Marching against the TPPA: What really happened

Between 200 – 300 people marched in Auckland yesterday against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the latest ‘free’ trade agreement designed to give maximum gains to New Zealand business and pain to workers globally. The negotiations – conducted in secret conditions making a mockery of democracy, as Jane Kelsey points out – were going on at SkyCity’s convention centre: if there wasn’t any democracy inside, we were determined to remind the government of the democracy of the streets.

There were banners from many unions, including First Union and the Nurses Organisation, and flags from the Mana movement, environmental groups and others. The rally was loud, vibrant, and determined. The TPPA represents a threat to workers’ rights here and abroad, and yet it has received very little coverage: it’s a wholly good thing that there was a demonstration yesterday. We need more of them.

Police provocations and violence

Media reports are trying to portray the rally as violent, chaotic, out of control and so on. This is a complete beat-up.

To be clear, there was plenty of violence yesterday. Violence from the police and SkyCity security. I saw security officers punching and kicking protesters, police shoving people and grabbing them by the throats, protesters being pulled and dragged by both police and security.

Responsibility for violence lies with the police.

The police wanted a confrontation, and made sure they got one. All their actions yesterday indicate a provocation. Why was the convention centre so sparsely policed when the protest first arrived? Having positioned the protest in a way which would  have people enclosed, why did the police then place security guards in areas to provoke scuffles and stand-offs? It is inconceivable, considering how high-level the TPPA talks were, that this could have been due to insufficient preparation.

On a hot Auckland day the police tried to ‘kettle’ protesters and inflame what was becoming a tense situation. In this context it is unsurprising that some minor skirmishes broke out.

Overwhelmingly, though, the rally was ordered. Later – disgracefully – the police attempted further provocation as they tried to pick off activists for arrest as some protesters debriefed in Aotea Square. But protesters stuck together and maintained disciplined ranks, seeing off police attempts to divide their numbers and instigate violent confrontations. We have a right to peaceful assembly and protest, and demonstrators asserted that right in the face of police thuggery and intimidation. They were right to do so.

This police thuggishness is a clear attempt to intimidate others out of protesting. We need to stand and defend our democratic rights.

Questions for the movement

Yesterday’s rally was useful. It’s important to take to the streets and make opposition clear; to raise awareness of these attacks on our rights; to give heart to others who hate the government’s attacks but may feel atomized and isolated. We need more protest actions, against the TPPA and all other assaults on working conditions and rights.

But there’s no point pretending our side is stronger than it really is. 300 people was a decent number to have mobilized, but doesn’t yet represent a break out of existing forces and campaigns. There’s no point acting as if we are in the middle of a new anti-capitalist movement.

The slogan raised by some before the rally to ‘shut down the TPPA’ is premature – most workers and students, even many to the left, haven’t even heard of the TPPA yet. Our numbers yesterday show how far there still is to go. In this context, ultra-left posturing and calls for ‘one solution, revolution’ are gestures and distractions.

Against nationalism

To build a movement against the kind of corporate agenda the TPPA represents, we need to unite workers here in New Zealand – wherever they come from – and to look to unity with workers overseas. As we have argued previously, “our primary battle is at home – against New Zealand corporations run by New Zealand capitalists.” That means, especially for socialists, fighting for an internationalist political perspective, and fighting against New Zealand nationalism.

Too much of the rhetoric around the TPPA – and too much of the thinking informing it – pursues at nationalist agenda. Chants and placards associating the whole of the nation (or ‘the people’) with opposition can only confuse us as to who are our real friends and enemies. Plenty of ‘real’ New Zealanders support the TPPA, and with good reason: they’re bosses set to gain from its attacks. Equally, plenty of ‘foreign’ workers overseas oppose it for the same reasons workers here should.

The consequences of making concessions to nationalism can be chilling. I got a taste of this selling our magazine on the rally yesterday, when several people made viciously anti-immigrant and anti-Asian comments to me. They weren’t representative of the rally, and their views would have been rejected by the vast majority of people there, but the fact that open racists were comfortable marching under the anti-TPPA banner indicates the dangerous spaces nationalism can open up.

TPPA? No way!

A spirited, energetic, outward-looking rally? No wonder the mainstream line is all about ‘protester violence’. Yesterday was a sign of what resistance can look like, and an indication that more is on the way.