Simon Wilson: Springbok Tour protests and wannabe political pugilists


I was pleased to see the Viaduct’s very own bon vivant, restaurateur Leo Molloy, is running for mayor next year. At last, a contest to measure his ambition.

He emailed me last year, inviting me to join him in a different kind of contest.

“Simon,” he wrote, “I want to fight you in a sanctioned corporate fight, proceeds to charity. I’m looking for a left wing low achieving soft cock media type to fight. Are you available or are you too frightened?”

I regretted the absence of hyphens. I wondered if it could really be true that the organisers of charity matches allow their events to be used for grudge fighting. I understand he has been known to pull on the gloves before.

I should mention I don’t know Leo Molloy. But you have to admit, he seems clever. As he doubtless knows from his own experience running bars, what better way to start a fight with a stranger than to abuse him? And what better abuse than to impugn the other guy’s manhood? And, for bonus points, to equate politics with virility.

I’m looking forward to the mayoral candidate debates already.

Molloy has said he will stand on a platform of prioritising cars, cancelling light rail and stopping efforts to address climate change.

“Climate change is real … but we park it, there are far more important issues to address.”

I guess that would make him, as the proprietor of the Viaduct’s party-central bar Headquarters, the Party Party candidate. Why worry about the burning world when there’s money burning a hole in your customers’ pockets?

We’re lucky in Auckland. He’s lucky on the Viaduct, as it happens. Although the tides can rise and fall by 3 metres here, which is twice what they do in Wellington, the city fathers built the wharves high and we can all party on because the council has recently spent quite a lot of money restoring the downtown sea wall.

Or, as Leo may prefer to call it, “wasting ratepayers money on (some) silly bloody bike lanes”.

But hey, he’s entitled to his protest. We all are. It’s 40 years this week since I was marshalling at the back of an anti-Springbok Tour protest on Molesworth St, while my friend Rona Bailey, aged 66, was up the front being batoned by the police.

1981. The Pointers Sisters were singing “Slow Hand” and Soft Cell had “Tainted Love”, and “An American Werewolf in London” was popular at the movies. On July 25, protesters invaded the ground in Hamilton and forced the abandonment of the Waikato game, which led to widespread thuggery by rugby supporters.

Neil Reid wrote very well about that and other tour events in his series in this paper last week.

Four days later, the police struck back. It was Wednesday, a game day – the Springboks played Taranaki that afternoon – and as happened on every game day, protesters rallied and marched all over the country.

But there was no “Battle of Molesworth St”, as some have said. This was a large and peaceful evening march, heading for the home of the South African consul-general in Wadestown.

Police had assured us the day before they would not use their batons unless there was a “real threat of civil disorder”. But on the night, they formed up in lines, blocking the march with batons drawn, and without giving any warning or instruction to protesters to stop or disperse, began the bashing.

As was reported at the time, “The barrage was directed at the heads of protesters, contrary to police regulations, and continued for at least 40 seconds.” Several protesters, including my friend Rona, were hospitalised.

The marchers withdrew and reassembled. Nobody fought back. Many courageous people remained in the front lines. When we tried to march away along Lambton Quay, our way was blocked by more police, their batons drawn and police dogs clamouring behind them.

And then everyone who wasn’t in hospital went home. The wedding of Charles and Diana was broadcast live on TV the same night.

One month later, on the day of the Wellington test, I was one of the marshals in charge of 2000 people sitting in the wet in a Newtown intersection, a few blocks from Athletic Park.

My job was to keep everyone sitting, while rugby fans kicked their way around the edges and a flying wedge of police, all kitted up with their heavy boots, riot helmets and long P-24 batons, ran repeatedly through the crowd.

If they could get us to stand, they would be able to push us aside. They really tried. A lot of people were hurt, some of them badly. It was awful. Nobody stood up.

The bravery of ordinary people. I knew then that I would never want the responsibility for anything like that again in my life.

What we hear most often about the anti-tour movement now is the running battles on streets around Eden Park, the flour bombs dropped on the players, the helmets and shields and the violence of it all.

And it was violent. With big protests every week for 56 days, everything escalated as it went on.

But few people fought for the fun of it. Those prepared to go harder and risk more did so because stopping the games was an important goal and that meant confrontation. In Wellington, the most militant groups used grapplers to get past army barbed wire, outwitted the police about where they would strike and came very close to getting into the park. It was heroic.

But many protesters did not wear helmets and few carried shields. They turned up, protest after protest, New Zealanders of all kinds, because they believed it was the right thing to do. Because they were committed to offering a non-violent response to violence.

They were the heart of the movement and they were heroic, too. Sometimes they were kicked and punched and charged at, and glass beer jugs were thrown at them from hotel balconies. In Auckland, a group of people dressed as clowns were savagely beaten by police.

It was terrifying to confront the Red Squad and Blue Squad: the riot police with batons jabbing, the chants of “Move! Move! Move!” and what seemed so clearly a determination to hurt you.

The tour wasn’t stopped. But it wasn’t hard to grasp that the barbaric ignorance of the NZ Rugby Football Union and its fellow travellers had been defeated.

Phil Collins sang “In the Air Tonight” and Kim Carnes had the earworm of the year with “Bette Davis Eyes”. The government won the election in November, but only due to first-past-the-post voting. It lost the popular vote. The country was changed.

And some of the lessons from the tour were plain enough even then. Protest is civic engagement: it’s how you get progress.

People like to say we don’t fill the streets like that anymore. But I’ve seen it often. Protesters massed in Queen St not so many years ago, pleading for Māori wards on councils. MP Pita Sharples promised to get it done, because if the Māori Party coalition with National was good for anything, it would be good for that. He was ignored.

Since then, learning their own lesson in who to trust, Ihumātao protesters have been heroically staunch.

And school students from pretty much every high school in Auckland you can think of have marched in hope and fear and anger about the climate crisis and their future. And then had to listen to farmers and city dwellers and that wannabe pugilist politician Leo Molloy saying nope, don’t you touch my car.

Progress happens, but it doesn’t have to mean fighting.

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