The changing landscape of protest and activism

The right to protest is an intrinsic part of New Zealand’s history and culture. But as significant societal shifts heighten tensions, some activists are facing  new risks by speaking out. Daisy Hudson reports.


An ugly confrontation between opposing Dunedin activists is the latest in what is becoming an increasingly fraught public activism space.

The exact details of the incident are disputed, but it appears the confrontation began when free speech proponent and former Dunedin mayoral candidate Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle began filming anti-fascist activist Sina Brown-Davis, her husband, and friend Jack Brazil multiple times in central Dunedin last Thursday.

Dunedin activists Dudley Benson and Sina Brown-Davis say they are facing escalating threats and...
Dunedin activists Dudley Benson and Sina Brown-Davis say they are facing escalating threats and danger for protesting. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
After repeatedly asking Mr Moncrief-Spittle to stop filming, Mr Brazil confronted him.

It is alleged Mr Moncrief-Spittle attempted to strangle him with his scarf.

He admits to tugging on the scarf, saying "for a few seconds he would have felt he was being strangled as I pulled on his scarf".

At one stage, Mr Brazil grabbed his phone and threw it to prevent further filming.

Both sides say they have made police complaints about the other.

They follow a complaint laid earlier last week by Woof! bar co-owner Dudley Benson, who helped promote a counter-protest attended by about 200 Dunedin residents in opposition to about 30 supporters of the Freedom and Rights Coalition (FRC) the previous weekend.

FRC was protesting against Three Waters reforms and vaccine mandates.

In the lead-up to the protest Mr Benson received two anonymous death threats through the bar’s social media account, and messages from FRC leader and Destiny Church pastor Derek Tait, of Christchurch, including an image of Mr Tait pointing at the bar.

There have always been risks associated with protesting and activism. But the anonymity of social media, coupled with the increasing prevalence of more extreme views, is creating a whole new level of danger.

Ms Brown-Davis said that in her 30 years of activism, she had never encountered this type of behaviour.

Pictures of her and her friends had been posted on the app Telegram, which has become the messaging app of choice for many in the disinformation or extremist space, she said.

Ms Brown-Davis referred to it as a "right-wing sewer" where people openly discuss violence.

"I’ve opposed people politically on different kaupapa all my life. I’ve never sunk to this level.

"I’ve never been in an environment where threatening people with death or harm was acceptable."

There has also been increasing concern about attacks and threats against New Zealand’s rainbow community.

Mr Benson calls it an intensification of bullying.

"What I’m really concerned about now, with the injection of QAnon-aligned beliefs into conservatism within Aotearoa, the targeting of queer people is incredibly dangerous because we’re already a vulnerable community," he said.

The stakes are high, they say. They are standing up against disinformation, dangerous alt-right extremism, racism and homophobia.

Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Malcolm Moncrief-Spittle. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Mr Moncrief-Spittle said he acts out of concern for the stifling of free speech, and that he is acting as a "citizen journalist".

He takes umbrage with activists putting pressure on venues to cancel events being held by far right conspiracy theorists such as Counterspin Media.

"This leads to increased tensions between different groups. The animosities are heightened when people feel they are being unfairly represented."

"For example, being accused of being fascists, nazis, racist, homophobes or ‘far right’," he said.

"Free speech is a benefit for everyone, including the oppressed, the dispossessed, and those with minority viewpoints or critical of the government or prevailing orthodoxies."

Mr Moncrief-Spittle is no stranger to controversy.

He previously requested a judicial review of the High Court decision that found the Auckland Council did not act unlawfully by denying two far-right speakers the opportunity to host an event in one of its venues.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux had been due to speak at the Bruce Mason Centre in August 2018, but the council-controlled Regional Facilities Auckland intervened and stopped the event.

The pair have courted controversy for their extreme views on immigration, feminism and Islam.

The legal action was ultimately dismissed.

The heated environment was indicative of a society that had become more intolerant of different views, University of Otago Associate Prof Marcelle Dawson said.

Protesters marched along Princes St to counter a protest by the Freedom and Rights Coalition...
Protesters marched along Princes St to counter a protest by the Freedom and Rights Coalition recently. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Prof Dawson, who researches social movements and social transformation, said tolerance for robust discussion had shrunk, leading to more extremist responses.

"Death threats aren’t something that are novel to the activist world, but the fact they’re done so readily now is quite interesting and different and I think it signals that kind of shift in the intolerance of different views."

As with so many shifts in our society in recent years, the Covid-19 pandemic had played a part. The pandemic had created heightened anxiety and a sense of urgency about taking action, Prof Dawson said

"It’s sort of like we’ve got into a phase where if somebody else’s view takes hold, I lose something.

But actually there’s scope in social life for different views and different values to co-exist, and I feel like people find that quite hard to accept because they feel they’ve lost something."

A police spokeswoman said police were not "immediately aware" of last Thursday’s incident.

"Police will continue to monitor protest activity that we are aware of to ensure public safety."

— Additional reporting Oscar Francis.