I’ve recently embarked on that obligatory Kiwi rite of passage. Not the yardie – the OE. Having saved up for a hell of a long time, my partner and I managed to score three months off – everything – to travel Europe and Japan. Europe was the original plan; we nabbed the Japan tickets on the cheap.
I always felt I’d be different after I set foot in Europe. As if some secret part of me would unlock and I’d become this new, more connected version of myself. It’s the place I’m from, after all, and, with the aid of books and movies, it’s a place I’d entirely romanticised. So, as I sat on a plane headed for Athens, fat globs of tears dampened my cheeks. It may have been the altitude and the emo in-flight movies.
When we landed, my chest ready to burst with anticipation, the strangest thing happened. I recognised the cars. I recognised the trees, the sky and the traffic. Life’s a bitch that way, isn’t it? The minute you expect magic and transformation, all you notice is the mundane and the similar.
Protest isn’t like that. In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite. There have been times I’ve shown up to rallies, dragged by a dull sense of duty, only to be instantly swept, almost begrudgingly, into the mana of the gathering. Protest is like that. I won’t accept your half-hearted agreement . By its nature, it demands passion of you. It asks you to bear witness to the injustices of the world and it asks you to implore others to bear witness too.
Over the past three months I’ve witnessed the following: An anti-whaling protest in Tokyo, an anti-war protest in Kyoto, a gay rights gathering in Budapest and a massive animal rights march in Berlin. No one was like the other, but they were also, in many ways, the same. They all made my heart beat. They all connected us to their people.
In Tokyo, middle aged ladies held placards bearing love hearts and whales. They marched politely, guided by police. They smiled and waved when you cheered for them, which we did.
In Kyoto, we took anti-nuclear flyers and felt a vague sense patriotism. It’s been 35 years since Prime Minister David Lange barred Nuclear-powered ships from our ports; 32 years since we became an official Nuclear-free zone. We held out hope for our friends in Japan. Anything is possible, we told them with applause.
In Budapest, where gay rights are shaky and politicians are openly homophobic, brave queer folks and their allies discreetly accessorised with the rainbow and trans flag colours. My girlfriend and I quietly added to their numbers. We didn’t understand a word anyone said, but we held hands and we smiled. People smiled back. Language doesn’t matter.
In Berlin, we marvelled as thousands of locals protested factory-farming and meat consumption. We danced to the beat of their drums. We considered going vegetarian – settled on Meatless Mondays.
Travelling (especially when you’re young and, let’s say, not a millionaire) is displacing. The hostels are grungy, the Wi-Fi is patchy, and the smells of the cities can put you off your meal. But anti-fascist protest is always welcoming. Anti-fascist protest is home. When people gather in collected purpose, other superficial differences fall away entirely. Protest knocks through cultural barriers. Protest knocks through language.
Human beings are inherently spiritual.
We ache and we cry, we love and we grieve. We don’t suit a world built for profit. It’s no coincidence, in my mind, that as a late-capitalist society, 260 years post-Industrial Revolution, we’re seeing some of the highest rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide ever recorded. We weren’t built to exist so individualistically and we certainly weren’t built to accept injustice.
Protest is a human right – but it’s also an immense privilege. To gather in collected purpose is one of the most joy-giving, purposeful things you can do. It’s not the point of protest, but it’s the point of being a human. If you see something, say something. It’s the same in every language.