The risk of violence is growing, how we respond now may dictate our future / A.J. Hendry

I woke this morning to an image of a Police Officer bearing his weight down on a young man’s head. In the subsequent video I watched after viewing the photo, I witnessed the scenes of chaos surrounding the image. Men and woman screaming, a row of Police attempting to hold the line, while an energized and supercharged crowd roared and pushed, testing the resolve of the men and women in blue.

Regardless of the context, the image is powerful.

A Police officer, a representative of the Crown, pining a young brown man to the ground, his face buried in the dirt, two other officers on top of him as they attempt to cuff his hands.

Already it has begun to exemplify the fight the protestor’s see themselves fighting. The people against the crown. The innocent resisting an oppressive and powerful regime.

As I’ve watched what is going on in Wellington over the last few days my heart has ached. Though I do not believe the claim that “we’re the most divided we’ve ever been” is accurate (all indications, including the high vaccination rates would lead us to conclude that those participating in this movement are a minority percentage), I hear the ache that sits behind the words of those who see it that way.

It’s easy to write off the protestors – and those they represent – as dim-witted and uneducated, and yet this isn’t helpful, nor is it the reality. I think of people I know who support this movement, many are loving, caring people. People who care for the vulnerable, who love others fiercely, who believe that their resistance to the government, to the mandates, to the vaccines, is resistance against a tyranny. People who, despite their diverse beliefs, still have a place at my table.

When I look at what is happening in Wellington I am saddened, and I’m frustrated. Because, from my view it is all so unnecessary. I think of those suffering due to the ongoing oppression and segregation brought about due to colonization, I think of the ongoing housing crisis and those who have had their faces pushed into the dirt by the boot of Crown neglect, I think of those I love who are trapped in the death machine which is poverty in this country, left to suffer because as a nation we would rather protect the interests of the wealthy, than ensure that our children have a full and thriving future.

I think of all that, and then I think of those I love whose pain I see reflected in the eyes of the protestors. People who chose not to be vaccinated, people who’ve lost their jobs due to the strength of their convictions, people who believe sincerely that what they are expierencing is oppression, and what they are doing is standing for Freedom.

I do not believe we can compare vaccine passports, and vaccine mandates to nazi Germany (I’ve written about this further here), nor do I believe that it is right to characterize what is going on as oppression. There is real oppression within this country, and not being able to go to a latte at a café doesn’t fit within the scope of my definition. Nor, does having to leave a job because you aren’t able to, or choose not to, meet the requirements needed to ensure the safety of you and your clients.

And yet, if we simply write the protestors off as stupid, uneducated, radical right-wing conspiracy theorists, we miss identifying something that perhaps will help us move forward. And I hear some of you, perhaps you’re thinking, “we don’t need to move forward, they just need to get with the program”. Perhaps, you’re watching what’s going on in Wellington and you’re angry, frustrated, even confused as to why anyone could risk our public health, and criticize the government for taking the pandemic seriously. And yet, these people are not other to us. Some of us will have loved ones who are dear to us who are either at that protest or support them. Ignoring them, shaming and ostracising them, will not make them go away or change their perspective. When I look at those images, the people crowded outside parliament, the police holding the line against a roaring and screaming crowd, I see pain. I see our collective anxiety and fear. I see people that believe with sincerity that the movement they belong to is right and just. Who believe deeply that they are being oppressed and marginalized.

And I remember. Those I know that have chosen not to be vaccinated. Those I know who’ve given up their jobs because of their convictions. Those I love who believe with all sincerity that the vaccine and mandates constitute oppression and apartheid.

I disagree with this perspective and narrative. And yet, I see the pain in their eyes, I hear the ache in their voices, and whether I agree with them or not, doesn’t change the fact that they are still whanau, and this is the way that they feel.

As this protest dies, the fog clears and people move back home, those of us who know people who either participated at the protest, or whose perspective was represented there, will have to wrestle with how we respond to those in our communities who hold views and perspectives which we may strongly disagree with.

Will we shame, otherize, and ostracise, or perhaps, will we, can we choose another way?

I am concerned about where this goes. Already we’ve seen death threats, police officers assaulted, calls for the execution of our Prime Minister, and yesterday it was reported that individuals within the protest were holding up nooses and calling for the lynching of those who’ve led our Covid response. In light of this the question of whether this could lead to violence seems to answer itself.

Of course, the majority of people who were at the protest, or who hold views represented there, are not advocating for violence. If they were, the scenes in Wellington would have looked a whole lot different. And yet, if something doesn’t change, this is the path we are heading towards. It is only a matter of time before misguided threats, become real, tangible actions. And in a way it makes logical sense. If you believe that the Government is taking away our human rights, if you believe that our medical professionals, health experts, and our government are colluding with pharmaceutical  companies in order to vaccinate the population with a drug that is causing people harm, and that these actions are a part of a global conspiracy, and if soon you believe that the Government is going to be coming for your kids to do the same to them, at some point violence will begin to look rationale.

And, if this group of people, who hold this fear and who are processing this anxiety, are ostracised, shamed, and ridiculed, if they are cut of from all social connection outside of those within their bubble, if they are shunned by those they love who could offer a different perspective, and condemned and criticized for vocalizing the concerns and fear that they hold, than our journey towards this end will only intensify.

There have been various voices within the last 24 hours calling for the Government and the Police to go hard, to use punitive measures to shut down the protest and squash disinformation. I can’t comment on what tactics should be used by the police and authorities to deal with some of the complex drivers of what we’re seeing in Wellington.

And yet, those people you see on your social media feeds, or on tv, or hear in the news, they are not individuals, detached and separate from the rest of us. They are people. Human beings. Our whanau.

They belong to us, as much as we belong to them.

And we may disagree with them, we may strongly and firmly oppose the narratives and convictions they are advocating for, and yet it is vital that we remember that the pathway towards violence requires two feet to walk.

How we respond to those we know and love who have concerns about the vaccine, or who are angry about the mandates, or who may even have been radicalized by disinformation, will either hurry us closer to that end, or move us further away from it.

We all have a role to play in preventing conflict from escalating. We can either ostracise or embrace. Condemn and criticise or seek to understand and Love.

How we post about or discuss those we disagree with on social media, whether we choose to shun or cut people out of our lives or not, the decisions we make will ever protect our communities, or escalate tensions.

Whenever there is a mass shooting, or terrorist attack (either here or abroad), we often find ourselves asking the same questions. We look at these individual’s that seem rationale, normal, in some casing caring individuals, and we ask, how did they get to this point? How did they become so radicalized that they were able to hurt another human being?

The answer is often over and over again that they themselves were ostracised, shunned, condemned and cut off from community. They were in a bubble, the only voices in their circle being the ones feeding their fears and alleviating their anxieties.

In our current environment, where it is so easy to become insulated online from differing perspectives and good information, the greatest weapon we have against disinformation and radicalization is Love.

It is to choose a posture of Embrace, over that of condemnation and exclusion.

It is to choose the hard road of learning to listen and dialogue with those who we feel are against us.

It is to learn to disagree in the hard stuff, and yet to be courageous enough to continue the conversations without allowing our disagreement to affect our love for one another.

When we ostracise, caricature and shame people, we create an environment where people feel isolated and attacked and thus feel the need to defend themselves. This ultimately entrenches worldviews further and leads people closer to extremism.

If we want to protect our communities from violent extremism than #LoveIsTheWay we must direct our steps.

A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

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