We are primed to see – A reflection on the Pride #noprideinprisons

Last Saturday a Māori trans woman had her arm broken by security whilst protesting the inclusion of Corrections and the Police at the Pride Parade ((Full disclosure: the protestor is a friend. Her name is not mentioned throughout for privacy reasons.)). The purpose of the protest was to point out that the inclusion of Police and Corrections in the Pride Parade was a travesty, given the poor treatment of trans people in our justice system. The attack on the protestor by security, and then police (who delayed her from getting medical treatment) did not generate the kind of outrage it should have done, because people decided that they were going to quibble over some of the fine details and also claim that the protest was “violent” and thus worthy of condemnation.

This surprised me. I was not at the parade, having decided to boycott it because of the inclusion of Police and Corrections (the Pride Parade, in its current state, does not represent Queer culture to me). Rather, I was at the house of a collective, some of which had gone to protest the parade and others of whom had stayed home to misanthropically play Cards Against Humanity. Like many people in the age of the smartphone, we were glued to Twitter and watched the event unfold in real time (which basically puts the lie to Steven Oates claim that the protestors have been lying about the timeline of what happened).

Reactions to the protest have been mixed, to say the very least. I, like many other radicalised people, watched the video of the protest and then the videos of the injured protestor being maltreated by both the police and the head of GABA, with disgust. The videos showed to us a perfectly normal protest and a response by security, police and a member of the queer community which was excessive and very likely racist and transphobic. Others, however, seemed to watch the same videos but saw what they took to be a violent protest, one which needed to be contained and one were the response was certainly excessive, but likely accidental.

Because of this difference in opinion there is a fracture between people who you would normally think would support one another, one which, I have to say, is getting worse rather than better. It’s also perfectly explicable; as psychologists will attest, we are primed to see things in specific ways, and unless you have had your worldview challenged in significant and prolonged ways, it can be hard to shake off your social conditioning and see things differently. Let me explain.

Aotearoa (New Zealand) is a colonised space in which the indigenous people, the Māori, are regularly maltreated. This is not in dispute; the stats are rather clear that Māori are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be sent to jail, more likely to die at an earlier age, et cetera et cetera. Unless you think Māori are just more criminal and have peculiarly weak constitutions, the only real explanation of their lot in life is that the system – our society – is geared against them on a structural level. Indeed, it is so structural that there needs be very little overt racism and discrimination against Māori (although there also tends to be an awful lot of it anyway); all that is required is that non-Māori, Pākehā people are treated better and that the minority group, Māori, are treated with some suspicion. Because Māori are a minority, and there is still a certain segregation in our society, Pākehā often don’t see actual cases of discrimination and hardly hear about it from their Māori friends. When such cases of discrimination are brought up, they are often downplayed as isolated incidents or examples of “bad eggs” in the system.

The response by Pākehā here is predicated to a large extent on Pākehā being primed to see society in a particular way. Speaking as a member of that community, we are brought up to believe in a equal, civil society, one in which people are treated fairly and one in which we do not fear the local constabulary. However, this is not the experience of most Māori, a position I have come to appreciate having spent time/being radicalised by Māori, who will point out that even cursory dealings with the police carry with them the abject fear of being abused or maltreated. Many Māori, for good reason, are brought up to distrust police and other services because of the long-standing structural discrimination displayed by these organisations towards Māori. Māori are primed to see modern Aotearoa (New Zealand) in a particular way.

Being primed to see things in a particular way is not quite the same thing as saying “We see what we want to see”, although, of course, they are related. We see what we want to see because we have been primed to want to see it that way. If you are Pākehā, then organisations like the Police are of no real threat to you. As such, you are primed to see them as non-threatening and you do not live in fear of them. You are also likely to have been primed to see protesting as a special kind of sport, one where respect, decency and politeness are the hallmark of proper protesting.

Which is where we get back to the Pride. Here’s the video of the event in question:

If you have been primed to see protests in a particular way, you may well watch that video and be shocked by the violence of the protestors. Or you might go “That’s not a violent protest; what are people on about?” I, for one, see it with the latter framing. Now, this is likely because I know the injured protestor (and think she is as threatening as a fly (but not a fruit fly)) but also because as someone invested in combatting the structural inequalities baked into our society, I realise some aggression in protest is necessary. That does not mean the protest is violent, just that the protest is discomforting, which it should be given the message.

Trying to persuade people to change their mind about the framing of an event, when that framing is predicated on how your background and assumptions makes you interpret evidence in particular ways, is difficult. It is also unnecessary, because there is a much simpler argument to be had about why the reaction to the protest was wrong, which is based entirely around ethical obligations. It just requires that people in positions of power realise what they are doing, which ends up being a problem if you are not particularly reflective about how you are likely primed to see things in particular ways.

Was it right for the Pride Parade organisers to invite Corrections and Police to march in the parade, especially in uniform? The answer is “No.” The Pride Parade presents itself as representing the queer community; the invitation for Police and Corrections as organisations to march in the parade spits in the face of queer people of colour and trans people in general, who are still routinely targeted by these organisations. If the Pride Parade is meant to represent the queer community but makes the space unsafe for sections of that community which are still suffering massive marginalisation and oppression from wider society, then not only is the Pride Parade disingenuous but it also files in the face of its own history, a history founded on challenging society.

So, no one is saying that, for example, individual queers who happen to be police officers should be prevented from taking part. All that is being argued here is that the organisations should not be welcomed to the Pride when said organisations still engage in structural discrimination. It is not enough to say “They are changing”. Rather, what needs to be said is that “They have changed” and as far as anyone can tell, that has not happened yet. The fact a Māori trans woman was brutalised first by security and then maltreated by the police is evidence of that. If you want to dispute that fact, just think about your pre-conceptions for a minute. If doing so makes you uncomfortable, then good. That’s the avenue to radicalisation and the realisation that for part of our population, the world really is a very scary place indeed.