Adrian Leason was one of the three ploughshares activists acquitted by a jury recently in the Waihopi Spy base story. Following the verdict, Leason summed up what has been a long and proud history of non-violent direct action in New Zealand:
we broke laws that protect plastic, in order to protect people
Articulate, considered, bang on.
A riot of unthinking reactionary nonsense erupted from people who we've come to expect to make a noise rather than a contribution. People like Paul Holmes carried out their usual inflammatory attacks, forecasting the end of democracy if we didn't do something about these criminals (or at the very least their wardrobes). But there were also some who, given there positions, should have made more of an effort to understand history before they opened their mouths. People like Prime Minister John Key who's contribution was an assertion that Government should look at changing the law to remove this most important tenant of our legal system, the 'claim of right' defense. After the second world war many Nazis defended their crimes against humanity by claiming that they were simply following the laws of the land. This argument became known as the Nuremburg defense and was rejected on the understanding that laws are not always right, and that one should sometimes follow one's morality before following the law. Surely Paul Holmes and John Key are not supporting the almost universally rejected idea that the law must be followed simply because it is the law? Political acts such as those that occurred in Waihopi have always courted controversy. Let's for a second reflect on some other acts of non - violent direct action that have occurred in our history, Around 1872 women in the UK began a movement which involved many activists chaining themselves to ballot boxes in defiance of the laws of the day. The media clowns condemned these as acts of treason, witchcraft, Satanism (and I am sure had the concept been invented at the time, terrorism.)
But those acts sparked a movement which ended in women getting the vote throughout the democratic world - spearheaded let's remember here in NZ.
Rosa Parkes didn't have to break through high security electric fences to fight the unjust laws of her time. Her act of civil disobedience was simply to sit down, and stay sitting down; an act she later humbly described not as a political one, but simply as something she did because she was tired. This is self depreciating - she knew exactly what the ramifications would be. Her refusal to stand up for the Birmingham bus laws was an act of saying no to an ingrained system of segregation within the United States, supported in law. Food counter protests - equally as illegal- followed, then Dr King had his dream, and now there's a black president in the White House.
Ask a lawyer, the law is not a solid stone tablet, never changing. It is a dynamic beast that has been evolving since its inception. Evolving, and by in large, improving. Getting better, getting more just, making our societies fairer, better places. This is a beautiful thing and we have the brave peaceful warriors like Rosa Parkes, Mahatma Ghandi, Te Whiti o Rongamai, the Suffergettes to thank.
Recently a significant contribution to this history was made by some Greenpeace activists in the UK, who defended their actions against a coal fired power station using an argument similar to that of the Waihopi Three before a jury, the results may also have helped the legal system in the UK to evolve a little more. This short documentary titled 'A time comes' by Nick Broomfield tells their story.
As we now honour those activists who broke the law to make it better in our past by naming libraries after them, and adorning stamps with their images, so too will we honour those who are currently doing the same work, and receiving the same blind ciritism for it as those historical heroes did.
Winston Churchill understood that the law did not necessarily equate to justice when he said "when injustice is law, resistance is duty". The recognition that laws are not inherently right, but need testing and changing, need to be challenged and sometimes broken if we are to continue to make our societies a better place.
- Chris Hay
Chris manages the direct action unit at Greenpeace NZ. His responsibilities include training activists in the philosophy and skills required to undertake consious non violent direct action.