Valerie Morseby Valerie Morse
The Supreme Court recently overturned an activist’s conviction after she burned a New Zealand flag at an Anzac Day service. Here, Valerie Morse describes how she came to feel like “the most hated woman in the country”.
We unfurled our banners and listened intently for the start of a speech by the ex-Secretary of Defence Graham Fortune. When he began, we poured mineral spirits on the two New Zealand flags we had bought, and set them alight. Within seconds, I was face down in the dirt with a police officer on top of me. My friend continued burning his flag as I was handcuffed and escorted to a nearby police car.
I had never been to an Anzac Day dawn service before that day in 2007. As we walked down Lambton Quay, I saw more and more people heading towards the Cenotaph. By the time we arrived, the crowd was huge. I was uneasy because I knew many people would not approve of our protest. I summoned the rage and sadness I felt about the war in preparation for the inevitable backlash of public opinion.
We had spent the previous Sunday painting an enormous banner, which read, “Lest we forget – already forgotten: Afghanistan, East Timor and Solomon Islands”, and discussing our “Troops out now!” campaign. We had debated whether going to the dawn service was a good idea. Some in our group did not agree with the action. Those of us who went ahead did so because of a passionate desire to end New Zealand’s involvement in the “war on terrorism” and to provoke a conversation about the deployment of New Zealand troops on so-called “peacekeeping missions”.
We decided on this action for two complementary reasons. First, our campaign group, Peace Action Wellington, felt burning the flag at the dawn service would provoke a stronger reaction than other forms of protest. Burning the flag is a powerful symbolic act, but on its own it was insufficient to explain our position; thus we had banners and leaflets to give some context to our actions.
It was not enough to say, “We are opposed to war or the state, so let’s burn the flag.” Rather, we were commenting on the way successive governments have used Anzac Day as a justification for current wars, linking and likening current deployments to the glory and sacrifice of past wars. The flags were part of a larger protest.
Our second reason for choosing the dawn service was that it is seen as the most significant Anzac Day event. In past years we had protested at services held later in the day. One year, we erected an “Embassy of Peace and Justice” on the grounds of Parliament and camped there over Anzac weekend, issuing visitors with a “Passport to Peace”. We had also laid a wreath during the official ceremony at 10.00am, with a card that echoed the words of anti-Vietnam war activists who had laid a wreath there in 1973.
We felt, however, that our tacit participation in these activities essentially condoned the glorification of war insofar as Anzac Day had ceased to be solely a commemoration of the dead and had become a forum for the state to justify current wars.
In discussing Anzac Day with other New Zealanders, it is clear the significance has changed over the past 20 years. Now, there is a much larger Government investment in the day. An agenda of “national identity” creation underlies the event, and that identity is one intimately tied to war-making. It must be acknowledged that such an identity serves particular ends: the expansion of the military on one hand, and the dulling of public opposition to funding and deploying the military on the other.
After I was placed in the police car, I sat expectantly waiting for my co-flag-burner to arrive. I assumed he, too, would be arrested, as we were engaged in identical acts. I was wrong.
I was driven to Wellington Central Police Station where I sat for many hours in a holding cell. Rather than being simply released on bail to appear at the next available court date, I was held until the courts opened at 1.00pm that day. I was charged with “offensive behaviour, being burning the New Zealand flag”, and appeared before a District Court judge with another friend who had been arrested for blowing a horn at the protest.
In the following days, the police issued a request to the public for complaints about our protest. I received threats of bodily violence. I was juxtaposed with veterans in the media as a disloyal, despicable person lacking respect for the dead.
My American accent was highlighted to suggest I had no right to comment about New Zealand’s involvement in war. I felt for a time I was the most hated woman in the country.
On the morning of the trial some months later, the judge started by saying, “I don’t think there is much in this flag-burning charge.” Several of those who had attended the ceremony gave evidence of the offence they’d felt. I gave testimony as to the reasons for our protest. The judge weighed those both up, and I was convicted and fined $500. I was incredulous.
Political protest at Anzac Day is nothing new, nor was burning the flag a unique occurrence. During the Vietnam War, a New Zealand flag was burned at Anzac ceremonies in Cathedral Square in Christchurch. Similarly, burning the flag is a standard anti-war action that has been tested through the New Zealand courts. With this in mind, I decided to appeal the case to a higher court.
At the time, I never imagined the case would go all the way to the Supreme Court. Through each of the courts, I hoped justice and common sense would prevail. It was deeply troubling that questioning war at the very time the entire nation was focused on a history of war was seen as a criminal activity. I grew despondent about my prospects of winning the case and I despaired at the recommissioning of the SAS to Afghanistan in 2009.
I was fortunate to have three extremely competent and committed lawyers. During the hearing, one proposed to the Supreme Court that you could be sure it was the content of the message that was offensive, not the manner in which it was communicated, if you replaced the highly symbolic item with one to which no meaning was attached, “a burning tea towel, for example”, he suggested.
The issue was freedom of expression, the right to pick your time, place and means of protest, and the right to express political ideas that challenge people and provoke a re-examination of the Government’s war agenda.
The crown prosecutor argued that because “soldiers had died fighting for that flag”, the burning of it on Anzac Day was highly offensive. To this, one of the Supreme Court judges replied that presumably those people had also died fighting for the freedoms represented by that flag, in particular freedom of speech.
It was then I was pretty sure we were going to win.
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