Trevor Richards, who led opposition to sporting contacts with South Africa during the apartheid era, has written an opinion piece for Stuff recalling the famous Molesworth Street incident that occurred 40 years ago this week.
You know the one. A crowd of more than 1000 anti-tour marchers found their path blocked by lines of police armed with batons. In the ensuing confrontation, protesters were bludgeoned and some were injured.
I was there that night and my memory differs from that of Richards in one or two significant respects.
He says the crowd assembled in Parliament grounds. “The plan was for a peaceful march from Molesworth St to the home of the South African Consul-General, three kilometres away in Wadestown.”
That’s not quite how I recall things. Memory is notoriously unreliable, and either mine or Richards' is faulty. But I took part in that protest and I remember it forming uptown, in the vicinity of Civic Square, then marching without incident through the city to a spot at the bottom of Lambton Quay, near the Cenotaph. There it stopped and the crowd was addressed by protest leaders.
The marchers had been told the protest would finish at that point. I understood that was the basis on which it had been cleared beforehand with the police. But suddenly we heard through the megaphone that the organisers intended to press on to Wadestown.
Though that wasn't in the previously disclosed plan, the crowd had built up a head of steam and was raring to carry on.
I decided to pull out. As far as I was concerned, we’d made our point. To carry on to the South African Consul-General’s house, blocking roads and causing further public inconvenience, seemed gratuitously provocative. (You’ll deduce from this that I’m no one’s idea of a wild-eyed revolutionary.)
But I had some time to kill so out of curiosity, I decided to tag along for a while – this time as an observer rather than a participant. The result was that I was able to view proceedings from close range as the protesters closed on the police lines and the batons started flailing.
With the benefit of hindsight, what happened was entirely predictable. It became clear from the heavy police presence on Molesworth St that the cops had anticipated the protest organisers’ tactic.
Neither should it have been a surprise that the police responded with force. Having been humiliated only days before when protesters forced the cancellation of the Springboks vs Waikato match in Hamilton, they weren’t going to be outmanoeuvred again.
For their part, anti-tour protest leaders were on a high after Hamilton and may have thought they were unstoppable. It was never going to end well.
It didn’t help that the marchers at the rear couldn’t see what was happening 100 metres ahead of them and kept surging forward, forcing those at the front into the unyielding police defences. For those in the vanguard – including the veteran communist Rona Bailey, whom Richards says ended up in hospital – there was no escape.
It wasn’t pretty, but the protesters – or at least their leaders – asked for it. I thought so then and I still think so now. They were pumped up and unable to see past the self-evident righteousness of their cause. And I say that as someone who supported their aim, if not their methods. (I refused to take part in any protest that prevented people from going about their lawful business, such as attending tour matches. You can see I would have been utterly useless at the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace.)
Richards’ account, four decades on, implies that the police reacted violently without warning or justification. Naturally, he doesn’t mention the possibility that the protesters invited retaliation by going beyond what had been agreed. It’s not entirely cynical to suggest that the injured were casualties of the protest leaders’ eagerness to test police resolve.
Molesworth St was a line in the sand and a test of wills. If the police had capitulated in the face of that direct challenge to their authority, their standing and credibility – not to mention their own morale – would have been toast.
The martyrdom of the Molesworth St marchers has become a bit tiresome. Richards should just admit that the protesters pushed their luck too far that night.