For Kiwi political activists that sort of thing is, at worst, irritating, the sort of empty machismo that the anonymity of the internet both encourages and quarantines. For people exiled from Tamil Eelam, though, it is terrifying. Many of the people marching down Queen Street today were driven from their homes by the violence of the Sri Lankan state. There are stories of helicopters strafing villages, of cluster bombs landing in schools, of police with long batons beating parents in front of their children. The people these exiles left behind in Tamil Elam have become hostages in a huge open-air prison. The safety of the hostages depends, in part, upon the behaviour of their friends and families in the diaspora. Even when they live in relatively democratic societies like New Zealand, the Tamils share in the imprisonment of their kin. The phrase 'we'll be watching you' was repeated incessantly on Facebook and on indymedia: it was a promise, and a threat.
Now we eye the footpaths of Queen Street anxiously, examining each of the photographers in turn. There is a trusted man, one of the organisers of today's march, carefully photographing flags and placards, avoiding headshots. There is a junior reporter - for the Herald, or the Sunday Star-Times ? - snapping dutifully away. There is a Japanese tourist, bewildered and intrigued by this sudden eruption of anger and grief on a Saturday afternoon, adding a few photos to show to his in-laws, bits of exotica fit to sit beside bubbling mud pools and ice cream-white mountains in his slide show. How can we tell, though, who might be shooting this march from a more secluded, a more cowardly location - from some seventh-floor office, or a parked van with tinted windows?
It is not only surveillance that has been promised us. 'There's supposed to be a demonstration of Sinhala fascists on its way, coming up from the bottom of the street' someone mutters. 'Doubt it. They might try to ambush us from a side street though' someone else ventures. In London, in Canada, and in Germany, large pro-Tamil demonstrations have been disrupted by tiny but violent groups of right-wing Sinhalese; could the same thing happen in Auckland? I notice that the police have made a blue line about halfway down Queen Street.
As the main body of the march leaves Aotea Square the chanting begins. STOP THE KILLING - WE WANT PEACE! NEW ZEALAND - HELP US! LTTE - FOR TAMILS! Bilingual placards echo each slogan. I watch a small boy hoist a flagpole; the wind unfurls the huge banner, showing a tiger jumping out of a field of brilliant red. The tiger's eyes are red and angry; they stare over our heads, off into the far distance. At least a dozen marchers hold up the same large, slightly faded photograph of a portly, middle-aged man, a man whose faint smile is almost hidden by the sort of moustache that is still popular in South Asia, but which is noawadays the preserve of porn stars and cops in the West. A group of teenage girls begin a new chant: OUR LEADER - PRABHAKAN! PRABHAKAN - OUR LEADER!
I have been criticised by a number of people on the left for attending and speaking at the last pro-Tamil demonstration, and for publicising this one. This message, which art historian and Labour Party member Paul Litterick left on my blog, is representative:
I suspect the reason there is so little support for the Tamils among the majority is that the Tamil Tigers are a bunch of murderous racists, responsible for massacres of civilians, ethnic cleansing of Muslims, arms dealing and credit-card fraud in several countries. They are not really the sort of people you would want on your side, if you want any sympathy from the rest of the world.
This march is the action of a United Front. In a United Front groups and individuals with a range of views come together over an issue on which they agree. Everyone on this march shares the demand for an end to Sri Lankan attacks on the people of Tamil Eelam. To claim that everyone on the demonstration agrees with all the views of a particular organisation on the demonstration would be nonsense. One might as well accuse all of the Tamils of being Marxists, because the mostly-Pakeha Marxist group Socialism Aotearoa is here today.
I am not surprised that the defenders of the Sri Lankan state's actions struggle to understand the notion of a United Front: the Sri Lankan state tries to brand all of its opponents as terrorists, instead of recognising the diversity of their viewpoints. It is more disappointing that some people on the left don't understand the concept.
Along with most of the twenty or so non-Tamil members of this protest, I am walking behind a small, handmade Global Peace and Justice banner near the front of the march. We want to help show the media, the Auckland public, and the snap-happy Japanese tourist that Tamils are not the only people who care about the bloody occupation of their homeland. A group of young Tamil men jog ahead of our banner, and begin to trail a Sri Lankan flag down Queen Street. I've seen that banner, with its golden, impassive lion holding an upright, unstained sword, waving about in the wind at Eden Park to celebrate a splendid century by Aravinda de Silva. Now the flag signifies burnt villages and shrapnel wounds. The young men spit on the lion's face, and stamp on its sword.
Suddenly half a dozen voices begin can be heard just behind us. I turn, and see the crowd surging and blurring, as people fall over each other. Have we been attacked? Is somebody firing a rifle, or swinging a knife? Are the supporters of the Sri Lankan government making good their threats? I push towards the centre of the confusion, and see two bodies wrestling. I see a marshall trying to pin another man on the hot tar. The marshall seems calm, but the other man's eyes are huge and wild. His whole body is shaking, and he screams the same phrase - is he screaming in Sinhala, or in Tamil? - over and over.
A third man grasps desperately at the left fist of the screaming man, trying to prise a cigarrette lighter loose. I see a small flame flicker, and I notice that the screaming man's clothes are drenched in some sort of liquid. 'He's trying to set himself on fire! Stop him!' a woman screams, falling to her knees beside the melee. A cop pushes her aside, and begins to grapple dumbly with the marshall. 'It's alright, sir, he's one of us', somebody shouts in the cop's ear. 'He lost half his family in Sri Lanka. It's alright. He's alright now.' The screaming has stopped, and the exhausted man is being tenderly frogmarched towards the pavement. He shakes more gently now, and begins to sob. The cop shrugs, picks up the little yellow lighter, and wanders away. Later, there are contradictory accounts of what the screaming man had been trying to do in Queen Street on that hot Wednesday evening. Someone told me that he had been trying to imitate the Indian journalist who recently immolated himself in a vain protest at his government's indifference to the plight of the Tamil people. Someone else insisted that the man had merely wanted to burn the Sri Lankan flag. The flag did eventually burn, at the end of the march. It is still burning on youtube, where a group of supporters of the Sri Lankan government can be found making fresh threats against 'Tamil terrorists and their friends'. They were filming us, after all. I hope that nobody loses relatives in Tamil Eelam because they had the temerity to burn a flag.