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Parihaka and Beyond: An Hommage to Non-violent Protesters Around the World

The power of cultivating land

Parihaka in Taranaki was founded in the middle of the 19th century as a hub for resistance against the land grab practices by the Crown. The spiritual and polictical leaders Tohu Kākahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai, both of Taranaki and Te Āti Awa, and their followers were joined by Māori from other parts of the country to engage in non-violent protest. Their protest entailed the ploughing and cultivating of so-called confiscated land (a euphemism for stolen) and the rebuilding of fences that had been torn down by representatives of the Crown in order to build roads. Their actions were met with widespread incarceration and deportation to the South Island where some of the boys and men faced forced labour (for example to build the city of Dunedin). It was mostly women and children who stayed behind to continue the protest. However, more and more people came to visit and live in Parihaka. By the time of the invasion of Parihaka on 5 November 1881 the village had grown to over 2000 inhabitants. When the 1500 or so troops entered the village they were greeted by singing children and offered freshly baked bread. The rest of the town sat there quietly. All this didn’t hinder the colonialist troops from destroying the houses and crops of Parihaka (which took them several weeks), raping the female inhabitants, largely dispersing the people and arresting Te Whiti and Tohu Kākahi. What some might see as weakness I think is incredible strength. To just sit there and extend a friendly hand to the invaders of one’s home is a feat only mustered by those who have full integrity. To take advantage, on the other hand, of an unarmed, peaceful people whilst being heavily armed is an act of cowardice and I don’t want to image the thoughts and fears that must've haunted the troops late at night.

Luckily, the atrocities of Parihaka are now being acknowledged by the New Zealand Government and from 2022 (about time!) will be part of the official school curriculum. However, the country is still grappling with the dark chapters of its history and has a long way to go towards real reconciliation. Here I’ve only given a very brief account of what happened in Parihaka. Please do your own research into this important bit of Aotearoa’s past.

On the anniversary of the invasion of Parihaka I want to write about other non-violent protests from around the world in order to pay tribute to the courage and determination of the people of Parihaka. If you wonder what this has to do with sustainability the answer is: everything. Oppression makes people sick and unhappy and keeps them from living in harmony with one another and all other beings. Non-violence, in my opinion, is the way to go as all we can do is to live today the way we want the world to be in the future.

The power of sitting down

My own personal hero of courage is Rosa Parks. Just as the people of Parihaka Rosa Parks resisted oppression by sitting down. In the racially segregated Alabama of the 1950s she refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” of a bus for a white passenger. She wasn’t the first nor the only black person to protest in this way but she became the face of this form of resistance. The black community boycotted the Montgomery bus company for over a year. This form of direct action gave a strong impetus to the Civil Rights movement that unfolded in the coming decades. As we painfully know the oppression of black citizens of the United States and other countries is far from over. We can however look to Rosa Parks and others for inspiration to stand tall in our own values. The excuse of not having power to bring about change as a single individual simply doesn’t cut it. We are all responsible for our actions and our actions count.

The power of solidarity

As this is written in November ‘20 the Wet’suwet’en in what is nowadays called British Columbia, Canada are defending their territory against the construction of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline. They are using the Canadian legal system to claim their right to their homeland but they don’t stop there. Fearing for the health of the environment the Wet’suwet’en blocked access to the construction site as early as 2010 but it was at the beginning of this year that the defense reached its biggest proportion. The state showed up with a massive police presence including dogs, helicopters, drones and of course, guns. In solidarity First Nation people as well as other Canadians blocked access to important infrastructure all over the country: the main port and a few smaller ones in Vancouver, several border crossings to the United States, one of the biggest Canadian rail yards in Toronto, the only East-West link available to Canadian National Railway, and many others. Some of these blockades created serious disruptions to the economy. The Tyendinaga Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte were especially effective when they pretty much brought the whole of the Eastern rail network to a standstill for several weeks. Coastal GasLink has been issued several non-compliance orders because they didn’t adhere to agreed upon management standards like the protection of wetlands but this doesn't seem to impress them (or the Canadian state for that matter). The Wet’suwet’en continue to fight and they call for actions of solidarity worldwide.

The power of mobilisation

Not only people who were colonised by Europeans choose to fight for themselves non-violently. In Switzerland, where I first saw the light of day, the occupation of a construction site for a planned nuclear power plant in the 70s ultimately led to the abandonment of said plans. Furthermore, no other nuclear power plants were built in Switzerland after the protests and in 2019 the first such plant was shut down permanently. This is how it all unfolded: When in April 1975 thousands of people blocked the access to the construction site in Kaiseraugst three nuclear power plants were already up and running, two others were being constructed and three more were planned to be built – all in an area of about 2000 square kilometres. Activists had tried to use legal action to prevent the construction but to no avail. So they decided to occupy the site and on the second weekend 15,000 people showed up. The occupation re-mained permanently for eleven weeks and the small hardcore group was joined on evenings and weekends by many sympathetic to the cause. The activists organised themselves along the principles of basic democracy so that everyone would have a voice. One of the reasons the protest worked was because the more radical and committed circles mobilised supporters from the wider community by handing out flyers, hanging up posters and stickers, and engaging people by making them sign declarations ensuring their commitment. They even convinced some of the construction workers to join them. Looking at photos from that time it becomes clear that people from different backgrounds came together to resist demands from the energy industry that would endanger their health and wellbeing.

The power of non-cooperation

To finish up let’s look at one more example closer to home. In Sāmoa the people achieved something New Zealanders have not: independence. At the beginning of the 20th century Sāmoa was ruled by New Zealand (and therefore the Crown) after being a German colony. There were conflicts early on but the final straw was the negligence with which the New Zealand authorities treated an influenza outbreak in Sāmoa just after the First World War. About one in five people died. Sāmoans founded the Mau movement and chose civil dis-obedience and non-cooperation as their strategy. They refused to pay taxes or work in the coconut and banana plantations. The NZ authorities tried to repress the movement by arresting people but they weren’t very successful at that because so many men gave themselves up that the prisons were overflowing and people pretty much came and went as they pleased. On what is now known as Black Saturday (28 December 1929) a new administrator – presumably having celebrated Christmas only a few days before – ordered his troops to shoot at a peaceful demonstration. Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, one of the leaders of the Mau, urged his people to remain peaceful as some had started throwing stones. He was shot in the back and a few men rushing to his protection were killed as well. Most men fled to the mountains after that Black Saturday. The women and children continued the protest throught non-compliance and, as one descendant recalls, spending all day “washing” at the river whilst actually receiving food parcels for the men in hiding which were delivered by canoes and then stashed in the washing baskets. They also kept gathering and singing and dancing even though this was forbidden by the NZ authorities. In 1962 Sāmoa was the first Pacific Island to become independent. In 2002 Helen Clark, then prime minister of New Zealand, apologised to Sāmoa but I remember hearing an interview with the late Malietoa Tanumafili II who claimed that this apology did nothing but open up old wounds and had little significance as long as New Zealand didn’t see Sāmoa as an equal partner. Damn right! The struggle continues.

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