Last Saturday I went to the protest against asset sales organized by Aotearoa Not For Sale. I was marching with my friend Maia, discussing the latest episode of The Good Wife in between chants of ‘hey hey ho ho/John Key has got to go’.
Halfway up Willis St we overheard a guy behind us talking: ‘This is all because John Key is a money-hungry Jew.’ Maia immediately turned around and told him that he was being anti-Semitic and that it wasn’t ok (she’s great like that). The guy explained that she didn’t understand the historical context, that ‘they took over this country with their money’, before finally giving up and telling her ‘you must be Jewish’ (incidentally, she isn’t. Not that it’s relevant’).
By that point I’d already walked away. I was in no mood to hear about how I control the world’s money and am personally responsible for the economic recession.
This wasn’t the first time that anti-Jewish racism has cropped up at Aotearoa Not For Sale events. Last year a guy named Nathan Symington joined an anti-asset sales march in Auckland holding a skateboard with swastikas chalked on it. The same man was later charged with the racist vandalism of the Symonds St Jewish cemetery.
When an Auckland activist noticed that Symington had clicked ‘attending’ on a facebook page for an Aotearoa Not For Sale street party, she commented and asked the organisers to make a clear statement that racism and fascism weren’t welcome at this event. She was ignored and her comment was deleted. (I’m told that at the party itself one of the organisers did make a statement condemning racism. I don’t want to imply that everyone involved in ANFS ignores racism.)
There were similar instances of anti-Jewish racism at Occupy spaces in 2011, and on the facebook pages of several of the Occupy groups as well.
The campaign against asset sales is broad. It includes socialists who argue for nationalization of resources, anarchists who argue for collectivization of the means of production, and tino rangatiratanga activists who view asset sales as a continuation of colonization. It also includes nationalists, racists and conspiracy theorists.
Aotearoa Not For Sale organisers can’t be held personally responsible for the actions of every single person who attends one of their protests. But they do need to take responsibility for ensuring that racism isn’t tolerated—or worse, nurtured.
One way to do that is to stop the nationalist rhetoric. Campaigns against privatization have a nasty habit of appealing to populist nationalism, because it’s an easy way of galvanizing support. That slope is both slippery and dangerous. Its logical conclusion is in racism and xenophobia. It’s essential that arguments against the privatization of public assets are based on an ethic of economic and social justice, not nationalism.
Another way to take responsibility is to take a strong and explicit stance against racism. Not just against Jews, but against Māori, Pacific islanders, Asians, Arabs—anybody. Opposition to racism needs to be one of the central tenets of anti-privatisation activism, and it needs to be made explicit and constantly reiterated. When people hold racist signs or make racist comments at protests they should be asked to leave. When racist behavior manifests it should be publicly condemned, not swept under the rug for fear of ‘damaging the movement’.
Nothing divides social movements quite as effectively as oppression ignored. If Aotearoa Not For Sale continues to ignore anti-Jewish racism, it will split the movement between those who are willing to tolerate racism, and those who cannot.
So stop ignoring anti-Jewish racism.