(First published in The Dominion Post, April 1.)Protesters, eh? I’ve been one myself, so I’m not entirely hostile to the idea of marching in the street and waving banners. But sometimes protesters push their luck.
Consider what happened last week in Wanganui, where a car driven by National MP Chester Borrows allegedly drove over the foot of a woman protesting against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.The car, in which cabinet minister Paula Bennett was a passenger, was leaving a breakfast business meeting. Video footage showed several protesters blocking its exit.
While it’s true that Borrows appeared to make no attempt to stop, his car was moving so slowly that the placard-wavers had plenty of time to get out of the way. It looked to me as if they were either intent on provoking some sort of confrontation, or at the very least trying to force him to stop.Who’s at fault here? Certainly Borrows could have pulled up. The protesters could then have surrounded the car and harangued him and his VIP passenger at close range.
But equally, the protesters had time to move and chose not to. If one of them was hurt as a result, then the injury was surely self-inflicted.I noticed too that the moment the car came into contact with the protest group, a woman called out: “Did anyone get that on camera?” It was almost as if they were willing it to happen so they could then accuse Borrows of being a callous Tory thug.
Well, someone did get it on camera, and most people who saw it on the TV news would have had no difficulty deciding who was in the wrong.There’s a classic clash of rights here: the right to protest versus the right of people to go about their lawful business unobstructed (or to use the classic phrase, “without let or hindrance”).
Freedom of movement, like freedom of speech, is a fundamental part of our rights. No one has the right to impede it just to make a political point, no matter how righteous they feel about their cause.Borrows was exercising his right and the protesters were trying to deprive him of it. The case rests.
The situation would have been different had the MP provocatively accelerated into the protest group, but Borrows is no hothead. He was barely driving at walking speed.Now here’s the point. We live in one of the world’s freest and most open societies. People are entitled to shout and wave placards.
Protesters are indulged to the extent that authorities routinely allow them to conduct street marches that inconvenience other people. In much of the world this would be unthinkable.But protesters too often interpret this tolerance as a general licence to disrupt, which is where they get it wrong. Generally speaking, the right to protest ends at the point where it obstructs the rights of others.
When protesters become so pumped up with self-righteousness that they believe they’re entitled – indeed, have a moral duty – to interfere with the rights of others, public sympathy for their cause rapidly evaporates.We’ve seen a lot of this lately. The day before the Wanganui incident, Greenpeace protesters blocked all the entrances to the SkyCity convention centre, where a petroleum industry conference was underway. People were unable to get in or out.
Police took a lenient line, as they almost invariably do, removing some protesters but apparently making no arrests.They were similarly indulgent with the anti-TPPA Waitangi Day protester who hit cabinet minister Steven Joyce with a flying dildo and inexplicably escaped prosecution for assault. Perhaps the police were too busy processing dangerous spinsters who’d been intercepted at checkpoints for having half a glass of sherry too many.
Then there were the protesters dressed as clowns who invaded a public meeting held in Auckland to explain the free trade agreement.Never were protesters more appropriately disguised. They were far more clownish than they realised, noisily disrupting an event that was held to do exactly what the anti-TPPA camp had been demanding: namely, to reveal more about details of the agreement.
Plainly, these buffoons weren’t remotely interested in information or disclosure. They were getting off on the adrenalin buzz of protesting.But the gold standard of protester arrogance remains the actions of the three men who sabotaged the Waihopai electronic listening post in 2008, causing damage that taxpayers had to pay for. The official estimate was $1.2 million.
The sanctimonious saboteurs claimed to have Jesus Christ’s backing, although how they could be so sure of that was never explained.