At 11:00am, Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (a.k.a “Posie Parker”) a small (just 155 centimetres tall) bottle-blond mother of four from the United Kingdom, would have stood behind the microphone set up in the Albert Park band rotunda and delivered a speech.
Keen-Minshull would have been followed by a line-up of New Zealand speakers (most of them biological women and feminists) concerned about the linguistic erasure of their sex from official discourse (as in the expression “pregnant persons”) and alarmed at the efforts of transgender women and their supporters to silence the public expression of their concerns.
At a distance of about 50 metres, a much larger crowd of transgender persons and their supporters, safely corralled behind sturdy barriers, and a cordon of police officers, would have kept up a noisy barrage of objections to the content of the speakers’ speeches. Above their heads, banners and placards proclaiming their support for the rights of transgender New Zealanders would have been clearly visible to the “Let Women Speak” organisers in the rotunda.
The news media would have been there in force to record the confrontation for posterity. When the meeting came to an end, roughly 90 minutes later, and the crowds began to disperse, journalists would have been seen interviewing participants from both sides of the barriers for their media employers.
Spokespersons for the Transgender community would have set forth their objections to Keen-Minshull’s claims, drawing the journalists’ attention to the lack of evidence for any widespread abuse of women and girls by transgender women in toilets, changing-rooms, women’s refuges or prisons, and pointing out how extremely hurtful such suggestions are to the members of one of society’s most fragile and vulnerable communities. The journalists’ professional commitment to fair and balanced reporting would have ensured that the views of both groups were presented to the public.
By 2:00pm, Albert Park would again have become the preserve of Aucklanders enjoying a sunny autumn afternoon.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED on the morning of Saturday, 25 March 2023, bore very little resemblance to the civilised political ideal described above.
As Keen-Minshull stepped forward to speak she was physically assaulted by a person pretending to be a supporter. This attack caused the counter-protesters, estimated at more than 2,000, to surge forward, thrusting aside the flimsy barriers erected to separate them from the much smaller crowd which had gathered to hear the speakers. They were able to do this because there was no police cordon to enforce that separation. Within seconds, the counter-protesters were pressing in on Keen-Minshull’s audience, screaming abuse, hurling projectiles, and lashing out with fists and placards.
Fearing for the safety of Keen-Minshull and her audience, one observer implored a nearby police officer, who was looking on impassively, to intervene. He refused, allegedly declaring that Keen-Minshull: ‘is in a public space. If she feels unsafe she needs to leave’.
At this point, Keen-Minshull’s only protecters were a handful of burly security guards who surrounded their client and began forcing a path through what was now a howling mob. At least one video recording shows the diminutive Keen-Minshull, a terrified rag-doll, eyes dulled by the effects of shock, being heaved past individuals with faces contorted by fury and hate.
Only when the police present realised that if they did not place Keen-Minshull under their protection, then her bodyguards would be forced to exit the melee by driving through it in their own vehicle – with all the attendant risks to the counter-protesters’ health and safety such a manoeuvre would entail. Keen-Minshull was, accordingly, bundled into a police car and driven from the scene.
Not all the scheduled speakers were so lucky. This is how Ani O’Brien, from the group Stand Up For Women, described her experience:
No sooner had Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull arrived at the Rotunda, a protestor (who had managed to get past the barrier) ran at her and threw a red substance all over her and a security guard. As she attempted to clean up, the protestors pushed over, crushed, and dismantled the barriers and swarmed around her.
At this point, I was caught in the angry crowd. I had whistles blown in my face, abuse screamed at me, and I was fearful for my own safety. This was nothing compared to what Kellie-Jay endured. She was trapped and surrounded by a mob screaming abuse and trying to get past her security guards.
Chris, there were no police in sight. Despite widely publicised threats of violence, the police were nowhere near the protest frontlines to prevent the event from devolving into chaos as it did. I had to call the police from the middle of the screaming crowd! And even then they weren’t particularly concerned that a woman was trapped in the midst of a mob determined to get to her.
Keen-Minshull’s rally was over before it had even begun – victim of the Thug’s Veto. Her right to free expression had been illegally and violently curtailed. Left in possession of the park, the elated counter-protesters took to Twitter to celebrate their historic victory over bigotry and hate.
WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE of the events of Saturday, 25 March 2023? The most urgent questions are those that will, over the coming days, be levelled at the Police. Who was in command? What intelligence did they have regarding Keen-Minshull and her increasingly vocal enemies? Why, in the face of credible threats to her person, was police protection denied to Keen-Minshull and her followers? Why, as the situation spiralled out of control, did the police officers present not intervene?
Predictably – and entirely appropriately – the Free Speech Union, has raised these issues in a letter to the new Police Minister, Ginny Andersen:
We call on you, and the Police Commissioner, to acknowledge the lack of action to defend the basic speech rights of those who turned up to the ‘Let Women Speak’ rally, and reassert that those who express unpopular or controversial views in public are entirely in their right, and deserve to be protected from threats, intimidation, and violence.
There will be considerable public scepticism, however, concerning the willingness of the Labour Government, and Party, to defend New Zealanders’ freedom of speech and assembly. There will be scepticism, also, that the Minister and her colleagues are any longer capable of perceiving the ethical issues which Saturday’s ugly demonstration laid bare.
All through the preceding week, Labour Ministers, Members of Parliament, and activist party members were telling those seeking to silence Keen-Minshull that, as far as Labour was concerned, they were doing the Lord’s work. In this they were echoed, even more vehemently, by the Greens. When the governing parties of the day publicly back a political movement, its followers may be forgiven for believing they have been given the green-light for coercion. The parliamentary Left did not balk at describing Keen-Minshull’s views as “abhorrent” and “incorrect”. Not quite in the same league as King Henry II’s “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest!” – but close.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this incident is the crucial role played by the mainstream news media in creating the preconditions for the violent suppression of free speech which ensued. Throughout the preceding week, journalists had denigrated Keen-Minshull – who describes herself as an “advocate for women” – as “an anti-trans activist” – finding her guilty, by association, of endorsing far-right, even Neo-Nazi, groups. That she, and people who shared her concerns, had a case to make was simply not acknowledged journalistically. In a synergy worthy of Putin’s Russia, the views of the Government, and the views of the mainstream media, had become interchangeable.
Certainly, the state media appeared incapable of perceiving the role it had played in the events of Saturday, 25 March. Television New Zealand’s Jack Tame even offered the violence unleashed by Keen-Minshull’s opponents as an ex-post-facto justification for denying her entry to New Zealand. In other words, allowing those threatening to exercise the Thug’s Veto to determine who should be allowed to speak in New Zealand, and who should not. Nothing could better illustrate the yawning generational gulf into which journalistic ethics has disappeared.
Over the next six months, the New Zealand electorate will discover just how effectively the parties of the Right are able to exploit the Labour-Green failure to uphold the Bill of Rights Act and the democratic polity it underpins. Chris Hipkins may soon regret that he did not step in immediately to set the political tone on Keen-Minshull. Because, whatever the reasons that set New Zealanders against one another so aggressively on Saturday, 25 March 2023, they had absolutely nothing to do with bread and butter.
Chris Trotter is a political commentator who blogs at bowalleyroad.blogspot.co.nz.