacist uprising should do their best to produce a crowd photo from Parliament that doesn’t feature quite a few Māori faces. Just one will do. While they’re at it, they can track down a picture without at least one tino rangatiratanga flag. The rest of us will wait with bated breath.

Clearly the protestors are in a minority, and their cause may well be utterly wrong. However, as unfashionable as this view has become in some quarters, it remains possible to disagree with someone without calling them a Nazi. Those who call themselves progressive yet call for police action against inconvenient dissent should take a long, hard look in the mirror.