On Friday March 15, there were two major protests – school students concerned about the future, a terrorist facing toward the past. What are we to think?

On the Ides of March 2019, thousands of New Zealand school students – and hundreds of thousands of the world’s – marched to say that not enough was being done to stop global warming.

Their grandparents’ generation had marched against nuclear arms. Each generation saw their future threatened; one that the world would be blown to pieces by nuclear war and the remnants suffer the catastrophe of nuclear fallout; today’s that rising sea levels and climate change could transform their world as devastatingly. The protestors wanted action.

I have pondered how effective were those of us (yes, it included me) who campaigned for nuclear disarmament fifty years ago, for there were other forces which contributed to the reduction (but not elimination) of the nuclear threat. I cannot tell you how effective today’s school students will be.

The assessment is complicated by the way social media protests seem to flare spectacularly but are often unsustainable. There was no social media then. The campaign was led by a small, committed, core community, with many others loosely attached.

The core was a diverse community. While the unsympathetic described it as pro-Russian and anti-American – it is so easy to simplify beyond recognition – the epithets did not apply to the vast majority; they were only anti-nuclear. We knew New Zealand would do less badly out of a Northern Hemisphere nuclear conflict – it would still be terrible – but our commitment was to the entire world.

A saving grace for the current protestors is that it is difficult to label them as being against particular nations. You could say they were against some corporations or even anti-capitalist, but that too would be an oversimplification.

Within the anti-nuclear core there was much debate about the limits of protest. Everyone ruled out deliberate injury and death. That was not true among nineteenth century anarchists, and some of the resolve might have cracked in, say, Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Damage to property was more contentious. Painting slogans – including on visiting warships – was acceptable if you had the skills and the courage. On one occasion, the stay holding a military aerial at Weedons (near Christchurch) mysteriously snapped. Once at a meeting, Tim Shadbolt smashed a window with a chair (I was not there) to contrast the audience’s shock with its complacency over big issues.

Certainly we should be neither complacent nor neglectful of the intensity of the feelings of the protestors. I was appalled by the reaction of some school principals to the proposed march. It was a brilliant educational opportunity to discuss global warming and the importance of peaceful protest in a civil society – that we must tolerate such protests, even if we deeply disagree with the sentiments underpinning them. They should also have offered the student demonstrators and the fainthearted a way to meet the formal requirements. (I have made up missed lessons in similar cases.)

Instead, some principals publicly threatened the protesting students with reprisals – such as being recorded as truants. I conclude we cannot respect those principals when they talk about the proposed Tomorrow’s Schools changes for they lack educational judgement.

On the Ides of March 2019, a lone gunman massacred fifty or more Moslems praying in Christchurch mosques. To what extent he belonged to a community which discussed the rules of protest, I do not know. He clearly broke the rules of every protest group that I have ever been associated with.

It is no defence to argue that there are Islamic terrorists. I doubt that there was a single person in the mosques who would defend terrorist behaviour; they would certainly not justify Islamic terrorism by listing the long history of terrorism by Christians.

I shall not either, but forgive one example. I have considerable affection for William Tyndale, whose translations are the foundation of the language and poetry of the King James Bible which I so greatly love. For his efforts he ‘was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned’. The Islamic terrorists may be medieval but so was the pro-Christian terrorist who committed the Christchurch atrocities.

As I write, the precise reasons for the massacres have to be settled. I note that the terrorist does not seem to have been a full New Zealand resident and that he seems to have been greatly influenced by Islamophobia from the Northern Hemisphere.

Our national culpability seems to have been slack gun laws – slacker than Australia whence the terrorist came – and an over-concentration of concern about Islamic terrorism and not of other types of terrorism. (Some of the experts on gun control are friends who once marched for nuclear disarmament.)

This is not to excuse or lessen our culpability, but it reminds us all, once again, that we cannot pretend to insulate ourselves from the world. This column has regularly said that in regards to trade, investment and technology. Now it says the same with respect to the control of guns and the prevention of terrorism.

Yet high policy should not ignore the hundred-odd New Zealanders and our guests who were killed or severely injured and the pain to their family and friends. In part it was because we were not alert to the need for appropriate measures, because we have been complacent.

John Kennedy said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’; I say, ‘I am a Muslim’; ‘I am a secondary school student’.

Comments (8)

by Lee Churchman on March 18, 2019
Lee Churchman

On the Ides of March 2019

I hadn't made that connection. Chilling. 

by James Green on March 18, 2019
James Green

WRT to children's climate march it is good if it can be used to go further but if this is as far as it goes then it will have acheived nothing. When most MPs, teachers, and parents can get behind it and support it then it isn't really doing anything, is it? I think the students should build up to something that will actually get peoples attention, that will drive people into such a massive panic that something truly radical, like immediately shutting down coal powered electricity generation, will happen. I suggest students eschew school for an entire year to protest the glacial pace of action on dealing with global warming.

by Chris Morris on March 18, 2019
Chris Morris

Rather than just have a protest to display their virtue signalling, I would take a lot more notice of the students if they stopped driving to school (or getting their parents to drive them) but walked instea,d or they stopped doing overseas trips, or stopped the constant upgrade to the latest consumer goodie. However, that would involve real sacrifice, something most people  won't do. They want the government to take action, but do nothing that affects their lifestyle. 

by barry on March 18, 2019

As someone involved in the anti-nuclear movement in NZ in the 70s and 80s, I would say that we were cursed by achieving our objective.  Once NZ was nuclear free there was little support to continue the struggle to free the rest of the world.

It was not always easy to keep the protests peaceful.  There was provocation at times, and some people within the marches had to be deflected from getting carried away.  We knew mostly who were the communists and who were the plants and spies.

To those who say we were communists: I was part of a peace march in communist Budapest where I carried a sign saying (in Hungarian) "ALL nuclear weapons out of Europe".  I was also a member of the pan-German forum movement which played a big part in the fall of the wall.

I hope the students can continue their actions.  They have a government conducive to listening, and can get some action.  Likely we will get part of the way there and most will consider the job done, but they will be able to remember the part they played in history.

Of course their thunder has been stolen, and it will take some time to build up the momentum again.  Activism is not easy.

by Charlie on March 19, 2019

Climate Change

Protesting is easy, but do any of the protesters have any practical suggestions regarding a solution?

What I see are fools dressed in petrochem derived clothes who have driven to the protest in petrochem powered vehicles and who eat food fertilized by petrochem driven products.

Nuclear testing

Similarly the anti nuclear protests might have made the protesters feel virtuous, but in reality the knowledge gained by those tests enabled western powers to stay ahead of the USSR and ultimately force it into a military stalemate as its economy withered. Fairly quickly atmospheric tests were made redundant first by underground tests and secondly by computer modelling. Not by protests.


by Pat on March 19, 2019

I have a few practical suggestions Charlie but im pretty sure you wont like them

by Megan Pledger on March 20, 2019
Megan Pledger

Most young people don't have much choice over their uniform, how they get to school or what they are given to eat by their caregivers.   And even if they had a choice, how would they know what was petroleum based anyway - it's not like it's labelled.  Or are they meant to walk around naked and unfed before they are deemed worthy enough to protest?


by Chris Morris on March 20, 2019
Chris Morris

That is rubbish, Megan. Many  if not most secondary schoo children know exactly what things are and why. They want the consumerist goods, overseas trips and the mobility that cars provide. And if they don't know that cars and planes are powered by fossil fuels, there are serious gaps in their education.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.