A protest march is a procession of people along streets or roads to publicise a grievance. Marches use symbols and rituals such as flags, banners, placards, songs and chants that express the identities and aims of the marchers. In moving along a particular route, marches offer greater public exposure than protests that remain in one place.
In 1843 Aucklanders marked the end of Willoughby Shortland’s reign as acting governor by carrying his effigy through town before burning it. Wellingtonians did the same to Shortland’s successor, Robert FitzRoy, when he was recalled two years later.
The first protest marches were associated with effigy burning. Protesters would build an effigy of the person at the centre of their grievance, then march it around streets while hissing and hooting, before throwing it on a bonfire. Possibly the largest early march happened in Hokitika in 1868, when some 800 people marched to protest the execution of three Irish nationalists in Manchester, England.
Urban workers and the unemployed have used marches to highlight industrial disputes or lack of work. In 1886 nearly 500 unemployed and famished Aucklanders marched through the city demanding work. Among the first union marches were during an industrial dispute in Waihī in 1912. Strikers, their wives and children expressed solidarity by marching through Waihī streets. During the 1930s economic depression the unemployed held regular protest marches. The largest, in the main centres, numbered several thousand.
By the late 1930s political marches were becoming more common. In 1938 the Christian Pacifist Society started regular sandwich-board marches through Wellington streets. In 1949 protesters marched against colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). During the 1950s a New Zealand Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was launched, and introduced protest marches based on the British Aldermaston marches (held between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston). The first was at Easter 1961, from Featherston to Parliament.
Youth frustration with the conservative political consensus of mid-20th-century society led to the counter-culture period of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a time of heightened public protest with street marches opposing the Vietnam War, the suppression of Māori and women’s rights, environmental degradation and nuclear testing in the Pacific. Conservatives sometimes responded by organising their own marches, including the 1972 Jesus marches, protesting against perceived sexual permissiveness in society.
A near riot?
A march to Parliament on 17 June 1968 saw a convergence of issues. Among the groups marching were unionists protesting a nil wage-rise order, opponents of the Vietnam War, seamen wanting better safety at sea, Māori protesting land alienation, students demanding higher bursaries and campaigners protesting rising prices. When Prime Minister Keith Holyoake appeared, the 4,000-strong crowd surged forward, partly breaking the police cordon and leading to tussles. The media represented it as a near-riot – riots had recently broken out in Paris – but this was a beat-up. Only two arrests were made.
Hīkoi usually refer to Māori protest marches, many of which begin in tribal areas and travel to a city. The 1975 hīkoi from Northland to Wellington was a protest against the continuing alienation of Māori land. Led by Whina Cooper, it gathered strength as it moved south and filled Parliament’s grounds. Later that year the Waitangi Tribunal was set up to investigate Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. In 2004 a large hīkoi protesting the Foreshore and Seabed Bill – removing a perceived Māori customary right – also ended at Parliament.
Plethora of protests
During the 1980s and early 1990s there were large protest marches against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, Treaty of Waitangi breaches, homosexual law reform and neo-liberal economic reforms – and in support of women’s rights. A variation of the protest march were the peace flotillas of sailboats and small craft that protested port visits by American warships in the 1970s and 1980s. Union protest marches climaxed in the 1980s and early 1990s, after which government reforms curtailing union power encouraged alternative protest strategies.
End of protest marches?
A decrease in protest marches in the late 1990s and early 2000s led some to ask whether the great age of protest had passed. One explanation was that a new political consensus had emerged so there was less need to protest. This was challenged by the 2004 hīkoi – and again in 2010 when the government proposed mining national parks. Many saw this as an assault on the understanding that such places were untouchable. It resulted in the ‘biggest protest in a generation’1 (40,000 people) marching down Auckland’s Queen Street, leading to a swift government back-down.
Marching for ‘Middle Earth’
In October 2010 fears that Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit might be shot offshore sparked protest marches in Wellington and elsewhere. Carrying banners declaring ‘New Zealand is Middle Earth’ and ‘We love hobbits’, the marchers hoped their protest would help convince the film studio to make the film in New Zealand. Their support – and a multi-million-dollar government subsidy to the studio – did the trick.
That marches remain a potent protest tool was highlighted in July 2008 when nearly 15,000, mainly Chinese, Aucklanders marched in South Auckland to protest violent crime there. The march signalled a new assertiveness among Asian communities to make their voices heard. As in the past, youth have led new protest issues. In June 2011 hundreds of young protesters attended SlutWalk marches in Auckland and Wellington. Marchers argued that how women dressed was a red herring in sexual attacks: perpetrators, not victims, were responsible for rape and sexual assault.