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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 14. 1969.

Violent Demonstrations

Violent Demonstrations

Niel Wright

Niel Wright examines

Students at Victoria have indulged in only three demonstrations which deserve to be called violent in any sense.

These were the Pedestrian Crossing Demonstration, when 200 students sat down in Kelburn Parade and obstructed traffic; the Taj Mahal Affair, when 100 students mounted the Taj Mahal and were forcibly removed, and 500 students congregated in the street obstructing the traffic; and the June 26 Demonstration in Parliament grounds, when the Parliamentary outdoor ceremonial had to be cancelled.

It is reasonably easy to predict what will be the next violent demonstration. It will be the occupation of the Stout Building.

In popular parlance, a demonstration is violent when it involves the physical inconvenience of other people.

The popular definition is not so unreasonable since a demonstration is only a show or display on the part of the opposing forces. Such a show or display can be perfectly peaceful, in which ease it is called a peaceful demonstration, or it can involve inconvenience for others, in which case it is called a violent demonstration.

When the forces of opposition go beyond mere show, that is beyond demonstration, the result is a confrontation. A confrontation can range in ferosity from gentle physical pressure on the forces of the establishment to battle, rioting, or destruction.

Only the June 26 Demonstration of student actions was also, in part, a confrontation, for then there were surges against the police lines.

Both demonstrations and confrontations are of course revolutionary acts. They are actions expressing an unreconciled conflict in society. They can be differentiated as revolutionary acts by saying that a demonstration is a symbolic act while a conflict is a real act.

The difference between a symbolic act and a real act is a qualitative one. Put simply, society is fairly tolerant of symbolic acts. For instance, the Taj Mahal was a symbolic act, and though 31 students were arrested, all were discharged.

But society has a very marked hostility to real acts. For instance, in the June 26 Demonstration there were only two arrests, but because the demonstration also became in part a confrontation, and so a real act, the public outcry as reflected by the newspapers and a few parliamentarians was very vociferous. Society showed real intolerance.

So society sees symbolic acts and real acts as acts of a different kind, and it does not like the latter ones.

The difference between symbolic acts and real acts is also quantitative. Both acts include the application of pressure by the opposing force on the established force. In symbolic acts this pressure is of a low order, and only causes inconvenience. In real acts, this pressure is of a higher order, and causes actual bodily displacement which calls for a counterforce by the established force if the status quo is to be maintained.

Clearly the pressures involved will be on a continuous scale. But there is a critical pressure, above which the quantitative difference between symbolic act and real act becomes a qualitative difference.

It follows then that any demonstration can go over to a confrontation simply by the increase of the pressure applied.

There are a number of consequences from the nature of revolutionary acts.

The first is, that symbolic acts because of their qualitative difference from real acts are socially tolerable. Society will permit demonstrations that do not go over to confrontations, but will disapprove of confrontations.

The second is, that symbolic acts can be converted to real acts by the application of possibly only a little extra pressure. This is to say, a socially tolerable demonstration can be converted to a confrontation by application of possibly only a little more pressure.

The significance of these two consequences is this.

A revolutionary act of a symbolic nature can be undertaken in our society fairly freely. And that revolutionary act can be converted to a real act by the action of possibly a very small group taking part in the act.

To some extent, this is what happened on June 26. A symbolic act of protest was staged by a number of groups interested in no more than a demonstration of their opposition. But this symbolic act was converted to a real act by the action of a few elements (never publicly named), who were interested in an actual confrontation on Parliament steps.

The interesting fact is that this qualitative change from symbolic act to real act is usually accepted without protest by the other elements in the action. For instance, few of the demonstrators on June 26 withdrew from the action out of dismay when confrontation began.

It is easy to see why this psychological fact is so The demonstrators have come to apply a given quantity of pressure. The confronters in fact probably apply only a slightly greater quantity of pressure. This difference of pressure, as quantatively small, seems of no consequence to the demonstrators on the spot, although it is quantitatively all-important to observers.

The relationship between symbolic acts and real acts is therefore an important one for revolutionary tacticians.

Obviously, the revolutionary tactician is given almost unlimited scope by our socieyt to organise symbolic acts, which by a comparatively little more organisation can be converted on the day into real acts.

Beause the quantitative change between symbolic acts and real acts is small, few personnel need be involved in applying the additional pressure. But such personnel surrounded by a larger group of participants achieve a considerable anonymity and so security from victimisation by the establishment.

This is seen in the June 26 Demonstration, when the elements who escalated the demonstration to a confrontation remained unidentified.

The revolutionary tactician then is very advantageously placed in promoting revolutionary action. He has a very free scope in establishing his basis, and a high measure of efficiency and secrecy in the use of his necessarily few militants.

On the other hand, the establishmentarian is at a great disadvantage, for he cannot deprive the revolutionary of his basis, because that would involve suppression of freedoms which our society is still prepared to accord. Such suppression would be widely seen as repressive, and would undoubtedly lead to fresh support for the opposition. On the other hand, he cannot readily act preventively or punitively against the militants because of their individual insignificance and impersonality.

It seems then the cards are stacked in favour of the revolutionary, as indeed they are.

The establishmentarian is further embarrassed. Because of his disadvantage vis a vis the revolutionary, the eslablishmentarian is forced to expend far more force in his counter-revolutionary role to maintain the status quo.

This far greater expenditure of force carries with it a higher risk of miscalculation. The miscalculation may manifest itself variously.

An excessive expenditure of force may suggest that the establishment is panicking, with a consequent loss of respect and confidence on the part of the public.

Or an excessive expenditure of force may appear as over-reaction. Over-reaction tends to be counter-productive, since it is likely to lead to increased support for the opposition.

Or an excessive expenditure of force may appear as economic extravagance, wastage, or mismanagement.

Panic, over-reaction, and mismanagement are all responses on the part of the establishment which are desired by the revolutionary, because they afford him a means to increase his public support. So much is this the case that the revolutionary will constantly provoke such responses.

This provocation can be given very cheaply by the revolutionary, since symbolic acts alone are usually sufficient.