Protest blockade and backlash

An interesting insight has been given into protest, with an insider analysis of the protest against the ANZ last week in Dunedin where the most attention was given to an old women having trouble clambering over protesters who were blocking the bank doorway.

The protesters seem indignant that the media didn’t promote their cause – to halt all financing of fossil fuel extraction and all use of fossil fuels.

They were also indignant that the police allowed and encouraged people to push through and climb over protesters. But they were disappointed the police didn’t forcibly remove them from their blockade, which they seem to have thought would have given them positive media coverage.


It has taken me a while to gather my thoughts about the ANZ blockades in Dunedin on Thursday. There has been a lot to process. Some of you may have seen the media sh** storm that followed- but let’s start at the beginning.

What did we do? At 8am on Thursday morning, a large group of us gathered in the Octagon for a briefing. At 8:40 we made our way down the road to two ANZ branches on opposite corners of the street. One hundred and thirty of us lined the pavement with banners and sat in rows against the doors to blockade the banks.

Why? Because ANZ have 13.5 billion dollars invested in fossil fuels. That money is helping to fund exploration and extraction of oil, gas and coal. Let’s be clear- the climate is in crisis. Deserts are growing, with droughts, floods, fires and storms becoming more common. The climate is changing faster than expected. All fossil fuels we burn increase the speed and intensity of these changes. A changing climate is the biggest threat to human life. Therefore, any decision to fund climate-polluting activities is violent. No two ways around it.

If all funding of climate polluting activities was stopped the world would be a very different place, and not necessarily better. The population is probably to large to all revert to subsistence living.

ANZ bank is profiting from funding projects like the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, Australia. The mine is a direct assault on the ancestral land of indigenous peoples. The emissions from this proposed mine would wreak havoc on the climate, thus endangering human lives.

Our blockade of ANZ didn’t come out of the blue- it came after 2 years of lobbying the bank to divest from fossil fuels. Letters, meetings, public engagement, the lot. ANZ refused to pull their support from the fossil fuel industry. They carried on with business as usual. So we’re left with the decision- allow them to continue funding hazardous activities, or act? We chose to act. If business as usual is harmful, then we had to interrupt their business as usual. We had a moral obligation to shut them down.

I don’t doubt their sincerity but claiming moral superiority is fraught with contradictions and complexities.

In Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington, 350 protesters had succeeded in getting bank branches to close for the day. After these successes, we felt it was time to step it up. When we saw the sheer volume of people lining up outside the two banks, we boldly decided to take a group back up the road to blockade the doors of a third ANZ branch. This is what civil disobedience is about.

Using the human resources you have to disrupt as much harmful activity as you can. So we got another group seated outside the doors of the third bank, arms linked, in peaceful protest. We were trespassing on ANZ’s property, obstructing their doors, and everyone was aware that we could be removed or arrested by police. At that point, we could never have anticipated how the day would unfold.

So they planned to be disruptive and potentially law breaking.

We thought of three scenarios: the banks would close (as they had in other cities), the police would arrest us, or move us aside. None of those things happened. The banks kept their doors open, and when customers approached the blockade, police encouraged them to use ‘reasonable force’ to get through us. It is one of those surreal situations where you have no idea what is happening, even when it is happening in front of you.

Once getting the go ahead from police, many customers waded over the top of people sitting on the ground. Suddenly people were getting trodden on, and catching heels to their faces. We were shocked. We had not anticipated that the bank would remain open and actively encourage people to climb through us. We had not expected to be pitted against the public. The police had every cause to move us out of the way, but they didn’t.

So they wanted the police to use reasonable force to move them but they didn’t think the public should use reasonable force to go about their legal business.

If anything, we had the customers’ interests at heart – their money should not be used to fund operations that harm people.

They thought they were morally able to decide what was best for others, despite their wishes to use their bank.

…a disturbing number of customers began to launch themselves through our lines of people before I could even explain our position. People were getting kicked and trodden on, all with reassurances from the police that it was acceptable to do so. It was the active encouragement from police that gave customers the confidence to walk over my group. It is quite scary to see how ready people are to act forcefully and violently when people in positions of power encourage them.

We were caught off-guard by this strategy- police were not actively moving us, but encouraging the public to confront us. I was often brushed aside by police as I tried to explain the situation to customers. A couple of students in the back row of our blockade had tears running down their faces- just from the sheer shock of being physically hurt by members of the public.

The old lady later apologised for standing on one protester – who wouldn’t move to allow her to go into the bank.

I don’t know whether public and police actions were appropriate or not.

But many of the publicly really don’t like being obstructed from doing what they want to do. Some degree of annoyance and some degree of not agreeing with the protest should have been expected.

Committing to civil disobedience is quite a big step. Once you have made the choice to create a blockade, there is a strong moral obligation to stay put until you are removed, or until you achieve your objective. We expected to be moved out of the way. We were caught out by the tactics of ANZ- by keeping the bank open and encouraging customers to push through us they put us into conflict with their customers- making the action vs the public.

Our target was ANZ, not their customers, but the bank successfully victimised themselves by instructing police to leave us be, while staff comforted customers that managed to make it into the bank. This was cunning, and it worked.

The bank looked after their customers and didn’t do what the protesters wanted. That shouldn’t be surprising.

At long last the media showed up. Just in time to see an 85 year old woman being escorted by police over the lines of peaceful protesters. They had their story. Young activists block an elderly woman from her monthly trip to the bank. A tangible, visible victim that all New Zealanders can sympathise with. We can all agree- that situation should never have occurred. That woman should never have been escorted over the top of people. She should have been taken to the back entrance where the door was not blockaded. Staff let her out of this door, but made her wade in through our blockade.

I don’t think staff made her do anything. The woman chose to go through the public entrance to the bank.

 Alternatively, the four police officers could have moved us out of the way in a matter of seconds, and cleared a safe path for customers to enter the bank. The police are there to ensure public safety and they failed to do so. Their first priority should have been to keep the public (which includes us) safe. They had an obligation to ensure that nobody was put at risk, and that nobody came to physical harm. They did neither of these things.

Alternatively the protesters could have moved aside, and spoken to people and promoted their message as they went past.

But the wanted the police to move them – and how would that have worked? Would they have allowed themselves to be passively moved aside, or did they want to provoke attention that would get them sympathetic media coverage?

In the media coverage, the burden of responsibility for that woman’s distress was placed solely with us. The coverage successfully removed responsibility from ANZ and the police, who worked together to create that scenario.

In large part it was their responsibility.

Now don’t get me wrong- as a group we need to take responsibility for the collateral damage of our actions.

Do they think they are a moral army?

When we’re going against powerful institutions we will inconvenience people, people will take it personally, and we will hurt people’s feelings. That is the unfortunate reality of direct action, and it does upset us.

They could always do things in a way that won’t upset and inconvenience the public.

But the damage being done by the prevailing status quo is far more immense, far more devastating and far more invisible. From 2030 to 2050 climate change is expected to kill an additional 250,000 people per year. Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress will take an increasing number of lives.

ANZ is funding this crisis, and profiting from operations that will cause humans immeasurable suffering.

If there were any questions about the moral implications of Thursday’s action they should have been directed at ANZ. How can they justify investments in climate polluting projects, which will mean that hundreds and thousands of women and men will miss out on the opportunity to grow old at all? That level of injustice is so completely unimaginable that we block it out, and focus instead on the immediate and localized impacts of direct actions.

Trying to justify their actions because of what they see as a cause of greater good.

If I were able to make an apology to the elderly woman who had to cross over our lines, it would be this:

“I am sorry that we live in a world where powerful institutions spend your money on climate pollution. I’m sorry that ANZ, the media and the police used your discomfort for their own agenda- to delegitimise an urgent and valid cause. I’m sorry that you were pushed over us instead of being escorted to a back door. And most of all, I am sorry that you thought we were against you, when we actually care deeply about every human being on the planet.”

The protesters wanted to impose inconvenience of the woman and other members of the public for their own agenda.

It sounds like they care more about their own cause than the effect of their actions on the public, and are so intent on stopping fossil fuel use don’t seem to consider that if fossil fuel use was suddenly ceased it would cause widespread and severe collateral damage.

It has been incredibly painful and interesting to watch the media fallout from this action. We were painted very clearly as aggressors, out to prevent the public from going about their business. What’s interesting is that people who are pushing for social change will always be held to a much higher moral standard than any other group.

Really? This group seems to see itself as having much higher moral standards, but most people just want them to comply with normal standards of not obstructing people from going about their rightful business.

The media vilified us for inconveniencing members of the public- and yes, we did inconvenience many people on Thursday. But ANZ’s funding of oil, gas, and coal extraction will literally kill people. Untold numbers of people. The moral consequences of our action are completely incomparable to the moral consequences of ANZ’s investments- yet we were the ones hung out to dry by the media.

Because their protest imposed unnecessary inconvenience on members of the public.

Unfortunately, people tend to scrutinize the behavior of protesters and pounce on the negative consequences of our actions as a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths- the institutions that we trust and support with our money are violent. We’re not ready to accept that our daily lives hold up violent systems, that the institutions we trust with our money are using it to endanger future generations. They invest in harmful industries, and we enable them to do it.

Apart from the question of fossil fuels banks enable many ordinary people to do many things, like buy houses and run businesses and shop with convenience – I wonder how many protesters use cash and how many use plastic.

I witnessed many things on Thursday that disturbed me a lot. After getting together with our group to debrief afterwards, we started to piece together what happened, and the realisations that came from it.

The first is that many people are literally prepared to stand on top of other human beings to get to their money. The eagerness of some people to breach the obstacle of a human blockade was unnerving, and it shows just how fragile people feel when their daily routines are interrupted. I saw a businessman being encouraged to ‘take the path of least resistance’ over the top of the youngest and smallest member of my group. If we stop and think about that situation for a minute, it illuminates so much of what is wrong about our society.

That young people don’t think about how their actions may affect others and ony care about how actions affect themselves?

Secondly, many of us recalled how quickly violence became normalized. After a few customers had been encouraged by police to walk roughly over my group, I came to expect that behaviour. Since the action, I have been confronted with my own complicity when watching violence being done to others, and I am appalled that I was not firmer with customers and the police, that I didn’t do more to stop people from being hurt.

Like asking protesters to move so they wouldn’t impede the public?

My group started expecting to be walked over. Police told them it was their decision to remain put, and therefore their fault if they were trodden on.

Yes, it was their decision.

My group members said that they began to internalize that victim blaming, and started thinking “well, yes, I did put myself here- it’s my choice to be walked upon.” It’s only on reflection that we realized this was utter bullshit. Every human being deserves to be treated with respect.

Did the protesters respect the right of the bank and it’s staff to conduct their legal business? Did they respect the right of customers to do business with the bank?

Did they respect the right of people to not agree with and to disagree with their campaign to halt all fossil fuel use?

We put our trust in the police to protect us (as is their responsibility) and that trust was broken.

Except they wanted the police top forcibly move them becvause it suited their onjectives.

We put trust in customers to recognize what we were doing, and to treat us as people- and in many cases that trust was broken.

They can’t ‘trust’ people to agree with them.

Did they treat the public and the bank customers like people, or did they just see them as ‘collateral damage’?

Many people who were walked on are surprised at the level of emotional impact it has had. Many reported feeling both empowered and dehumanized. They knew that they were part of something really powerful, and really admirable. To act non-violently is incredibly brave, because you are putting trust in others that they will not hurt you- and that trust is not always rewarded. When someone is violent towards you it can shake your trust in humanity. Many of the group felt like they were treated as objects- obstacles to climb on.

Some may see them as ‘incredibly brave’, others may seem them as naive and inviting a physical reaction to a physical blockade.

As a group we’re all really aware of the toll these actions can take, and we’re getting really good at supporting and looking after each other. We have to. Because social change is not going to come easily.

There’s obvious sincerity, passion, and a real desire to make the world a better place.

Hoping to achieve social change by blockading a small city bank might be a bit unrealistic.

This action has impacted the participants quite deeply. Not only because of the emotional intensity, but because we got an insight into the ways that powerful institutions like the banks, the media, and the police work together to maintain the status quo and delegitimize direct actions.

There’s a presumption that their direct actions were legitimate protest in the first place.

I think they may be underestimating or hiding the rights and the will of the public here.

ANZ, the media and the police succeeded in turning public opinion against our action, and distracting everyone from what’s going on globally.

No. The protesters stuffed up.

Their obstructive actions turned the public against them. Outside their circle of protest I’m not sure that they would have had much support. Most public reaction has been negative towards them, and that’s not because of the police or the media or the bank.

It’s one thing to have a really rough time of it on the front lines; it’s another to be completely misrepresented by the media. The public backlash has been quite shocking. Comments range from being ‘disgusted’ with our behavior to suggesting that we get stomped on. 

I don’t condone suggestions like “stomped on” but adverse public reaction shouldn’t be a surprise.

The media orchestrated their story flawlessly, they took the one angle that would be sure to derail the conversation, cover up the real issue, and keep the real victims invisible.

A media conspiracy.

Protest 101 – work the media and don’t just expect them to automatically understand and agree with everything you are trying to do.

By ‘real victims’ I am not talking about us. I am talking about the billions of people that will suffer the effects of climate change. I’m talking about masses of lives that will face disease, displacement, conflict, and extreme weather events. Because these are the lives we should be talking about when we do actions like blockading a bank. It’s not about us, it’s not about our actions, it’s not about customers, the general public, or the police. It’s about the people who are suffering at the hands of powerful institutions. It’s about the future generations that have to deal with the fallout of the climate catastrophe.

I think that reducing fossil fuel reliance and reduction pollution as much as possible are important aims. Most of the public would agree with that.

But most of the public is probably realistic about the need to keep using fossil fuels for some time if we are to maintain a functioning society.

The ANZ is an Australian bank and the protest seems mostly directed at financing of the financing of fossil fuels in Australia.

Coal produces about two thirds of Australia’s  power. There is no easy way to replace that in a hurry. It would need to be phased out over a significant period of time.

Australia is the fifth largest coal producer in the world. Many people rely on the coal industry for work, including many New Zealanders. Shutting down the coal industry would have a major impact in many ways on employment and the economies of Australia and New Zealand.

Yes it would be good to be able to quickly replace coal with sustainable energies. But socially and economically it simply isn’t feasible.

The media successfully constructed a story that would keep climate victims invisible.

The media reported on what happened. The protesters failed to keep the focus on what they wanted publicised.

They told a story that focused on the shortcomings of our action instead of the monumental level of harm caused by the industries ANZ is supporting. The media distracted most people, even supporters, from the most pertinent moral questions raised by our protest.

By letting the media dictate our conversations about climate change and systemic violence, we give them power to maintain the status quo.

This system does not want to change. Institutions like the media and ANZ will do everything in their power to frame us as a threat to the public’s peace of mind. They will do everything in their power to keep the public from realizing just how harmful and insidious their agendas are.

If I could ask readers anything, it would be to publicly question and criticize the role of our banks in upholding climate violence. Don’t let them dictate the terms of the conversation, we have to make those with power accountable for the effects of their actions.

Perhaps they need to seriously reassess what might be effective publicity for their cause and what might be effective protest action. Blaming everyone else won’t help.

As far as our group is concerned, don’t worry about us. We’re taking care of each other. If Thursday taught me anything it’s how incredibly lucky I am to be part of such an amazing passionate group of people. We’ve all been shaken, many of our illusions have been shattered, but we’ve proven to ourselves just how brave and ambitious we are. We’ve built a trustworthy, supportive community. We’re getting stronger, we’re getting smarter, and we’re a force to be reckoned with.

If they learn from their mistakes last week then they may become a force to be reckoned with.

But if they want public support they need a cause that will resonate with the public, not alienate them.

If they want positive media coverage they might need to rethink their strategies.

Idealistic unrealistic protesters who see themselves as morally superior to everyone, and victims of everything that doesn’t work out for them, and see the public as collateral damage, have some challenges.