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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 14. 1969.

The Business Of A Demonstrator

page 15

The Business Of A Demonstrator


Demonstrations should not be seen as an end in themselves, but as part of an integrated and long-term protest plan

Demonstrations should be planned and should only follow a concerted programme of action in which a number of attempts using various methods have been made to attain the goals of the protesters. In all eases there should be few goals and they should be clearly defined. Where possible, in New Zealand, they should relate to material things, issues which can be related with ease to members of the public. Protest issues should not only concern a particular group but also be matters in which the community should be interested or can be made interested; issue which some time will affect the community, Protest goals are not usually the sole concern and property of a group—in some way they will affect the community, and a positive attempt should be made to make them understand the reasons for the protest and indicate how they will benefit.

The demonstrating group should be seen to be in a morally superior position. The community must recognise that the protesters have tried other means to achieve their aims, that these have (ailed, and that demonstration and methods of direct action are being used as a final measure. It is also desirable that the community should be shocked into thinking about the issues—made to feel something, made aware of facts of which they have been subconsciously aware for some time. They should be shocked into awareness, but without feeling guilty. They should be made to feel that they can do something positive, contribute something. They shouldn't be made consciously guilty, for this will only antagonise them, put them on the defensive and make them vocal opponents of the protesting group.

Direct action, such as public demonstration, should come at the 'right time.' Now what do I mean by this? After all other means of protest have been exhausted and at a time when the aims of the demonstrating group can be achieved, when a certain amount of public support can be obtained. This needn't be participative mass support, but a sympathetic inaction. This is part of the softening-up process.

The demonstrating group should create an atmosphere in which everyone knows the issues—at first these should be broad enough to encompass as many people as possible. For instance in 1965 the basic issues in the university protests were low bursaries, overcrowded facilities, low staff salaries, lack of student accommodation. The blame was placed on the Government, and by skilful background work the whole of the university combined in an effort to improve the university as a whole. The issues were basic enough and encompass a wide enough area for the whole university community to have a broad sympathy for the protest.

The next move, once the aims have been established clearly, is to prepare a programme of action. Participation by as many people as possible is necessary both to create a feeling of participation but also to give the impression of strength to the public through the eyes of the media.

The public should be informed of the protest issues which are prompting the protest, and for this the media should be utilised. The media in New Zealand thrives on 'action' news and on press statements. A newsworthy situation has often to be created — whether this is done by threats of extreme direct action or the importation of newsworthy international figures. The news barrage must be kept up — to acclimatise the public with the coming protest. After a time the action and news media will find their own momentum. But for a start the media must be manipulated, and for this it is essential that skilled tactics be employed — by people who know the inside of the media, the nuances of the newspapers, the biases of the NZBC, the deadlines of the Press Association, and so on.

At this stage it is necessary to confine the issues — to restrict them so that by constant repetition the public will be made aware of them. And if the issues are at all worthy — as they should be — simply by familiarity with the issues the public will become sympathetic to the protest, or at least, willing to listen to the protest leaders. If the fuss is big enough the media will create their own debate — and search out those for and those against. If the cause is just there is no need to worry about adverse criticism; this will be forgotten when final success comes.

Back for a moment to the creation of a 'newsworthy protest'. A most important element is the threat of more extreme action. In New Zealand this in itself this is a newsworthy and attention-getting action. In 1965 the students at Victoria University threatened a boycott of the university and of regular classes. What an outburst there was — how dare these students threaten the Government in this way! Reaction was extreme. This is what is neded. Debate is essential for the furtherance of a successful protest. People must discuss the issues, the back-ground. A public dialogue must start and continue between the protesting group and the group against which the protest is directed.

In 1965 the protesters were the students, mainly at Victoria, and many staff members. The group protested against was the Government, in particular the Minister of Education. On that occasion submissions had been made to Mr Kinsella through the University Grants Committee and student recommendations had come to nothing. Students at Victoria set up a special research committee to investigate student and staff grievances. In a matter of 48 hours a 24 page booklet had been researched, documented, written and published for presentation to Mr Kinsella. Press statements were statements were issued to the newspapers, meetings were held on and off campus, studnt representatives went to other organisations, and individuals to inform them of the issues and obtain their support. In all protests the protest leaders should organise as many public statements of sympathy and support as possible. In the eye of the media this is a determinant of the strength of the protest and will often decide how much 'coverage' or 'space' they give to a particular protest.

Another important factor is the build-up of activity within the demonstrating group. Once again to the 1965 protests — the nucleus of the protest then was the 'forum'. This had just been established, it was a new institution, a new focus-point for the campus. It allowed students to inform fellow students of the issues, allowed people like Roger Boshier to harangue the crowd, get them emotionally worked up, and thus involved in thinking about the protest aims—then supporting the protest.

Alister Taylor writes on the role of a demonstration.

Alister Taylor writes on the role of a demonstration.

At this stage it is necessary that the protest 'take off'. The easiest way for this to occur is for the repressive might of the establishment to attack the protesters or some element of the group. Ideally there should be a martyr who is treated harshly, so that the protest group can obtain sympathy—from, say, their fellow students and the public, and thus gain support. For a time the issues are clouded with a mass reaction against the repression. Most usually this is the spark which allows a successful protest to erupt. Mass meetings should then be staged to berate the 'establishment' and gather in further support. The debate about the kind of action should then become dominant.

The leaders of the protest should now be able to back down on their own previous extreme position, and compromise—or give the impression of compromise. This will make all those sympathetic to the protest aims, and even those peripherally involved feel that they have won a point—that they can now participate freely, not feeling that they are acting as extremists. In 1965 the threat of boycott action was field up as a threat, and once interest was around, the threat was dropped and less extreme action decided on. A mass meeting of students (1400) was held in the Student Union Building, at Victoria and a large majority of students voted for a march to Parliament. From this point on the mass is involved, and effort should be made to see that they are actively involved — whether in the assembling of placards, the cyclostyling of material — anything which involves as many people as possible. Even if in a protest on campus there are only 100 or 200 people directly involved in organising the protest the number of people directly affected will be much greater. And so the numbers will grow. In 1965 a major element in the success of the March of Parliament was the public assemblage of banners and signs on the SUB lawn two days before the March was to be held. Interest was stimulated, students were encouraged to take part, they were made to feel they were helping do something positive to further their complaints.

This is the groundwork. The remaining thing to be done is of course for a successful demonstration to be held, and if all the above points have been put into action (in some way) this should be a relatively easy matter. But it must be remembered that in New Zealand it is very easy to antagonise the public, and particularly easy to antagonise the media. They must be kept happy—by being informed of what's happening, of having facilities provided for them, by being told when and where everything is to happen.

And in my opinion, to be successful in its aims, any demonstration should be orderly and quiet. New Zealanders don't like obscenities shouted at Prime Ministers or Governors-General; they're apt to get upset when it is possible that crowds of people will get out of hand. At all times demonstrators must be seen to be reasonable— in their aims, their approaches to the group they're protesting against, in their actions. Our cautious and conservative society demands caution and reason.

With sophisticated use of the mass media this should be possible. Too often in New Zealand protesting groups act in a paranoiac way—this is particularly so with the "left". Take the Committee on Vietnam for example— at no time at the beginning or middle stages of the protest did they attempt to represent their views through the normal channels—e.g. parliamentary committees, and through political channels, in a sophisticated way through the media. They protested publicly. By the time they got around to thinking of more sophisticated ways of protest these 'normal' channels had been closed to them; each side had cemented their views and closed their ears. There was no alternative but to protest and demonstrate publicly, and at that stage there was little chance this would have any great public effect. There had been no 'softening-up' process.

The trouble with many student protesters and demonstrators today is that they don't define their aims and what they're trying to achieve. Considerable thought, planning, and action on a large scale are pre-requisites for a successful protest. There are few protests in New Zealand which have fulfilled these criteria. Too often protests and demonstrators are held for the sake of demonstration —as an emotional reaction. In my opinion these have little value except as a purging action for the consciences of those taking part. If substantial goals are to be attained serious protest is called for.