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April 11, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Activism Marches On

Activism: knowing what you believe in, and doing something about it. This meant a lot to students of our parents’ generation, and they have the anti-Vietnam War movement, anti-nuclear legacy and the Springbok Tour protests to prove it. But what does activism mean to our generation? Salient looks at how we bring about change today.

The early ’60s were a time of new possibilities: people were beginning to throw off the restraints of the ’40s and ’50s and breathe deep the air of change. Racism, war, discrimination, and nuclear warfare sparked the fire of student activism and fueled it for 30 years to come. Students the world over were united by the belief that they could truly make a difference in the world.

The students of Aotearoa were no different. When America tried to tell us that nuclear weaponry was OK, students said no. The New Zealand Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) held its first protest, a student-led march from Featherston Street to Parliament, in Easter of 1961. Over the next 20 years, under the umbrella of the CND, students were part of protests held in Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson, Wellington, Auckland and Cape Reinga. In 1984, hundreds of students lay down outside the US Consulate in Auckland in protest against the visit of the USS Queenfish nuclear submarine. By the time New Zealand was made a nuclear-free zone in 1987, our country had an anti-nuclear legacy that belonged not only to then-Prime Minister David Lange but to the students who had fought so hard for their beliefs.

When America sent soldiers to Vietnam, students said no. In 1967, they marched up Molesworth Street to Parliament, carrying an empty black coffin and a wreath with the inscription “To the dead and dying on both sides of Vietnam. Why must their blood pay the price of our mistakes?” In 1971, a group of a Victoria University students marched to the US Embassy with a banner showing 28 stick figures, each one representing a New Zealander who had died in the Vietnam War. There, they held a 28-hour vigil, marking off one of these figures each hour.

When a country under the apartheid system tried to send a rugby team to our shores, students again said no. Around 350 protesters stormed the pitch in Hamilton before the 25 July game, forcing the cancellation of the match. This was the first major sporting event to have been televised back to South Africa, and what they saw was a group of people who had the courage to risk injury and arrest to show the world their beliefs. Over 150,000 people participated in the Springbok tour protests which, although they didn’t stop the tour, sent a powerful message across the globe and to the South African government. We had become—in our own minds, at least—the little nation that could. But is this attitude still present in our generation?

In comparison to the tsunami of student protest in the 1960s, you could be forgiven for thinking that the student activism tide has ebbed in recent years, but there are still protestors that remind us of an earlier time in New Zealand’s history. In 2009, 50 Otago University students protested against the $30 million cut to education spending under the slogan “Where are your priorities Mr Key?” In March last year, anti-whaling protesters set up outside John Key’s electorate office in Auckland with a banner depicting the PM harpooning a whale. And throughout 2010, students on both side of the VSM debate protested for their cause on Parliament grounds and at universities around the country.
So, student activism in the form of protest continues, but certainly not on the same scale as has been seen in the past. What does this lack of interest say about us? Are we an apathetic generation that would rather sit on the couch eating Doritos than try and make a difference in the world?

The fact is that the ways we can make this difference has changed. Email, Facebook, Google, Twitter, text messages, and online media in general are tools available to us that weren’t around during the student activism period of the ’70s and ’80s. We only have to look at what these technologies have done in the last year to understand the significance of this change. The uprising in Egypt was sparked on Facebook and Twitter; WikiLeaks is standing up for freedom of the press; and the instant transmission of footage of the Libyan conflict infiltrates our lives in a way that we can’t ignore. Faced with such clear evidence that technology is one of our best weapons in the fight for our beliefs, it’s easy to see why we’ve taken to the web to show the world that we still care.

Those who doubt that students today care at all have only to look to people like Amnesty @ Vic co-president Zac Sun. Overcome by what he calls “a surge of liberal guilt”, Zac felt that “being comparatively free and privileged”, he couldn’t just stand back and watch human rights abuse continue.

“You can read about stuff and feel impotent and angry and then just move on, or you can choose to ignore it altogether and go buy your iPhone, but it doesn’t actually cost you that much to sit down and sign a petition, or write a letter to a foreign leader.”

Each year, Amnesty @ Vic holds a gig to raise money and awareness for causes not usually discussed in the mainstream media. They run other events throughout the year, such as Freedom Week, which they use to “kick people in the arse and get them to agitate”. Like many others in organisations such as Amnesty International, Students For Palestine and Gecko, Zac has the same courage of convictions as his parents’ generation. However, he has realised that to avoid being all smoke and no fire, he must be smart about the way he goes about making a change in his world.

So, is student activism a thing of the past that belongs to another generation? No, it’s about knowing what you believe in and doing something about it. Our generation may not leave the same tracks as those of the ’70s and ’80s student activism bandwagon, but we are making tracks all the same.


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  1. Kim Wheatley says:

    I’m not really sure what you’re trying to achieve with this article. Citing one or two examples and then pointing to the ‘influence’ of social media and then concluding on some vague uplifting note about belief does not a compelling argument make. Furthermore, it suggests that activism is all about the individual (“what _you_ believe in”), when most successful activism is usually the result of some kind of collective action. Yes, there are the Rosa Parks out there, but their actions are usually rendered meaningless without a weight of bodies who can be mobilized afterwards.

    As such, you’ve made a pretty big oversight in not acknowledging that student bodies are increasingly being atomized. Under the neoliberal paradigm unions are having their abilities to conduct genuine collective action reduced, and students are increasingly having to function as individual actors, rather than as a collective body. For example, I’m guessing that being a member of a club like Amnesty International today is just as much about having them listed on your CV as part of your “self-brand”, as it is about any kind of genuine activism.

    Frankly, I think most of today’s students simply don’t have the time to be engaging in any kind of effective activism. University education was once much much cheaper (as were living costs), and this afforded students a certain amount of spare time in which they could do things like hold protests. Today, most students receiving support from Studylink will probably still have to work 15+ hours part time just to make rent and pay the bills. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to be able to engage in effective political protests under these kinds of circumstances. That we’re media addicts who spend the majority of our spare time watching TV or updating our Facebook status probably doesn’t help.

    This is partly why citing Twitter and Facebook as the ‘spark’ for activism in the Middle East is a little disingenuous. I’m guessing we spend a lot more time doing fuckall that’s useful on those sites than we do actually engaging in activism. Yes, these tools do have potential in this regard, but let’s not forget that they still remain tools, nothing more. We need the genuine political will to make use of them, or else they mean nothing:

    Sorry for being cynical, but have a proper look around the university’s campus. Do you really think that it’s a thriving hub of political activity? To me it much more closely resembles a factory for the production of tomorrow’s educated workforce than a breeding ground for left-wing activists.

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