Viewport width =
September 17, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A Radical Departure

Axe attacks, communists and one untrained, inexperienced litigant

“The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has—from people who insist on thinking for themselves” ~ Christopher Hitchens. 

In 1844, nine years prior to New Zealand’s first parliamentary elections, Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke famously felled a flagpole bearing the Union Jack at Russell—known then as Kororareka—to protest the unfulfilled promises of the British. The second, third and iron-clad fourth (and final) iterations of the pole were felled, too.† Indeed, the story of radical protest in New Zealand is older than our democracy itself. 

And yet, radicalism continues: 10-minutes’ walk from the Kelburn Campus is Wellington’s Radical Social Centre. Situated at 128 Abel Smith Street on the shoulder of the bypass, the Centre features a bike workshop, anarchist library, a space for marginalised genders, meeting places and an art and music practice area. The Centre distributes bread and produce (produce is donated from market gardeners around 3pm on Sundays), can host travellers, and is open to anyone who meets the guiding principles. These guiding principles—recognising Māori as tangata whenua; opposing oppression; valuing transparency; responsibility and cooperative behaviour; and respecting diversity—seem more sensible than radical.

The house is extremely left-wing and indeed the term radicalism tends to refer to those espousing left-wing political values; values which desire systemic change and are sometimes pursued through revolutionary action. No defining criteria exist for a ‘radical’ action or belief though, and as such ‘radical’ is often deployed as a pejorative term (think the antithesis of conservative).

Salient arrived unannounced at 128—opening times are posted on the front door—and spoke to Tom, a caretaker and member of the collective which runs the house. Initially, Tom was wary of talking to Salient, a stance informed by journalistic misrepresentations of the house in the past—he is acutely aware of the stigma which surrounds the house, and how representations affect this.

Tom explains though that the collective which runs 128 is made up of not only direct-action radicals and anarchists, but of members representing a wide range of views. They operate on a consensus basis, a process which can be frustrating at times, and relies heavily on good communication, compassion and consideration.

It’s a “hub for activism and alternative ways of living,” Tom says, a “role model of what we can do collectively by incorporating intersecting political ideology,” and “a place for the marginalised” even if the marginalised are apolitical. According to Tom, it’s the only radical space in the country, discounting commercial entities like a Dunedin-based anarchist bookstore.

The quiet status of 128 speaks to how radicalism has changed since Heke’s act of protest in Kororareka over 160 years ago. While 128 was only established in 2002, the history of radicalism can be traced in locations like it.

Back in 1879, Timaru’s main street beheld the Orange Riot between Protestants and Catholics. Witnesses described the proceedings as a “tense standoff”, sure to have caused quite a flutter in Timaru watercooler discussion at the time.

Notwithstanding Timaru, New Zealand has a number of other historical flashpoints for public protest: Christchurch’s Cathedral Square has hosted public protests since the 1880s. Te Aro Park—the triangular strip between Courtenay Place and Dixon Street—was Wellington’s protest hub circa 1930; including anti-war marches. It’s now home to various alcoholic vagrants, public toilets, a high concentration of triangular seats, Hope Bros, Calendar Girls, and Wellington’s least ambitious fountain—how far we’ve come. Queen Street is Auckland’s route de résistance, while to this day the Lambton Quay route to Parliament continues to be well traversed by the radically-minded.

Over time, these sites have become accepted stages for the expression of various radical agendas—though by no means the only platforms, as the recent Waihopai spy base case outside of Blenheim shows. Sporting grounds became some such alternate stages for public discontent, during what remains perhaps our most famous instance of political radicalism— opposition to the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. Images of locations so often associated with national glory converted into stadia of international shame remain ingrained in the national psyche to this day.

Opposition to apartheid was not the only major protest movement of the 1980s and ‘90s. With movements in support and opposition for Treaty of Waitangi breaches, homosexual law reform, Rogernomics and womens rights, the period was in fact rife with protest—radical and otherwise. Visiting US warships were greeted with ‘peace flotillas’ of small boats, and union protests continued until the Employment Contracts Act 1991 gutted union power.

Radical actions through the 1980s and ’90s continued on the foundations provided by radical youths in the 1960s and ‘70s. This generation famously expressed anti-conservative counter-culture sentiments, marching and performing sit-ins against the Vietnam War, the suppression of minority rights (Māori and women, in particular), and nuclear power.

With the arrival of the ideas of Karl Marx in New Zealand in 1871—through one James McPherson’s correspondence with the International Working Men’s Association— Communism become another ideological beacon to which New Zealanders flocked. By 1921— five years after the Labour Party had been established—New Zealand had its very own Communist Party.

The movement faced significant challenges; leadership struggles, ideological schisms, and divisive infighting ate away from within, while externally, arrests of member on the grounds of sedition were commonplace. Through these struggles, the CPNZ never gained any real momentum, their zenith the 1963 general election, where they received a shade over 5,000 votes. The CPNZ later became the Socialist Worker, a group which voted to dissolve itself in early 2012.

Protests are not only the tip of the radical iceberg, but for wider social movements too. To get to the point of producing a coherent expression of collective distaste, there’s a mass of ground work to cover in terms of intellectual arguments, logistical arrangements, and conceptual aims—Lenin once said, “Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement”.

While some protests achieve their objectives—a hikoi in 1975 helped to usher in the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process for the return of Māori land—many do not. Regardless, the act of protest is not just an important facet of radical movements, but also a foundational aspect of the participatory democracy upon which New Zealand prides itself on. Protest informs politicians on the concerns of the populace and provides avenues for governments to be held to account.

While the right to public protest is enshrined in law through the protection of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the Bill of Rights Act 1990, such liberties extend only so far as our actions do not infringe on the rights of other individuals, national security, public order or health. What exactly constitutes such an infringement can be contentious at times. Indeed, there is a history of police ending protests through measures later found to be a breach of protesters rights.

It took until 2007 however, until one of the most significant barriers to protest, New Zealand’s sedition laws, were repealed. Defined as “speech, writing or behaviour intended to encourage rebellion or resistance against the government”, sedition laws were used on both radical and what might be considered less- than-radical subjects alike—New Zealand’s 24th Prime Minister, Peter Fraser, spent a year of his youth imprisoned on charges of sedition stemming from opposition to World War I and conscription. The eventual repeal of the laws came as a response to widespread criticism following political activist Timothy Selwyn’s conviction for sedition—the first such conviction in 75 years.

Selwyn’s conviction came after he threw an axe through then-Prime Minister Helen Clark’s electorate office window and distributed pamphlets in reaction to the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. While the legitimacy of the wilful damage charge was not in doubt, Selwyn was supported across the political spectrum in his view that sedition laws infringed on freedom of speech. According to then-Minister of Justice Mark Burton, sedition laws had become “a tool of political persecution”. With the Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act passing 114-7—New Zealand First opposed on anti-terrorism grounds—radicalism in New Zealand gained an important legal foothold.

By the time the Urewera Seventeen (later the Urewera Four) were in the spotlight, the legal framework surrounding radicalism was less apparent. The 2007 terror raids, a response to intelligence gathered on military-style training camps in the Urewera ranges, used the Terrorism Suppression Act and Arms Act as the basis for conducting search and seizure operations at a number of radical locations, including 128. This had ramifications for the radical community beyond those directly involved, as the charges brought against the subjects of the Urewera Raids was enough to make many activists disillusioned with the process—the risk of five years jail for seemingly platonic involvement was too great for some, especially those with families. Many activists ceased or diversified their involvement in the face of growing mainstream interest.

Such public scrutiny has been the bane of two Wellington-based radicals in particular: activist Benjamin Easton and artist Tao Wells have been plagued with an unfortunate desire to bite the hand that feeds—both are unemployed, and have had their benefit payments ended after radical actions. Easton, a self-described “unemployed political busker” revealed he had nary a job interview in over three years on the dole, and Wells’ publically-funded art installation advocating the opportunities and benefits of unemployment and urging people to abandon jobs they don’t like.

Radical actions such as these have often created public distaste, perhaps hurting their cause(s). Easton has been threatened with jail time for avoiding community service, for which he was sentenced after the public vandalism of Manners Mall with a sledgehammer in protest of the introduction of bus lanes. The Wellington City Council has moved to class Easton as a ‘vexatious litigant’, thus rescinding his right to litigate, after $350,000 in legal bills. In Easton’s words, “I’m an untrained, uneducated litigant and they don’t want that kind of litigant beating their top lawyers. It’s really easy to point the finger at me and forget that what I’m saying is right”.

Wells too is mired in public ire, through his artistic and oral statements. He was received poorly by the employed citizens who funded his radicalism when he declared “we should never be forced to take a job”. While they both fight for what Easton calls “the public interest”, it is up to the public to form their own conclusions on the views of contemporary society’s radicals.

Mark Twain once offered that “the radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.” Tom disagrees; “radicals aren’t fighting for what we’ll get tomorrow. The ongoing struggles and half- victories we get from legislation always leave room for a lot of improvement”. While radicals receive a certain amount of social stigma, many of the legal and social liberties we enjoy today were the result of hard-fought, hard-won battles from previous generations of radicals fighting for causes they believed in.

New Zealand’s radical history is a proud one, and the fight certainly continues through people like John Minto, the Occupy movement, We Are The University, environmental groups, filmmakers and students. Whether or not you agree with contemporary radical sentiments, our history and community would be all the more dull in their absence—perhaps it’s time we started to think about the people who insist on thinking for themselves. ▲

One branch this article will not touch on is the Maori ‘radical’ movement; while Maori protest has a storied history—one which reflects the injustices perpetrated against them—I am loathe to address
it as radicalism. It is this writer’s opinion that the journey towards redress for historical wrongs should be considered no more ‘radical’ than, say, the human rights movement. The the exclusion of such actions in this piece on radicalism reflects this. 


About the Author ()

Comments are closed.

Recent posts

  1. VUW Halls Hiking Fees By 50–80% Next Year
  2. The Stats on Gender Disparities at VUW
  3. Issue 25 – Legacy
  4. Canta Wins Bid for Editorial Independence
  5. RA Speaks Out About Victoria University Hall Death
  6. VUW Hall Death: What We Know So Far
  8. New Normal
  9. Come In, The Door’s Open.
  10. Love in the Time of Face Tattoos

Editor's Pick

Uncomfortable places: skin.

:   Where are you from?  My list was always ready: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, puppy dogs’ tails, a little Spanish, maybe German, and—almost as an afterthought—half Samoan. An unwanted fraction.   But you don’t seem like a Samoan. I thought you were [inser

Do you know how to read? Sign up to our Newsletter!

* indicates required