The immorality of moral equivalence

On 14 February, in an earlier Political Bytes blog posting, I wrote about the anti-vaccination occupation of Parliament grounds and surrounding streets and other locations. rights, responsibilities and the far right influence

An important aspect of this blog was contrasting the anti-racist South African Springbok rugby tour movement of 1981 with this 2022 occupation (as part of wider anti-vaccination protests and with an emphasis on the role of the far right in the latter).

In respect of the anti-vaccination protests, I was careful to distinguish between far right leadership and leadership that was far right influenced. There is a difference between them that is more than subtle; my emphasis was on the latter.

Seven days later I did another Political Bytes posting about the anti-vaccination occupation and protests but its focus was the event as a public health emergency (virus spreader) Wellington faces public health emergency.

Reith article

Now an Alastair Reith has published an article in Stuff (12 March) accusing the anti-racist tour movement in 1981 of using violent tactics, as violent (or more so) as in the recent anti-vaccination protests 1981 anti-racist tour protesters as or more violent.   

Reith is not responding to my blogs (probably he hasn’t read them). Instead he is taking umbrage at views expressed by anti-racist tour leaders and activities in an earlier Stuff feature on 8 March   we did things differently in 1981 .    

I had not heard of Reith before his published article and, to the best of my knowledge, we have never met. He was formerly active in the Unite Union (including being on its national executive) and, at least until 2021, a media advisor with the Public Service Association. Assuming that he lacks Peter Pan genes, he was born sometime after 1981 (not that this matters).

Reith implies moral equivalence between 1981 and 2022 protesters

Although Reith does not say so, the practical effect of his article is to assert that the anti-racist tour protests of 1981 were as morally (or immorally) equivalent as the anti-vaccination protests of 2022 (with particular emphasis on the Wellington occupation).

If one read Reith’s article in complete isolation (without knowing anything more about him) one would find it difficult not to believe that he has much more empathy with the anti-vaccination protests than the earlier anti-racist tour protests.

His article has the appearance of someone on an ideological journey from the left to the right (of course, appearance may not be reality; but it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy).


Reith’s article is superficially selective. He begins with his acceptance of the claim that that the occupation was about being anti-mandate. This is simplistic nonsense.

While opposition to employment mandates and vaccine passes were the ‘official’ slogans, the driving force behind the protest and most of the behaviour was anti-vaccination. This included opposing the right of New Zealanders to be vaccinated during a pandemic.

Anti-vaccination, reinforced by vicious far right agendas, was the driver of the various collective protest behaviours. Reith downplays this in order to legitimise his nasty put down of the integrity of the anti-racist tour movement.

Reith fails to appreciate the fundamental difference between 1981 and 2022. In 1981 the objective was to increase public support in order to stop a racist rugby tour and support the struggle in South Africa against racist oppression.

In 2022 there was no objective to win public support. Instead all the public saw was aggression including against members of the public.

Reith’s attacks

Reith engages in a selective and out-of-context attack on the anti-racist tour movement. He fails to recognise that this was a mass movement throughout the whole country and across the spectrum of Aotearoa society.

This breadth even included business leaders (he is particularly snide about this) marching with unionists. In terms of breadth of support and mass participation there is no comparison between 1981 and 2022.

He then resorts to nasty anti-communist redbaiting against what he describes as the “…leading role of a radical Marxist minority, in Wellington most notably the Workers’ Communist League. These days the Party’s paper would be declared a source of extremist misinformation.” I didn’t agree with everything in the “Party’s paper” but his accusation, in addition to being false, is absurd.

His redbaiting target includes people I know well and greatly respect. They have given a lifetime to advancing progressive causes. The role of this “radical Marxist minority” in the anti-racist tour movement was constructive focussing on ensuring mass civil disobedience instead of violence. Reith’s redbaiting resonates with the similar behaviour of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon at the time.

Overwhelmingly the anti-apartheid movement in 1981 was about mass disobedience in order to extend police resources as much as possible so that the racist tour would be called off.

Despite coming close (one game was cancelled), the aligned approach of trying to increase public support succeeded (from a big minority to a small majority that became much bigger over years).

The 1981 protests ensured that there were no further racist official tours. It also helped embolden the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as confirmed by a prisoner by the name of Nelson Mandela (himself accused of being a Marxist and communist).

Different Policing strategies

Understanding history, let alone historical comparisons, is clearly not Reith’s strong point. The approach of the Police to the 1981 and 2022 protests could not have been more opposite. After the successful ground invasion in Hamilton early in the tour, the Police strategy became more aggressive including violence (primarily batons).

This contributed to the Police baton attack on a large peaceful demonstration in Wellington’s Molesworth St which Reith is dismissive of (I was a participant very close to the attack).

It was after this unprovoked attack that marchers began to wear helmets and other protective gear. This and subsequent violence led to a lowering of public respect for the police.

Police Commissioner Andrew  made a big difference from 1981

Police Commissioner Andrew  Coster is acutely aware of how reputationally disastrous police behaviour was in 1981 and how it contributed to increasing tensions as the tour proceeded.

He was determined to ensure that it was not repeated this year. Although Coster can be fairly criticised for some slowness in the police response early on in the occupation, his overall approach was mature and sound.

The only action that came close to being violent was on the final day when the occupiers were evicted. But that primarily involved defensive shields (in part to protect against violence) and avoided the use of batons.

Violence accusations

Reith identifies  several cases of violence, or alleged violence, but he lacks perspective. Overwhelmingly these were individual actions outside the mainstream of a mass movement. By ignoring the mainstream strategic direction of the anti-racist tour movement he embellishes the significance of these incidents.

Further, Reith’s claims of violence have to be taken with a grain of salt. His reference to the use of a small truck to ram through gates at the first game in Gisborne is contradicted by a recent review article published by the Gisborne Herald (21 July 2021) which makes no reference to such an incident. frightening intensity .

Instead the Gisborne protest is described as spontaneous and involving pushing and shoving between tour opponents and supporters. It was the unexpected large number of protesters at a small city that was the biggest feature.

Where Reith might potentially be on stronger ground in respect of violence was the final test in Auckland. There clearly was violence with emotions exploding after eight weeks of games twice a week. But much of the violence was initiated by pro-tour supporters and police behaviour. Further, it was one out of around 15 games.

Contrasting defining features

There was never any pretence that the civil disobedience strategy of the anti-racist tour protests would be completely lawful. In fact, as the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s showed, breaching the law is an essential feature of civil disobedience.

After all, ‘disobedience’ is the opposite of obedience. But ‘civil’ is also the opposite of violent. Individual violent actions in such a huge mass movement are often unavoidable but they do not define it.

So what were the defining features of the anti-vaccination occupation and protests. The obvious immediate difference was that in 1981 there was a strong focus in reaching outwards to the public for support whereas in 2022 there was no such focus. What the public experienced was aggression towards them.

For me the greatest criticism of the occupation was that it occurred in the middle of a pandemic (a public health emergency). Given the overwhelming domination of unvaccinated participants, the crowded conditions and the complete absence of protective public health measures, this was a virus spreading event creating a serious risk to the health and safety of the public.

As of today, hospitalisations are nearly 1,000 (much higher under Omicron than any other earlier part of the pandemic). Of the total Covid-19 deaths, around 17% occurred in the first 17 months of the pandemic and another around 17% occurred under the Delta variant.

The remaining around 66% only occurred this year under Omicron. The precise contribution to hospitalisations and mortality of this virus spreading event will never be known but there is no doubt that it has contributed.

In contrast, threats, intimidation and violence were defining features of the anti-vaccination protest, especially when reinforced by far right extremists. These features (either downplayed or ignored by Reith) include the following:

  • Encroaching on the right of the public to safety and life by putting their health at risk.
  • Different far right groups, with good reason, saw much of the mindset behind anti-vaccination views as fertile territory for their extreme conspiracies. They could not hope for better recruitment potential. Counterspin Media thought so too with its regular streaming into the protests. Counterspin Media is hosted by GVT Media Group in the United States and, in particular, far right leader (and Donald Trump adviser) Steve Bannon.
  • Attempting to intimidate and threaten workers in nearly workplaces such as the New World supermarket, shops, university, cafes, and Parliament itself as well as journalists.
  • Forcing the closure of two neighbouring primary schools.
  • Preventing Wellington Free Ambulance from providing medical care at Parliament grounds.
  • Forcing the closure of the Victoria University precinct.
  • Intimidating local residents and other people passing by, especially those wearing masks.
  • Petrol-ignited fires burning tents in overcrowded circumstances thereby putting others, including children, at risk of serious harm.
  • Aggressively (but unsuccessfully) attempting to move on to an unwilling local marae.
  • Vigilante-type group behaviour at vaccination centres and schools (separate from the occupation but a central part of the anti-vaccination movement).  

Accepting Reith’s logic means accepting that Nelson Mandela and Steve Bannon are moral equivalences

When the specific circumstances and defining features of the 1981 and 2022 protests are fully considered, there is no moral equivalence between the two. To argue (or imply as Reith does) that there is requires a mindset that believes Nelson Mandela and Steve Bannon are moral equivalences.

A lesson from Hegel

In October 2019 Reith had published an interesting and balanced article in Spin Off arguing for protests to focus more on winning public support. contrasting Extinction Rebellion with School Climate Change.   

He contrasted the negatively of the smaller spectacular actions of the Extinction Rebellion which only disrupted the uninvolved public (but not those responsible for environmental damage) with his positive assessment of the tens of thousands who had marched in the School Climate Strike acknowledging that this had also caused some disruption.

Comparisons are limited (there nothing in common between the motives of Extinction Rebellion and the anti-vaccination protesters). But both the School Climate Strike and the 1981 anti-racist tour movement shared a similar focus on winning public support.

Georg Hegel: owl and dusk lesson

Unfortunately Reith’s recent Stuff article falls well short of the standard of his 2019 article. The former is written in an irritating ‘smart aleck’. He would do well to learn from German philosopher Georg Hegel.

In his Elements of the Philosophy of Rights (1820) Hegel observed that “The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the coming of the dusk.” That is, wisdom follows experience. Had Reith better understood the experience of 1981, there would have been much more wisdom in his 2022 article.

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