Police v activists, chilling versus no problem

Two Dunedin anti-TPPA activists have responded differently to police discussing with them their plans for campaigning against the TPPA.

This follows news that police have had additional anti-riot training and growing talk online about riots and violent protest.

Police are in a common position for them of damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Some have claimed their approach of activists amounts to anti-free speech intimidation, but it isn’t uncommon for the police to try to pre-empt possible trouble by talking to people.

Nationally most attention was given to Dunedin activist Scout Barbour-Evans. NZ Herald reports:

Visits to activists ‘worrying’ trend

A national police campaign to door-knock TPP activists is part of a larger trend of “chilling” opposition to the Government and the right to protest, a civil liberties lawyer says.

Police have been visiting “known activists” opposed to New Zealand’s involvement in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement ahead of protests planned in several cities tomorrow.

Lawyer Michael Bott said the tactic appeared to be part of “an increasing trend on the part of the police”.

“They seem to be doing it proactively on behalf of the Government and its projects.

Or proactively in reaction to threats. of targeting political events.

“It’s worrying that New Zealand citizens who are concerned about the agreement suddenly find themselves the target of police.

“It has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the right to protest.”

Not necessarily. There has been no claim they are trying to stop expression of protest. It depends on how it’s done by the police. And how it’s played by activists.

Scout Barbour-Evans, a Dunedin activist who goes by the gender-neutral pronoun “they”, said an officer knocked on their door about 10am yesterday.

The officer wanted to know what the plans were for the anti-TPP protest in Dunedin, Scout said.

Scout compared the situation to the Springbok tour, saying the increased surveillance felt akin to 1981, particularly following the presence of armed police at Prime Minister John Key’s State of the Nation speech on Wednesday.

By the look of Barbour-Evans they won’t have been born in 1981 so she can’t have felt what that was like. A number of people (it seems like it could be a planned strategy) have been trying to liken TPPA protests with the Springbok tour.

The ODT headlined Police visiting activists labelled ‘a disgrace’.

Police calling and doorknocking activists about their plans to protest the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement is “an absolute disgrace”, Dunedin city councillor Aaron Hawkins says.

“If the police are going door to door intimidating known TPP opponents, in case they might be thinking of expressing their disagreement publicly, then that’s an absolute disgrace,” Cr Hawkins said.

“The TPP has never been primarily about trade, it’s about protecting the interests of big business from the meddlesome interference of democracy.”

Hawkins is closely associated with the Green party. Green leader Metiria Turei calls it Implicit police threat appalling:

“It carries with it an implicit threat and New Zealanders have the right to speak out and have their voices heard. Being an activist isn’t a crime, being an activist is being passionate about something and last time I checked that wasn’t illegal.”

So no actual threat, just one that the Greens view as ‘implicit’.

But less prominently the ODT also reports:

TPP Action Dunedin organiser Jen Olsen said she had spoken to police this week about what was planned for this weekend.

“We’ve got not problem about the police and are happy to tell them what we’re doing, because we have no plans to do anything illegal.”

So no claim there that the police intimidated or tried to stop expression or protest.

If there are violent protests or riots as some activists have promoted over the next week the police are likely to be condemned for doing too much, and condemned for not doing enough.