Rewinding to 2003
I thought I'd back up some of the points I've made in the discussion by posting this document, which was written in the hectic month of February, when millions of people around the world were protesting a war that looked increasingly inevitable. The piece was written on behalf of a United Front of groups and individuals called Direct Anti War Action. Arguments about the best way to stop the US and allies invading Middle Eastern countries are anything but academic.
DIRECT ACTION COMES TO AUCKLAND
FROM SYMBOLIC TO DIRECT ACTION
Around the world tens of millions of protesters now form a massive global movement against the US-led invasion of Iraq. Protesters are united in their opposition to war, but they are divided over the best way to stop war. Some argue that governments can be pressured to change pro-war stances, and that the UN and ‘international law’ can come to the aid of the Iraqi people.
Others in the anti-war movement take a very different line, arguing that instead of relying on the politicians we have to take direct action to stop the war ourselves. Since the beginning of the invasion, increasing numbers of anti-war protesters are ditching the symbolic marches, petitions to governments, and appeals to the UN in favour of direct action to stop the war machine and the economies that fuel the war machine in their tracks. Strikes, pickets of facilities linked to the war effort, and appeals to disobey orders are appealing to more and more protesters disillusioned by the total failure of the UN and supposedly anti-war governments like New
Zealand’s to stop war on Iraq.
Last Saturday the direct action virus infected Auckland, as hundreds of mainly young people
complemented a symbolic march up Queen St by blocking traffic and blockading the US and Australian consulates.
Despite calls for a militant march and picket of the US consulate, leaders of the Global Peace and Justice coalition organising the march had planned for a symbolic march followed by a rally in Myers Park. When the 10,000* marchers reached upper Queen St, it became clear that many did not want to leave the street for Myers Park. Some left the action, heading off to bus stops or cafes, others loitered on the footpath near the entrance to Myers Park, and about 100-150 mainly young people chose to sit down on Queen St and block traffic. Later they joined with hundreds of other protesters to march back down Queen St and lay siege to the US and Australian consulates at the bottom of town.
THE ACTION IN DETAIL
So what sort of a job did the direct action protesters actually do? The roadblock on upper Queen St lasted about two hours, growing slowly in size and attracting a crowd of sympathetic onlookers. Protesters blocking the road chanted ‘US imperialist, no. 1 terrorist!’, ‘Yankee go home!’, and ‘The people united will never be defeated!’
The Anti Imperialist Coalition’s loud hailer became a makeshift open mike, as the protesters discussed and debated the war and their response to the war. One of the roughly two dozen speakers was Geoff Fisher, a long-time opponent of imperialism who was sent to Mt
Eden prison for refusing military service during the Vietnam war. Fisher, who converted to Islam while living in Iran in the 90s, called for anti-war unity between Muslims, Christians, and atheists. Addressing atheists in the crowd, he said ‘Some might call you unbelievers, but I can see by the commitment you are showing today that you all believe in something important and powerful, something I believe in too’. Union activist and Anti Imperialist Coalition member
Justin Taua condemned the pro-Labour, pro-UN ‘misleaders’ of his National Distribution Union, and emphasised the importance of getting rank and file union members onto anti-war marches in large numbers.
As the rally in Myers Park wound down, the protesters on upper Queen St broke up their roadblock and began a march back down the street towards the US consulate. As they set off, they were joined by many onlookers and by other protesters leaving the rally in Myers
Park, so that their numbers soon tripled to about 600. The police initially tried to block the way, forming a column across Queen St, but soon scattered in the face of the noisy and rapidly growing march. A third of the way down Queen St the marchers spotted pro-war Auckland Mayor John Banks on the side of the road. Stopping for several minutes, they chanted ‘John
Banks, no thanks!’ and ‘Bastard, Bastard!’ as the cops watched nervously.
When the marchers reached Customs St, the police tried to force them onto the left side of the road, away from the entrance to the US consulate. Once again, though, the boys in blue were unable to hold back the tide, and jubilant protesters blocked the entrance to the building, chanting ‘US out!’. Two US flags were burned, prompting cheers from protesters and
pedestrian onlookers alike. Later the march moved on to the Australian consulate near the waterfront, where more chants were followed by another open mike discussion. The protesters decided to organise daily pickets of the US embassy at 5pm, and to build for another big march and picket soon.
ANTI IMPERIALISM MEANS DIRECT ACTION
As advocates of direct action, we in the Anti Imperialist Coalition had argued in the lead up to the 22nd for a militant march to put pressure on the US consulate. When marchers began spontaneously to block the road, we quickly decided that we should stay and
support them. Let’s be clear: for us direct action must not mean stunts to get media attention, or running around at night with balaclavas. Direct action means mass, disciplined, democratically planned actions which use the muscle of the working class to take effective rather than merely symbolic action.
We are seeing actions like these in Ireland, where picketers have stopped the US military using Shannon Air Base, in Italy, where wharfies have refused to handle material bound for the war, and in Bangladesh, where tens of millions recently walked off the job in an anti-war general strike.
Because we believe in mass disciplined direct action, we were concerned that the group of protesters blocking Queen St should not disregard the rally in Myers Park, and should avoid any reckless action which might lead to unecessary arrests. We were impressed, though, by the discipline and non-sectarian attitude displayed by the young people who took direct action
on Saturday. They sent representatives to the rally in Myers Park, to explain what was going on in Queen St. They waited until the rally had almost disintegrated before starting their march down Queen St. In front of the US and Australian embassies, faced by lines of black-gloved cops spoiling for a fight, protesters refused to be provoked into what would have been a
premature confrontation. Instead of answering the cops’ provocations, they linked arms and chanted.
ROADBLOCKS TO SUCESSFUL ANTI-WAR ACTION
Sadly, some Global Peace and Justice leaders behaved in an uncomradely manner toward the direct action protesters. One particularly obnoxious GPJA leader condemned the roadblock as ‘spontaneous stupidity’ and suggested that protesters would have nothing to complain about if they were arrested. Many of the protesters were baffled by criticisms of their actions
from people who were supposed to be on their side of the barricades. ‘How are we supposed to stop the war, if we’re not even allowed to stop traffic?’ wondered one protester sitting on upper Queen St.
Some of the participants in the roadblock were already angry about messages broadcast during the march by some leaders of GPJA and the National Distribution Union. A number of Arab marchers were incensed when an NDU bureaucrat announced that ‘the NDU congratulates
the New Zealand government on its stance over Iraq’. As any Arab Kiwi knows, and everyone in the anti-war movement should know, National and Labour governments have helped the US and UN kill a million Iraqis over the past twelve years by supporting sanctions and
US-UK bombing raids. Other marchers were amazed when GPJA leader and Alliance politician Mike Treen urged them to take action against the war not by striking or blockading the US consulate, but by, wait for it, refusing to watch the Oscars ceremony on TV!
Commenting on the GPJA march, veteran Auckland activist Jim Gladwin noted that ‘There does seem to be a reluctance on the part of most protestors to enter a park to hear speeches after a march.’* Gladwin’s comments are supported by the way that protesters drifted away from the post-march rally. By the time that the rally wound up, less than 100 people remained
in Myers Park. It’s not that the protesters had gotten tired of protesting: after all, when they saw a second march coming down Queen St toward the US consulate, hundreds who had been walking to cars or bus stops or sitting in cafes flooded back onto the street.
The young people who made their presence felt on Saturday are pointing the way forward for the anti-war movement in Auckland. We have to rise to the challenge they present, and bring our movement up to speed with those elsewhere in the world, by upping the ante in
the struggle to stop this war. Let’s summarise three of the lessons Saturday had to offer:
1. Direct Action must replace symbolic marches and lobbying
Mass disciplined direct action must replace symbolic marches, lobbying, and consumer boycotts as the tactic of the mainstream anti-war movement. The Auckland anti-war movement must get up to speed with the rest of the global movement by laying siege to the local arm of US imperialism. Channel surfing to avoid the Oscars won’t stop the war!
2. Direct democracy must go hand in hand with direct action
The GPJA Organising Committee is a tiny body which meets in the house of one of its members. The thousands of people who do not come to these meetings, but do come to anti-war actions, need to be included in decision-making about protest locations and tactics.
The Organising Committee should wherever possible be superseded by mass direct democratic decision-making at public planning meetings and, wherever possible, on the streets. Overseas, many anti-war protests are turning into huge exercises in direct democracy, voting resolutions against the war and making on-the-spot decisions about tactics. With their open mike and mass decision-making last Saturday, the direct action protesters showed that direct democracy can work in the anti-war movement in Auckland, too.
3. To target Bush, we must also target Clark
The anti-war movement in Auckland should follow the lead of Saturday’s direct action protesters and take an uncompromising attitude toward the Clark government and the UN, rather than treating them as ‘lesser evils’ beside the US and UK. In the e mail he circulated after Saturday’s march, Jim Gladwin wrote that “I’m concerned at the relatively soft description
of ‘complicity’ being applied to the NZ role in this war”. Gladwin pointed out that, under the definition used by Bush, New Zealand qualified as a member of the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’, by virtue of its hosting of US military and spy bases that help the invaders of Iraq, not to mention the frigate and Orion Clark has sent to the Gulf.
The message is clear: by letting Clark off the hook, we let Bush off the hook too. It is
completely unacceptable for union bureaucrats who favour a UN occupation of Iraq and use their PA system to praise Helen Clark to be given speaking priority at post-march rallies. If they must speak, let them queue at the open mike, like everyone else! Rank and file union members like Justin Taua are the real voice of workers opposed to the war.