Peaceful protesters should always plead guilty

By pleading not guilty to maritime safety charges from his offshore drilling protest, does Russel Norman think that his vote counts for more than mine on environmental policy? He is mounting a greater good defence. Does his views count for more than mine on what is the greater good?

We resolve our differences about what is the greater good on offshore drilling, on environmental policy, on any policy by normal democratic means. That is, by trying to persuade each other and elections. We just had an election which gave us a rich taste of the political views of New Zealanders.

By openly breaking the law non-violently, accepting arrest and pleading guilty, that act of peaceful defiance implores the majority to reconsider their position. Through their passion, their sacrifice, their willingness to risk a conviction on their record, protestors are pleading from the bottom of their heart with the majority to think again and contemplate the possibility that they may be wrong.

Central to political protests is the notion is by making a lot of noise and showing your passionate disagreement, your fellow voters will respect that passion and hear you out. Instead, Greenpeace is trying to impose its conception of the greater good by harassment and court room manoeuvring rather than by their side of the argument winning at the ballot box or on the floor of Parliament.

Greenpeace deserves the respect of taking them at their word; that they want to stop offshore drilling by their protesting alone making it too difficult to continue. They are not saying we are staging a publicity stunt that respects maritime safety laws to implore voters to think again.

Protests should not be attempts to impose views on others. Civil disobedience contributes to the democratic exchange of ideas by forcing the dominant opinion to defend their views. A willingness to accept a conviction is proof that the protest is a passionate, selfless attempt to persuade voters to join their side.

Protests should never be a means of coercing or frightening others in a democracy into conforming to your wishes. Greenpeace expects others to obey the laws for which it successfully lobbied. Why does Greenpeace think they can break laws that others secured through normal democratic means?

Some find democracy frustrating because they cannot win at the ballot box even under proportional representation. Environmentalists such as Greenpeace must be the last to complain so. Greenpeace activists and environmentally conscious voters were spoiled for choice at the most recent election.

Two parties were competing principally for their vote. The older of the two spent the last four weeks of the campaign desperately rebranding itself as principally an environmental party. The new party was an environmental party that was also at peace with the market economy. The two major parties were also campaigning strongly on many policies that might win over environment minded voters.

The great virtue of a democracy is it readily enables the people, over time, to be persuaded that what they took for granted is not so and change the law accordingly. Noisy protesters from across the political spectrum stage publicity stunts to catch the public’s eye in the hope of doing this.

What is holding up legislating in many areas is not that minorities are powerless and individuals are voiceless. It is exactly the opposite. By banding together, passionate minorities can resist the tyranny of the majority. They can trade off their support in other areas in return for policy concessions most dear to them. A small group of concerned and thoughtful citizens can band together and change things by mounting single issue campaigns that influence who wins. An MMP democracy is about building winning coalitions made up of a great many different policy agendas and several parties.

If you want to reform the world, Greenpeace should do what we ordinary folk must do: change our vote, write to an MP, protest, donate to or join a political party, or run for parliament. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you had your chance at the ballot box every 3 years so you must live with the peace of a fair defeat. By pleading guilty, protesters show that they are trying to win the majority over with their deep-felt passion for which they will willingly pay the price for in court.


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