Online news

The changing landscape of protest and activism

The right to protest is an integral part of New Zealand’s history and culture. But as major societal shifts heighten tensions, some activists face new risks in speaking out. reports Daisy Hudson.

A nasty showdown between opposing activists in Dunedin is the latest in what is becoming an increasingly crowded space for public activism.

The exact details of the incident are disputed, but it appears the confrontation began when free speech supporter and former Dunedin mayoral candidate Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle began filming anti-fascist activist Sina Brown-Davis, her husband and her friend Jack Brazil several times in the center. Dunedin last Thursday.

After repeatedly asking Mr. Moncrief-Spittle to stop filming, Mr. Brazil confronted him.

It is alleged that Mr Moncrief-Spittle attempted to strangle him with his scarf.

He admits to pulling on the scarf saying “for a few seconds he would have felt like he was being strangled as I pulled on his scarf”.

At one point, Mr. Brazil grabbed his phone and threw it away to prevent further filming.

Both parties say they filed a complaint against the other with the police.

They follow a complaint filed earlier last week by Woof! bar co-owner Dudley Benson, who helped promote a counter-protest attended by around 200 Dunedin residents against around 30 Freedom and Rights Coalition (FRC) supporters the previous weekend.

FRC was protesting the Three Waters reforms and vaccination mandates.

Ahead of the protest, Mr Benson received two anonymous death threats via the bar’s social media account and messages from FRC leader and Destiny Church pastor Derek Tait, Christchurch, including an image of Mr Tait pointing to the bar.

There have always been risks associated with protests and activism. But the anonymity of social media, coupled with the growing prevalence of more extreme views, creates a whole new level of danger.

Ms Brown-Davis said in her 30 years of activism she had never encountered this type of behavior.

Photos of her and her friends were posted on the Telegram app, which has become the messaging app of choice for many disinformation or extremist space actors, she said.

Ms Brown-Davis called it a “right-wing sewer” where people openly discuss the violence.

“I’ve opposed people on different kaupapa politically all my life. I’ve never sunk to that level.

“I’ve never been in an environment where threatening people with death or harm was acceptable.”

There are also growing concerns about attacks and threats against New Zealand’s rainbow community.

Mr. Benson calls it an escalation of intimidation.

“What really worries me now, with the injection of QAnon-aligned beliefs into conservatism within Aotearoa, the targeting of gay people is incredibly dangerous as we are already a vulnerable community,” he said. .

The stakes are high, they say. They stand up against misinformation, dangerous alt-right extremism, racism and homophobia.

Mr Moncrief-Spittle said he was acting out of concern to stifle free speech and was acting as a “citizen journalist”.

He takes umbrage at activists who pressure venues to cancel events organized by far-right conspiracy theorists such as Counterspin Media.

“This leads to heightened tensions between different groups. Animosities are heightened when people feel they are being unfairly represented.”

“For example, being accused of being fascist, Nazi, racist, homophobic or ‘extreme right’,” he said.

“Free speech benefits everyone, including the oppressed, the dispossessed, and those with minority views or who are critical of the government or mainstream orthodoxies.”

Mr. Moncrief-Spittle is no stranger to controversy.

He had previously sought judicial review of the High Court’s decision which found that Auckland Council had not acted unlawfully in denying two far-right speakers the chance to hold an event in one of its places.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were due to speak at the Bruce Mason Center in August 2018, but Auckland council-controlled regional facilities stepped in and stopped the event.

The couple have courted controversy for their extreme views on immigration, feminism and Islam.

The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

The heated environment was indicative of a society that had become more intolerant of different points of view, said Marcelle Dawson, an associate professor at the University of Otago.

Professor Dawson, who studies social movements and social transformation, said the tolerance for vigorous discussion had declined, leading to more extreme responses.

“Death threats are not something new for the militant world, but the fact that they are made so easily now is quite interesting and different and I think it signals this kind of change in the intolerance of different points sight.”

As with so many changes in our society in recent years, the Covid-19 pandemic had played a role. The pandemic has created heightened anxiety and a sense of urgency to act, Prof Dawson said.

“It’s kind of like we’ve entered a phase where if someone else’s point of view comes through, I lose something.

But in fact, there is room in social life for different points of view and different values ​​to coexist, and I feel like people find that quite hard to accept because they feel like to have lost something.”

A police spokeswoman said police were not “immediately aware” of the incident last Thursday.

“Police will continue to monitor protest activity of which we are aware to ensure public safety.”

— Additional reporting Oscar Francis.