Police rules ride roughshod over right to protest

Most of us are used to thinking of the police as politically neutral. We expect them to apply the law without fear or favour irrespective of political views.

This is a quaint idea because the police role is always acutely political. They support the political status quo and because of this they rarely have positive relationships with protest groups. Their attitude to protest ranges from pained tolerance to outright hostility.

Last week, the Police Complaints Authority released its report into the police handling of a protest by Free Tibet supporters outside the hotel where the Chinese President Jiang Zemin was attending a function in 1999. Yes, 1999. It has taken eight years for the PCA to complete its investigation.

The report shows that Chinese officials met the Wellington area police commander before the visit, where these officials were insistent police ensure their president neither see nor hear the protesters.

The commander said he would take what steps he could lawfully take to meet their request, although he said he told them that protest was allowed in New Zealand provided it was lawful and orderly.

Unbelievably, he then issued instructions to his staff that police should “make every effort to minimise the impact of protest”. They certainly did.

The result on the day was that the police suppressed a peaceful, lawful protest and illegally interfered with the very rights of New Zealanders they were sworn to uphold.

At one point police officers physically stood on Tibetan flags to prevent them being waved while the president’s motorcade drove past. Outside the hotel they used buses to screen off the protests and when Chinese officials said the protest could still be seen and heard the police moved in, told the protesters they were causing an obstruction (they weren’t), closed the road (without legal authority) and proceeded to push and shove the protesters 100 metres down the street away from the hotel.

Just for good measure they arrested five of the protest group.

It was a case of the “feelings” of a foreign dignitary taking precedence over the rights of New Zealanders to protest for human rights.

Eight years later and the PCA concluded police actions against the protest group were unjustified but went on to say there was no evidence police acted under political direction. This is nonsense. What the PCA means is that the police were not acting under political direction from New Zealand politicians. However, they were most certainly acting under the political direction of Chinese government officials.

Whenever similar scenarios are played out in China, the Western media is quick to point to heavy-handed actions of the Chinese police in suppressing dissent. In fact, suppressing dissent is stock in trade for the police worldwide.

Almost by definition, the police are there to support the status quo, whether in so-called communist China or so-called democratic New Zealand.

The most disturbing feature of the whole saga is that the PCA report was delayed to give the police time to amend their general instructions relating to demonstrations and VIP security planning.

PCA head Justice Goddard says she waited for the updates to be completed in a way acceptable to her before releasing the report. In other words, to give police time to cover their butts before the PCA’s muted criticism was delivered.

So how have the guidelines been changed to reflect the lessons learnt by the police from this anti- democratic fiasco?

The new instructions say protesters can be removed from the sight of visiting dignitaries if the protest behaviour is disorderly, or personally offensive and humiliating to the visitors.

Hang on a minute – isn’t this what the police did in 1999? Isn’t this precisely what they have been criticised for? It’s obvious they’ve learnt nothing from the whole, sorry affair. They have simply changed their own rules to give better justification for using the same anti-democratic power-play next time.

The purpose of protest is often to embarrass or humiliate political figures because of the policies they follow. And why not? Whether it’s a South African foreign minister during the apartheid era, an American vice-president during the Vietnam war or a Chinese president responsible for gross human rights violations, they deserve to be subject to protest. They deserve every bit of humiliation they receive and we should expect New Zealand police to uphold the rights of New Zealand citizens to deliver it.

The PCA and the Minister of Police agree with the new police rules to suppress protest. Nothing has changed for the better except perhaps that it is clearer than ever that the PCA is more a police lapdog than a public watchdog. It should be closed and replaced by a genuinely independent body which can curb the anti-democratic political tendencies of the police.