Dear Peaceful Protestors, there’s no shame in walking away / Hilary Willett

Dear Peaceful Protesters: We are family. Please End the Protest.

I remember my first proper protest. I was a student at university. The student body had heard about dramatic changes to the contracts of lecturers. Some of these changes seriously undervalued the teachers that we had come to love and respect. There were public calls from the students to protest. We were angry. We wanted fairness. We wanted the people we cared about to be treated well. So we marched onto the street.

I remember sitting on the road with a friend of mine, marvelling at the feel of the concrete beneath my hands. We were doing something! At last! Something real. After ages of talking, we were taking action. People were making speeches. I even made one, one that I suspect was more enthusiastic than persuasive. Nevertheless, I received the encouraging cheers of people determined to support each other. We sang songs and chanted for several hours while police officers diverted traffic. No violence. Just students, cheering each other on and chatting while some started distributing picnic blankets.

The next day we gathered again. This time, we marched. I noticed that there were fewer people overall. I felt sad about this. I also noticed that there were many people I didn’t know who were carrying unfamiliar placards. Some spoke of releasing prisoners I’d never heard of. Some spoke of changing the political system of New Zealand. I started to feel uneasy, but I cared about the conditions of my teachers at university, so I continued to walk. I remember my friend walking beside me was quiet, looking thoughtful.

Eventually, we stopped and some speeches began. These speeches started off familiar, but eventually, they started promoting other things. I noticed the tone had changed. The high spirits of yesterday seemed to have grown angry. I didn’t recognise many of the speakers; some of them looked far older than me and didn’t seem like students. Then the chants began—no more chanting about the importance of our teachers. Suddenly, our chants were about violently overthrowing and condemning far bigger systems than the university.

My friend and I looked at each other. And then we walked away.

Some people think that walking away lacks conviction. I disagree. I think it takes more conviction to walk away from a bad situation. I had really cared about that protest. People I knew were being exploited. It felt good to push back against a structure that diminished the hard work of my teachers. It was exciting to march and to be vocal about what I cared about. That first day was good.

But the second day, that was different. Sure, there were still some people who were highlighting the concerns of students and lecturers, but these voices were overwhelmed by the much louder and angrier interests of other groups. These groups were not there to support teachers. They were there to yell and rage. Some were arrested and taken away. I learned something hard that second day. Protests can be overrun. What I am there to communicate may not be what a protest ends up communicating. And at that point, a decision needs to be made. I decided that I cared about humanity more.

This has by no means been my last protest. I have attended others since. I am still passionate about making positive changes in our communities and nation.

But now I check.

I check who the leaders are. I check to see whether the protest is organised well. I check to see that the main ethos of the march is peaceful and positive. I know that protests can get away from people. I have seen it happen. I have had to walk away.

The protests in Wellington have been going on now for two weeks. Depending on what you read and watch, the protest either involves people dancing and having a good time or people who are abusing passers-by. As Parliament and New Zealand come to grips with the fact that this protest is not going to be dispersed by party tricks (innuendo intended), there is a mounting awareness that things cannot continue as they are going.

This week, a man tried to drive a car into a group of police officers. People were heard screaming; individuals rushed to get out of the way. In the middle of the protest, a person tried to harm a number of other people. Even now, calls for violence still seem to be happening.

Personally, I do not doubt that this violence is perpetrated by a few people rather than all. I do not doubt that many of the people gathered are peaceful and genuinely are afraid for their lives, their livelihoods, and their children. I do not doubt that many are trying to maintain peace. I do not doubt that when a car came speeding forward that they were afraid too. But I also know that protests can be overrun.

So now a decision needs to be made by the peaceful protestors.

Is your protest communicating what you want to communicate? There is evidence of aggression towards passers-by, of excrement being thrown, of substances being sprayed, and now of a car being driven into a crowd. Are these stories communicating your convictions?

Regardless of whether the government’s decisions have been right, fair, or just, there is little chance of this protest being seen as peaceful now. Will you continue to stand by this protest? Is this what you wanted to say?

Protests can be overrun. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve had to walk away. Some people think that walking away lacks conviction, but really, it takes more conviction to walk away from a bad situation. It shows you care about humanity more.

We are family. Please end the protest.
Hilary Willett has a Masters of Theology and a BAHons in English and Politics. She is now training to be a Anglican priest in Auckland Diocese. She is currently interning at All Saints, Howick, where she and her partner Kit worship.

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2 thoughts on “Dear Peaceful Protestors, there’s no shame in walking away / Hilary Willett

  1. Mike Bilodeau 25/02/2022 — 11:48 pm

    A powerful and important message. Well done!


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