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Where did all the Protests go?

Nick Kelly



Come to the Quad at 12:30 on Wednesday this week. It’s the VUWSA Initial General meeting. This is one of the two constitutional meetings we are supposed to have every year. Here we do fun stuff, like change our constitution and debate what should and shouldn’t be VUWSA policy. Constitutional amendments had to be in 2 weeks ago, and we have about half a dozen for this IGM. Also this is where we elect our faculty delegates for Humanities, Commerce and Science Faculty boards, and also elect our student reps for Academic Board and committee. As one of our two positions on publications committee remained vacant last year we’ll be also electing our second student rep on this committee (the other student rep is Nicholas O’Kane).
Three years ago the IGM held on March 19th 2003 was a historic day in VUWSA history. Two days before President George W Bush declared war on Iraq the VUWSA Initial General Meeting (IGM) of VUWSA voted overwhelmingly in favour of the below 3 motions:
1. That VUWSA oppose any military action against the people of Iraq
2. That VUWSA calls on the New Zealand Government to actively oppose the war, and withdraw the frigate Te Mana from the Gulf
3. That VUWSA supports Peace Action Wellington in campaigning against the war
A couple of weeks earlier students marched from the Quad to Parliament and were joined at parliament by more protesters (many also students) to demonstrate outside the formal luncheon. This lunch was hosted by Clark and her Labour government for visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard – whose government were sending troops to Iraq to support the war effort. This protest was where the now historic flag burning by Paul Hopkinson took place. Accompanying him was student Dougal McNeil who burned the Australian Flag. Also arrested that day was former Vic student Jared Philips who attempted to throw his lunch at John Howard’s car, just missing it due to incorrectly weighting said lunch.
The anti-war movement at the start of 2003 was probably the most significant political movement in Wellington – and internationally – so far this century. About seven thousand people turned up to marches on February 15th and March 22nd. Peace Action Wellington (PAW) became a very radicalised and strong political force at the time of this anti-war struggle. Having come from pretty placid and not terribly effective beginnings, PAW helped politicise a whole groups of people – many of whom went on to become active, in student politics or other similar political activity. Wellington’s anti-war group become the most active in New Zealand with Wellington getting similar numbers at protests to Auckland and much more than in Christchurch (a city of similar size). PAW took a stronger line on the NZ government, who while claiming not to support the invasion had sent a frigate to the Gulf to support the US and British troops in the region.
The politicising effect of the anti war movement on VUWSA was considerable. We had a core group of people involved who became active in many other campaigns. The main example for campus was the 2003 fee setting campaign where we occupied the Hunter Building three times in one week. That same year we started up the Student Representative Council (SRC) meetings, which that year usually got quorum. Whether people were for or against the war, it got people debating political issues and thinking more critically about the world they lived in.
A year later, Peace Action Wellington and the anti-war movement in Wellington had pretty much died off. This was partially due to external factors like the so-called fall of Baghdad, and the end of the initial stage of the war. In early 2003 activists were trying to stop the war and the occupation, by 2004 the occupation had happened so people felt less empowered. But there were also factors within the anti-war movement in Wellington which affected the movement. Many of the activists in PAW also became active in other causes such as the homeless by-law, the GE movement, animal rights and lots of other worthy causes. Inevitably this caused burn out. But also it lead to a change in focus from an outward one of trying to get people in, to an inward looking one, where activists end up only talking to each other and not the wider public. It’s easy to do this in any political work, especially when a core group work together for awhile. Also quite silly stuff began to happen. One meeting it was declared that all PAW events had to be vegan, causing an uproar as many felt this wasn’t being inclusive.
Overall the contribution of PAW and the anti war movement was a positive one I feel. The problems and lessons learnt in the 2002 – 2004 anti-war movement were similar to that found in many other political movement, including student politics. It’s important to know both the good and bad of what happened for future political movements, and campaigns.
I guess the point I’m making is that turning up to things like this weeks’ IGM can make a real difference. Come along and get involved.