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 mark the recall of Shortland’s successor, Robert FitzRoy, 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 against the execution of three Irish nationalists in Manchester, England. A month later, a group celebrating the Duke of Edinburgh’s survival after an attempted assassination in Sydney were driven out of nearby Addisons Flat by a volley of stones hurled by Irish miners.
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. Some of 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 economic depression of the 1930s 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, Berkshire). 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 late 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 against a nil wage-rise order by the Arbitration Court, opponents of the Vietnam War, seamen wanting better safety at sea, Māori protesting against land alienation, students demanding higher bursaries and campaigners protesting against rising prices. When Prime Minister Keith Holyoake appeared, the 4,000-strong crowd surged forward, partly breaking through 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 against the Foreshore and Seabed Bill – which would remove 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 against 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 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 remained a potent protest tool was highlighted in July 2008 when nearly 15,000, mainly Chinese, Aucklanders marched in South Auckland to protest about violent crime there. The march signalled a new willingness 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.
First in the world
In 2017, on Donald Trump’s first day of office as president of the United States, thousands of people marched in support of the international Women’s March protest movement. Because of time differences, the New Zealand marches were the first of 600 around the world. The marchers in New Zealand were concerned about the detrimental impact Trump’s presidency might have on women’s rights, especially abortion rights, in the United States, but also more generally about women’s rights around the globe.
Young people in New Zealand also took part in international climate ‘strikes’ and marches in the late 2010s and early 2020s. Schoolchildren, often with permission from their schools, and other young people took part in marches, frustrated at the perceived lack of governmental action on climate issues. In September 2019 an estimated 170,000 people took part in these marches, partly inspired by young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. These marches were by far the biggest seen in New Zealand for many years, and they were held in all the main cities and many towns around the country. After a break caused by COVID-19 restrictions, the marches returned in 2023.
COVID-19 marches and protests
Government policies were introduced in early 2020 to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The restrictions introduced changed over time as scientific knowledge about the virus developed and vaccines became available. Protest marches occurred around the country against some of the government’s policies, particularly about requirements to wear masks and for certain occupations to be vaccinated. Others were concerned about the implications of the government’s temporary strict control over those crossing New Zealand borders. Still others were motivated by other causes, including white nationalism. At a time when most New Zealanders were obeying strict lockdown rules, the marches themselves caused concern as possibly providing venues for the spread of the virus. The marches occurred in different cities and towns around the country, led by different groups. A convoy of vehicles travelled from the top of the North Island and from the South Island to Wellington in February 2022, culminating in a three-week occupation of Parliament grounds which ended on 2 March.