It was the day of the Budget that the first ‘Blockade the Budget’ protest brought Auckland students back on to the streets for the first time in many years. It was the first student protest that my 18 year old daughter joined her university peers to stand against the budget policies that cut student allowances to graduate students and increased student loan repayments. It was also the day of protests against the imprisonisation of Tame and Rangi. She said to me that day “I thought that you weren’t here in Auckland so I had better go”. It was one of those ‘proud’ parent days of which I can say I have had many.
My six children have all been involved in all protest that their parents have been involved in. They have been a part of a generation that as children handed out pamphlets around Waitangi for their many whaea and matua who have been a part of the movement for more years than they have been alive. They have been pushed in prams, biked, walked and driven in support of Te Tiriti, they attended the Heroes parade in support of gay and lesbian rights, they rallied for Civil Union’s, they marched against the Foreshore and Seabed bill, they protested against the ‘Terrorist Raids’ and arrests. They have been in many places with many activists and they have a sense of justice that goes well beyond their years. And they have many incredible models in their lives who they consider not solely as activists but as whānau.
So a few weeks ago as I drove near the University of Auckland and I called her to hear she was amongst the protest and that there had been ‘scary’ arrests, the only instinct was to turn up Symonds street, find a park and check out what exactly was happening. At that point on Symonds street there was a clear stand off between Police, on the road, and students, on the footpath. It was also clear that many of the student leadership had already been arrested. Arrested in a manner that was relayed as both unnecessary and abusive.
Those in charge of the megaphones were giving clear messages to the Police, that echoed the ‘red flag to a bull’ comments made by Bill English the previous week – ‘be like the Greeks!’. That comment by the Minister of Finance was clearly not seen as witty or flippant, it was a direct challenge to “bring it on”. There is no surprise about what happened that day. It was predictable. We need to ask, what possessed a Minister of Parliament to make comments that would only fan discontent? The arrogance of such a statement, of such a challenge to students is beyond comprehension. There has been a high level of concern over the Ministers comments, to the extent that the University of Auckland Branch of the Tertiary Education Union condemned his statements. TEU Branch President Paul Taillon stated:
“We are offended by the dismissive and antagonistic language of the Minister,” (Stuff Tuesday, 5 June, 2012)
Police actions such as the removal of student leaders, the deliberate targeting of them within the ranks of the protest brought further anger at the oppressive nature of the state towards students. Perhaps the tactic was that this would disperse the protest. Bad call. It had the absolute opposite affect. The protest did not disperse, students did not go home, instead the march made its way directly to the city centre, to Sky City and to the Central Police Station, where many other arrests took place.
One has to ask why there is such intense response from the State to a protest that was, and is, legitimate in its calls for accountability on the part of the government, and why such a response has targeted students directly. There have been many protests in the past weeks that have not had such targeted attention or violent response. Nor have we seen protest organisers or leadership dragged from marches or rallies in the manner that student leaders were that day.
The outcome of that action was a call “we are all leaders”. That position is not new. It has been taken by all the Occupy movements around the globe. “We are the 99% – We are all leaders”. And there is a truth in that, as we are all responsible for seeking justice wherever injustice exists. The consequence however in a protest situation is that creating a context of ‘all leaders’ can mean there are in fact ‘no leaders’. And I am not talking about leaders who take power or leaders who take control. I am talking in a protest context about leaders who guide, leaders who ensure the protection of all on the streets. The Police actions created what happened next. Both because of the violence of the arrests and because of the void they created. My call to those students taking it to the streets from today forward is to keep each other safe, ensure you have a depth of organization to maintain the protection of those around you. The intense response that day has shown us that you must do that for each other. That has been the role taken for many years by many people before you and it is a role that student leadership must ensure is in place.
For many years protest movements have taken it to the streets in Aotearoa. The past few weeks show us that there are movements that are again willing and ready to do that. We did not have a ‘zero’ budget announced. We had a budget that has created injustice across the education sector and beyond. It has created another tier of elitism in terms of access to higher education. It is a budget that has created increased class sizes that will impact directly upon this and future generations of our children. And that impact will not disappear by arresting student leaders and protestors, because behind them is another generation of students who will also be angry at how their opportunities were denied them.
As voiced at the protest tonight, this issue is a long term issue, it will be here next week and the week after. The impact of it will be on this generation and the next. It will not go away. Students know they are in for the long haul. Sadly this issue does not seem to be given the serious attention by the media that was given to the class sizes issue. Why? Because there seems to be a basic belief amongst this government that students do not have the same power as the combined power of teachers, parents and whānau. That is clearly evident in the flippant approach taken by the Minister of Finance That may be a ‘Key’ mistake. As the students of today are the parents, the teachers, the professionals of tomorrow, and as this issue continues, the approach taken to protest may change but I am almost certain that students will not just disperse and go home.
Dr Leonie Pihama – (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Māhanga, Ngā Māhanga a Tairi)