Saturday 2 June 2012

The New Greek-Zealand Riot Police and the Student Education Protest

There was a student protest at Auckland University on Friday the 1st of June, about the recent educational cuts, leading on from a protest the week before. However, unlike the first protest, this one attracted an incredible overreaction from the police, who turned up in overwhelming numbers, and violently arrested 43 people. This led to more students joining into an impromptu protest march against police tactics that ranged through the centre of the city all evening.

The first protest
The budget came out last week, and last Thursday they had a smallish sit down protest (in that it was contained spatially. There were 400-500 students) in the University grounds, on a road going through it (I saw the end of it) which lasted about five hours. It was against some of the recent, rather dreadful, cuts to education and student support, making it even harder to access - or even finish, for current students - University education, along with making repayments much higher, starting much sooner (and yes, this affects me too).

Blockade The Budget’s Statement of Intent
This is a call for a stop to the neoliberal attacks on New Zealand’s education sector. All over the world people are fighting against the commercialisation and privatisation of education. This current approach to education is only further preventing universal and equal access to education. Education should be accessible to everyone and be non-discriminatory; it should never become class based. Our current government views education as a business rather than a fundamental right of massive social significance.
The National government is attacking education on all fronts. Early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary education are all on the chopping block, affecting both students and teaching staff. Early childhood subsidies are being frozen, primary and high schools are being subjected to dubious policies such as performance-based pay, larger class sizes and drastic decreases in teacher numbers. In the tertiary sector students are being penalised for trying to academically better themselves through higher education.

This government and the ruling elite are only prepared to cut funding from easily targeted public services to address debt. Such services are essential to the future growth of our nation. This government fails to acknowledge that the cost of National Superannuation is $9.58 billion while the cost of student loans is only $1.59 billion. There are other alternatives to this so-called ‘Zero Budget’ and its questionable projected outcomes. Rather than addressing the issue of debt head-on, the government is using education as a scapegoat to further delay its own action in regards to the growing inequalities in our education system.
This is a call to all students, teachers, and workers within the wider education sector to stand up and make a change. This budget will only further disadvantage our society. It is our duty to resist.

 There were two police keeping an eye on things, a few annoyed motorists and not much else. The most notable response was from Bill English, the deputy prime minister in the current National government who said that

Speaking to a business audience in Wellington this morning, Mr English said of the students: "Yes, there's a protest movement out there but who's really listening to them?"

The comments were in response to a question from the audience.

"They get on TV and they can make a bit of a racket," said Mr English, "dragging a few rubbish bins around, they need some Greeks to show them how to do it.

"It gets reported, mainly because it blocked the traffic… [but] who's listening? Most people actually think the students got a pretty fair go and they should count themselves lucky that they've still got interest free loans and get on with it because, you know, get your training finished and get a job and start contributing."
Read more at 3news

So the students took him up on that - some wore togas to the nest protest, which happened on Friday 1st June about 3pm.

The second Protest

A group of students (allegedly about 100) from Auckland University went on a protest march up Symonds Street (the same one as before, through Uni, near the city centre), after politely notifying police in advance (as it fairly standard, though not required). They paused for lectures about Plato from a sociology lecturer and the police moved in straight away and started trying to move them off the road. The students responded by sitting down in a group and where surrounded by a ring of police.

At this point, and onwards, there were up to 80 police officers there (clear from the photos - some people claim 100, but 80 is probably accurate. The minimum in the initial response was about 40. It's hard to tell at what point they all arrived as they moved in gradually and were also in the surrounding streets). It was an instant over response and a clearly intentional, pre-planned strategy. They shut down this part of the protest by 4.30 - about an hour after it began, not including the time it took to walk up Symonds street. To reiterate: the police kept them in one place, blocking the road, for an hour, until they had arrested nearly everyone, using kettling and snatch arrests.

Most of the arrests started after what was apparently a different unit arrived, mostly younger male officers, who charged straight in and started dragging people out of the crowd and arresting them. Just about every arrest was violent - people were dragged, carried, thrown to the ground, had wrists and arms twisted, and were generally manhandled. NONE OF THESE PEOPLE SPECIFICALLY DID ANYTHING. It is one thing to single out protestors getting rowdy, but in this case that is not what happened.

A large number of people started videoing and taking photographs - apart from the dozens of videos on YouTube, you can see many people in many of the videos and photos taking their own recordings. They continued chanting and passively resisting (for example, going limp, holding on to each other - all entirely legal), including chants of 'Peaceful protest'. The protestors did not respond with violence or rioting.

After they had systematically arrested 43 people, the remainder were kettled in on a grassy area beside the road. One of the supposed ringleaders (i.e. a person with a microphone  - Omar Hamed, who has unfortunately been accused of sexual harassment. I say unfortunately, because it also delegitimises this protest, and as it wasn't 'his' protest, who he is doesn't matter) was suddenly arrested at this point. The protest reformed at about 4.40, with about 500 students marching down Symonds Street (possibly more, possibly as low as 300, but again, 500 looks most accurate.

 People joined in as they went, mostly people who had been watching the previous arrests and getting more upset at the police. The police continued attempting to kettle them in, managing to pen the group against the business school at one point, and make another arrest, but - apparently due to some quick thinking - the protestors dodged through the actual university and out the over side to Albert park, and from there down to Queen Street. They continued the constant movement tactic to stay out of reach of the police and police vehicles.

At this point, there were (allegedly) about 100 police officers on and around Queen street, but they couldn't keep up with the protestors. The protest headed to the police station at this point and surrounded it, calling for the release of the 43 people arrested without cause. After which they headed to Aotea square and then went home around 7pm (at about 6.45, the police said they'd be letting the arrestees go).

Of those 43 people, all but 4 people who didn't cooperate (i.e. probably wouldn't share their personal details) were released, and this was decided before 7pm. Less than three hours after most of them were even arrested.

Injuries, complaints and police behaviour

Recorded in videos/photos (also mentioned in comments from various witnesses, which prompted me to find evidence; see resources section until this is better organised)

  • At least one officer has been recorded on video punching protestors on the ground (several videos, see resources section)
  • A police officer or officers had removed their badges (photos)
  • Police unnecessarily manhandling female protestors (Keyword: unnecessarily. They were definitely handling them roughly, and as the people had committed no crimes, did not resist arrest, and were not charged it was entirely unnecessary violence. The arresting officers were 95% young white males)
  • Young women being dragged along the groun by their ankles (generally after being pulled out of the crowd)
  • Police were strangling protestors on the ground (video)

Debatable (according to comments, but videos/photos are just ambiguous or confusing enough not to be sure)

  • kicked people lying on the ground
  • Police were laughing about their job
  • Multiple officers without badges

Anecdotal (comments only, no photographic records yet found by me or possible in some cases)

  • Groping of female protestors
  • Were trying to provoke people in order to manhandle them further. 
  • There were also officers who were not happy with the violence of their colleagues, 
  • The initial unit that blockaded the students, mostly older men and women, were more restrained and professional. 

While most of this is anecdotal, it has come in from MANY sources, there is no contradictory evidence, and no statements from the police.

There were numerous minor injuries, and a few more major ones, from bruises to a girl being strangled into unconsciousness (allegedly; there is a blurry video of police strangling protestors on the ground, though and it was apparently a standard tactic).

One student was apparently beaten up very badly while in the cells (not sure I should post his name, but he is seeking witnesses in order to lay charges. Note that I did not get this from him, but from concerned witnesses asking who was assaulted).

Students and the people organising the march are now collecting evidence in order to lay complaints about police brutality (on the Blockade the Budget FB page and reported on the Radio NZ site).

For a very interesting explanation of how police responses and protests generally work in New Zealand, and why it was a deliberate attempt to instigate a riot can be found at The Standard.

The only statement from the police is this very concise statement on their site.
June 1, 2012, 5:32 pm
43 arrests have been made by Police as a result of protest activity in down town Auckland this afternoon. The activity included a sit down protest on Symonds Street in the central business district soon after 3pm necessitating traffic diversions to ensure the safety of the protesters and alternate vehicle access for motorists. The road was cleared and opened by 5pm.
Superintendent Mike Clement
District Commander
Auckland City District

Negative Reactions Towards Protestors

Apart from the initial excitement, most of the major media follow up has a) ignored that the protestors didn't start the violence nor provoke it and b) focussed mostly on people being inconvenienced by the protest.

'It wasn't a student protest'
It has been claimed, in a fairly textbook attempt to legitimise the protest, that it wasn't really a student protest. It was. Even if it wasn't, that doesn't make the points invalid, or the reaction appropriate. Obviously there will always be a variety of opinions, especially in a body of people as large as the University of Auckland, so there are students who didn't approve. But - apart from people I knew there, most of them knew each other. The vast majority where students, and it was a protest about student issues.

Personally, I am considering very strongly going to the next one, and I am technically not a student anymore. But I would still consider it a student protest, even if I happened to be in it.

'Those crazy students are just running wild and want attention'
A. They weren't running a pointless protest. If you don't think the education cuts and changes matter, fine, but they (and I) consider them important. If you didn't realise there was a point, well, there was. Even if the media haven't always mentioned it.

B. Duh. Attention is the point of protest, otherwise it's a waste of time.

C. They weren't running wild. It was actually an incredibly well behaved protest, and the violence was incited by, and mostly on the part of, the police.

'They don't have the right to hold everyone up'
A. Yes, they do. The right to protest is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Start slapping rules around 'how' one can protest, when and where, means that protesting suddenly becomes pointless. Protest is one of the only major ways for the general public, or specific groups, to actually make themselves enough of a problem to be listened to (assuming nobody wants to listen to them in the first place).

B. Besides, if they weren't in the middle of the road, who would have noticed them? What's the point of a protest that isn't noticed? Walking in the road says 'look, we are really serious about this, LOOK AT US'.

C. The student protest initially moved fairly quickly and would have been over equally quickly if the police hadn't blocked them in. Aside from that, the previous week, police cooperated with the protestors and redirected traffic for them.

D. It's not like traffic never happens. Plenty of events and problems can shut down a street for a while, and yes, people ALWAYS complain. That doesn't make it a big deal, it's just one of those common annoyances that everyone can emphasise with, and there isn't really a 'good' side to.

What was achieved? What was the point?

 The students
Could have not protested, but by doing so they have:

1. Raised awareness of the issue
2. Made it really obvious where they stood
3. Technically, it's not too late to reverse the budget, as it is a confidence & supply agreement, so IF National's coalition partners backed off the changes could be changed.
4. Some commuters were inconvenienced, which as a) a shame, but b) happens all the time in the middle of the city, and c) is perfectly legal.
5. They did not break any laws and remained peaceful (shouting is peaceful, disrupting traffic is peaceful. They didn't hurt anyone, scare anyone - at least, until the police started wading in, or damage anything). If you start regulating how people can protest, then you are preventing people from protesting. A reasonable institution isn't going to have much to worry about, and an unreasonable one is going to exploit everything they've got to make sure people don't protest.

Which leads me to...

The police
If they'd left the protest alone, it would have just gotten in the way of traffic for a little while and then gone. Instead, it turned into a major event and caused a great deal of outrage.

1. It is possible that this simply reflects 'new' (or old - Springbok riots, anyone?) people behind the scenes, ideologies and policies that demand a dramatic response shutting down dissension, or large gatherings of people. It is possible that students are seen as a safe target, or having two protests close together triggered some kind of tolerance limit. Perhaps it was seen as a straight forward practice run, an exercise in shutting down protests.

Which means that it will probably happen again, regardless of what is being protested, and that this was simply the first time it has happened recently. It may depend who is protesting, as an Old Granny March may be ignored, but they were hassling people with grey hair along with the students.

(Except it isn't the first time - the police response at the Glen Innes protests against the beneficiaries objecting to being evicted was also violent. Although it wasn't in front of as many witnesses, about an issue that affected a smaller group of people, and there were fewer people owning good cameras around. But again, they are considered a target/easily demonised group - beneficiaries, with a few social justice people mixed in to blame for starting it).

2. It looked like an attempt to start a riot.
This would have a) made it easy to demonise 'rowdy violent students' (because as soon as one gets recorded hitting a cop, or smashing a window, the entire protest is discredited), and b) has distracted from what they are actually protesting against, turning it from 'evil government destroys tertiary education in New Zealand for New Zealanders' into 'those students are protesting again!'.

 3. Someone WANTED people to pay attention to what the students were doing. But this seems like a pretty unpleasant way to do it.

So in summary: someone giving orders to the police are a) inexperienced or not that bright, b) politically motivated and c) insecure and reactionary. I'd pick the last two.

More reading (where I got my information from)

Apart from the below, I've spent several hours reading the many many comments from participants, bystanders and people who knew people there, and watching the videos.Some where helpful outlines, other bits I had to put together. Nothing contradicted the event outline each gave, except for the usual minor errors in numbers and identities that were made in news articles (some have since been corrected), but some were confusing.

What is kettling?
Kettling is forming a solid line and trapping a group of people inside that line, against a wall or similar. [See wikipedia]

It's a highly controversial tactic to shut down a protest. Great for containing crowds, not great if those crowds have a right to be where they are or if it's used to silence them. One of its problems is that it traps everyone in the vicinity, even innocent bystanders, and that police can prevent people from leaving for as long as they choose.

What are snatch arrests?
Snatch arrests are when a group of police dash in and try to snatch a target in order to arrest them. They are less effective when the police are outnumbered and the crowd is organised. They are best used for singling out troublemakers, but in the 1st June protest, they were being used to grab anyone and everyone.

Protestor Responses/ Public Commentary
Twitter #blockadethebudget 
A timeline on the Standard 
Blockade the Budget Facebook Group
Dealing with kettling and snatch arrests while remaining peaceful and legal: essentially, form a wedge to break open kettling lines and hold on to each other, out number the police, and separate police from target.

There are also many amazing photos, mostly findable through Blockade the Budget, but I'm not sure how public they are.
Facebook photo album of five police wearing the same fake badge number Z557 at the Occupy protest about 4 months ago and news article.

News Articles

How legit are these? Well, they cover a lot of recognisable moments (e.g. arrests of specific people) from very different directions, are uploaded by multiple users, vary hugely in quality and length, and all feature many people using cameras and phones in the crowd. Some are only fragments of the overall event, but can generally be pinned down to a timeline when compared to other videos. The soundtrack is quite distinctive as well, with quiet at the start, roaring and shouting when the police try to grab people, and chanting.

YouTube Videos from the Blockade the Budget protests 

Some specific ones

  • You can see the initial sit down and first arrests in this one, the dramatic change from 'okay, we're being stopped' to 'WTF ARE THE POLICE DOING?', and a policeman punching someone at 2.06 - the same one who appears in several other videos)
  • Start of the sit down speech and arrests over the rest of the sit down
  • - more general footage from other angles, including a policeman shoving a protestor for no reason at 6.46 (one of several occurrences throughout the videos). You also get to see a few togas. At 9.23, police charge into the line pushing the group of people back (from videos inside the corral at this point, their are people on the ground and unable to move, while they are told to move back and pushed).
  • picks up from the same point shown at 9.23 above, and shows clearly just how many police were there, along with the time between the initial sit down and the second march, with the students being kept off the road, as well as a few arrests with people being dragged out by their feet (e.g. a girl being pulled out and hustled off from 3.32)
  • 3news video: students surround a police car later on in the march demanding they release someone they are trying to take away (a legal move to prevent an illegal arrest)
  • - various moments throughout the entire protest [Video]

...there's a lot more, but there's no one definitive place to go. Which is good, actually, as it means you're getting a lot of viewpoints and getting a good overall picture.

Police Numbers
These were difficult to estimate, as videos and photos only showed small sections at a time, the point of the protest isn't always clear, and the people recording generally weren't free to move around to show different areas.

I've screencapped a couple of videos that actually pan around and counted the number of visible, distinct police shown, marking them with red dots. I marked the ones I hadn't counted before - if they aren't dotted, it's because I counted them in the screencap just before or after. I've left the times on the YouTube videos, so you can see for yourself if you wish.

This will not be all of them. There are people hidden behind each other, including police in groups, as well as others behind the camera person or down the street. But what I can see supports the initial estimate of 40 in the first response, with more police arriving afterwards.

Most photos and videos only show a small area and often feature the same people as that's where the action is, but you can see 15-20 in just about any given shot. The 'best' photo, taken from high up in a university building after the sit down and before the Queen Street dash, clearly shows 47 police (possibly more, it gets a little hard to distinguish individuals).




So in summary; the students may not have taken lessons from the Greek riots, but the police sure did. And that was a major, major over reaction to a relatively mild protest.

Support groups and protests are now being planned at the other universities around New Zealand (Wellington seems to be the most organised so far. Hilariously, they're meeting on Tory Street for the initial planning session).