“Christchurch was our worst nightmare realized,” Anu Kaloti said.
Kaloti is a veteran activist and organizer in New Zealand. She immigrated to New Zealand from the UK in 2003, but her family is originally from the Indian subcontinent. Though she didn’t feel the same intense racism in her new home as in her old one, she told Splinter that she could still see its presence in the treatment of migrant workers and immigrants.
In 2018, Kaloti founded a radical antifascist organization called Love Aotearoa Hate Racism (Aotearoa is the indigenous Māori people’s name for New Zealand) to fight against the prejudice she saw rearing its head in her country. The organization mounted a protest when Canadian white nationalists Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern came to speak in New Zealand, and successfully got the event canceled. But generally, antifascist activism was on the fringes of the country’s political scene.
That all changed in March, when a 28-year-old Australian man shot and killed 51 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Suddenly, hundreds of people were turning up at antifascist meetings, instead of a few dozen, and large marches targeting white supremacy were held in major cities. Activists, grappling with their own grief over the attack, were thrilled by the momentum, but weren’t sure of the best way to harness it. Months later, veterans of the antifascist movement are still trying to figure out how to direct this swell of energy without alienating mainstream Kiwis who aren’t familiar with their style of direct action.
To make things more difficult, the Christchurch attack wasn’t the result of a single, local hate group. Instead, it was born of a decentralized online white supremacist movement in which an increasing number of people are self-radicalized. The shooter wasn’t even from New Zealand.
Activists have been left asking: how do you tackle a global community of hate from a small country at the bottom of the world?
It’s not just the rest of the globe which was shocked by the fact that a far-right massacre could happen in New Zealand; for many within the country, both the nature of the shooter’s beliefs, and the style of the attack he carried out, were completely unexpected.
This is perhaps because, despite increasing immigration, New Zealand has largely avoided the mass far-right populism that has infected so many liberal democracies around the world in recent years. A 2017 study, for instance, found that Kiwis had the most positive feelings about immigration of all 25 countries surveyed.
“[Anti-immigrant populism] hasn’t had the same resonance in New Zealand [as elsewhere],” Prof. Paul Spoonley, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University in Auckland, who has spent decades studying the far-right in New Zealand, told Splinter. “Even when you get anti-immigrant politics, it’s a very light version of what you would get elsewhere.”
But even New Zealand is not invulnerable. There has been a relatively small, but persistent, and growing, threat from the far right. People in the antifascist movement say that they—along with immigrants and people of color who find themselves in the crosshairs of the far right—have been warning about the threat and getting almost nowhere.
“I don’t think anyone expected an American-style mass shooting in New Zealand, ever,” Justine Sachs, the outreach coordinator at the socialist organization Organize Aotearoa and part of the small New Zealand Jewish community, told Splinter. “But on the other hand, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised that the Muslim community was a target, I wasn’t surprised that it was in Christchurch, and I wasn’t surprised that it was a white supremacist terror attack.”
While they’ve never gone as mainstream as in other countries, fascist and white supremacist groups have maintained a foothold in New Zealand for half a century, largely in opposition to indigenous rights movements.
“Through the ‘70s and ’80s, New Zealand went through an extensive debate about biculturalism,” Spoonley said. “[The debate] hinged upon Māori sovereignty. You could be both a New Zealand citizen and Māori, and both had citizenship rights. It prompted those who were anxious or hostile to that to politically mount opposition.”
Most of this opposition came from groups of skinhead neo-Nazis who took up residency in Christchurch, a traditionally white, working class town with strong English cultural roots. The New Zealand branch of the National Front, a white supremacist group originally founded in the UK, was first organized in 1977. It was still active in 2004, when it staged a protest in the capital city, Wellington. That protest was met with resistance from an antifascist group called MultiCultural Aotearoa.
“[The National Front] managed to get about 40 or 50 people; we had about 1,000 people,” Barrie, an antifascist organizer involved in the protest who asked to be referred to only by his first name, told Splinter. “It basically turned into a running battle. We hounded them all over Wellington. They were literally chased out of town. It was quite a success, really.”
In 2017, the National Front reared its head again, this time with new leadership, and attempted another rally outside Parliament in Wellington. (The rally was again shut down by counter-protesters.) But on the whole, National Front-style, overt skinhead-type activism has been on the decline in New Zealand in recent years.
However, those groups have been replaced by newer ones like the Dominion Movement, which have modeled themselves after North American “identitarians” like Richard Spencer, cloaking their violent white supremacy in language about identity and claims that ethnic cleansing can be done peacefully. These groups have tried to appeal to normal people, rather than to those who have already been radicalized.
“[They were] wearing three-piece suits, toning down some of the language,” Barrie said of the Dominion Movement. “They would have pictures of themselves picking up rubbish. They were very articulate, well-organized, and growing in Wellington. They were an upcoming threat.”
But with open white supremacy largely dormant in New Zealand, activists like Barrie had been spending most of their time online, researching growing hate groups and organizing responses to events like Molyneux and Southern’s visit.
“The key part of antifascism is ‘anti.’ If the other side is quiet, then you don’t have a lot to do,” Barrie said.
And then, on March 15, everything changed.
The first few days after the attacks were dominated by peaceful vigils with limited political rhetoric. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised around the world for her quick and empathetic response. She visited the country’s Muslim communities, donned a hijab, and emphasized honoring the victims and denying the shooter fame.
“I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we, in New Zealand, will give nothing–not even his name,” Ardern said in a statement days after the attack.
Though activists claim that New Zealand’s intelligence agencies were not tracking far-right extremism before the attacks, a New Zealand Security Intelligence Service spokesperson says they’ve been following the threat for years.
“The NZSIS is concerned by all forms of violent extremism. Over the years, the agency has received tips from the public concerning right wing extremism and each has been taken seriously,” the spokesperson told Splinter. “In light of global trends, the NZSIS increased its focus on right-wing extremism over the last year in an effort to obtain a better picture of the threat posed to New Zealand by far right extremist groups.”
Ardern has also assured the public that security agencies are tracking white supremacy.
“Our agencies here in New Zealand have stepped up the work that was being done in that area but again that did not result in this individual being on any kind of watch list,” she said in March, according to the website Newshub.
However, researchers like Patrick Gower say the government hasn’t done enough. In May, he tracked 200 people with extremist views in New Zealand to get a sense of the scope of the problem.
“The law has not kept up with this. This country has missed warnings, and we’re acting too slow,” Gower told Newshub.
One of the extremists Gower tracked, Phillip Arps, has now been sentenced to 21 months in prison for sharing the Christchurch gunman’s video of the attack. But Gower told Newshub that authorities should have been aware of him before. In 2016, Arps put up a video of himself delivering a severed pig’s head to the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. In the video, he talks about wanting to “cull” Muslims in New Zealand. He got off with an $800 fine.
In the wake of the attacks, activists set about providing venues for expressions of grief and solidarity.
“We recognized that there was a big need within the community to come together to grieve and to stand in solidarity with Muslim people,” Laura O’Connell Rapira, the director of the activist network ActionStation, which helped organize the largest vigil in Wellington in response to the attack, told Splinter. Their vigil drew 12,000 in a city of only 250,000, and was able to raise $26,000 (about $17,000 USD) to help family members of the victims fly to New Zealand for funerals.
But as the days went by, and the country mourned, the tone shifted. Kaloti recalled predicting, “There’s going to come a time when people are going to be vigiled out.” And sure enough, when an Auckland group called Migrants Against Racism and Xenophobia (MARX) organized their own vigil a week later (with ActionStation’s help), differences between the groups’ approaches quickly became apparent.
“[MARX] had a giant banner at the back of their vigil that said, like, ‘Destroy White Supremacy’ and ‘Destroy Islamophobia,’” O’Connell Rapira said. “They took a very protest-oriented way of framing their event, whereas ours was sort of like, ‘Stand together for love.’ [It’s] kind of the usual thing that plays out among progressives and radical left activists.
“Like us, they had only speakers of color, but they also had Māori speakers as well as migrants and Muslim speakers,” she added. “That connection between colonial white supremacy and white supremacy today was made much more strongly at their event. It caused a walk-out of some people, because they felt so uncomfortable with the discourse presented to them.”
“Obviously not everyone is comfortable going to political rallies and what have you,” Kaloti said. But she emphasized that the community felt something needed to be done to show that racism and hatred wouldn’t be tolerated in their communities.
Two days later, Love Aotearoa Hate Racism organized a large protest against racism in Auckland, attended by around 5,000 people. That march was criticized by one Māori attendee, who wrote in an op-ed that a speaker had made reference to conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic undertones. (The group denounced the speaker’s comments in a subsequent statement.)
Activists began to worry they would lose the groundswell of energy that emerged after the attacks.
“[The LAHR march] would have been the first time that more mainstream liberals or progressives people who don’t really think about racism had ever turned up to an event,” O’Connell Rapira said. “Then they hear [conspiracy theories], and I worry that it means that they won’t come back in the future because that was their experience with anti-racism protests.”
Soon after the attacks, some far-right groups — including the Dominion Movement — announced they were disbanding voluntarily due to the pressure put on them by a government newly invested in investigating white supremacy. At face value, this looks like a victory for antifascists, but there’s also the possibility that these groups going underground will make it more difficult to track their members and actions.
The most worrying lesson from the Christchurch attacks, however, is that devastating white supremacist violence can occur without the involvement of any sort of organized far-right group. The Christchurch shooter—who was active in online communities like 4chan, streamed his shooting on Facebook, and posted a long, meme-filled manifesto—is living proof of the threat posed by individuals who self-radicalize and decide to enact violence without ever meeting up with a group of extremists in real life. Traditional tactics like no-platforming and showing up to protest are ineffective against such people, and antifascists around the world are wondering exactly what tactics are effective against this new threat.
In light of this trend toward self-radicalization, along with the sheer volume of hatred, disinformation and conspiratorial thinking on the internet — many online extremism researchers have grown pessimistic about their ability to combat rising extremism and hate speech online, according to a recent article in Wired. The increasing popularity of the kind of irony-damaged white supremacy espoused by the Christchurch shooter makes things even more complicated.
The same infuriating Catch-22 is true for the media: the more journalists cover the far-right and their ideas, the more they risk elevating and spreading them. At the same time, without public discussion and understanding of these threats, there’s no way to organize resistance.
“You can’t tackle something if you don’t know what it is,” Barrie told Splinter. “At the same time, we don’t want to give a platform for fascists to distribute their ideology. It’s quite paradoxical.”
In response to these dizzyingly complex issues, O’Connell Rapira’s organization, ActionStation, has tried some interesting methods to counteract online radicalization on a local, interpersonal level.
“We run a project called Tauiwi Tautoko, which means ‘non-Māori supporting Māori.’ It’s a volunteer program where non-Māori volunteers are trained in the skills of evidence-based listening and messaging techniques,” she said. “Then they go into online spaces to gently counter and challenge racism directed towards Māori on forums such as Facebook. We train them to do that at a full-day training; then they are asked to do that work for one [to] two hours per week over eight weeks.” [UPDATE, 7:25 p.m. ET: O’Connell Rapira reached out after the publication of this piece to clarify that the entire Tauiwi Tautoko program lasts ten weeks.]
But many antifascists believe that tackling extremism is best done in person, by countering the vestiges of visible far-right activism that remain in New Zealand.
“If we want this to not happen again we have to build a strong antifascist civic culture,” Sachs said. “If there’s a known white supremacist bar in Christchurch, there shouldn’t be a day that someone isn’t out there making it known that these people are not welcome. If a skinhead walks into a restaurant, he [should] get chased out.”
Sachs says she’s not directly involved in efforts to confront fascists in Christchurch, but that there is a countrywide effort from antifascists to “name and shame” known white supremacists, which she called a “powerful tool.”
Others suggest political solutions.
“We need to be working together and uniting against the evil economic system called capitalism, which divides us and is the cause of the refugees and migrants displaced from their home countries,” Kaloti said. “If we grow large in number and gather [enough] momentum, it will become increasingly difficult for whoever the governing party is to ignore the voice of civil society of New Zealand.”
“So that’s the plan we are working on: getting the ordinary working class people to join us,” she added. “Because that’s where the power lies, with the people.”
Despite misgivings from some in the antifascist community about how to harness this newfound energy, activists agree the new interest from the public isn’t going away.
In June, a conference was held in Auckland to discuss the culture of racism in New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand’s Islamic Women’s Council also launched a new organization to combat discrimination. Another group of Muslim women started a website where Islamophobic abuse can be reported.
“I don’t think interest has waned,” Sachs told Splinter. “It was such a traumatic event we are still feeling the aftershocks. I don’t think the left in New Zealand will ever really be the same again. There is a sense of urgency and seriousness that was not there before.”