Sometimes survival can look like keeping your head down. Others it requires jeopardising your own security in support of a bigger cause. Suzie Dawson didn’t set out to be an activist, but her involvement with the Occupy movement at the start of the decade led her to nut out and articulate her political perspective, and to the realisation that if walking your own talk makes you an activist, she fit the descriptor. The path also led her to begin an impressive career as a citizen journalist, highlighting abuses of power on the part of the NZ government that led to their targetting of her through surveillance, intimidation and direct threats on her life.
Suzie left New Zealand in January 2015 to live in exile in Berlin, and currently resides in Moscow, where she is seeking asylum with her young family. She explains to Sarah how this unimaginable scenario became all too real.
You didn’t define yourself as an activist prior to Occupy. How did your involvement with the movement change you?
Not only was I not an activist but I really didn’t understand what it meant to be one, because I never knew anyone who was one. I have a vague early childhood recollection of being taken to a union picket line in the 80s, I remember people with signs and cars honking in support, but I didn’t make the logical association between workers demanding better labour conditions, and broader social movements until Occupy. Seeing the movement kick off online and begin to flourish was a huge shift in perspective for me: I was agape at the realisation that there were other people out there who thought like me – in fact, thousands and thousands of them. Not only did we see the same problems in the world but these people were actually getting off their backsides and uniting to do something about it. From that moment I knew I had to do my part and give it my all. In the early days of the Occupation we truly believed that we were creating a new world, that it was happening – that finally no one would need to be homeless, no one would need to be hungry, that we could all care for each other. That together, out of generosity of spirit and sheer determination, we could nurture, educate and sustain everyone.
I remember feeling confusion when people first started describing me as an activist, because as far as I was concerned I was just a person who tried to help others and make things better. I didn’t know that primarily that’s what an activist is. There was never any conscious decision on my part to become one. The movement taught me that people do care, people inherently wish to create change, but that when people take responsibility and act to better the planet, that the mechanisms of the state come down on their heads, try to smash their organisations to pieces and punish them for their civic-mindedness. That was a huge wake-up call. The movement also taught me that not only are media biased, which I had known, but that media can completely blackout significant events, ultimately erasing parts of our social history. The serious implications of that really hit home for me. Witnessing the violence of the state cemented my resolve to work for social progress but the corruption of the media led me to speak truth and speak it loud. So just as accidentally as I became an activist, by necessity I became a journalist.
“Witnessing the violence of the state cemented my resolve to work for social progress but the corruption of the media led me to speak truth and speak it loud.”
You talk about the privatisation of surveillance and spying encouraging a focus on profit, which encourages a focus on company growth. Why is this a problem when it comes to government surveillance activity?
I think whenever the government institutes a profit model for what was traditionally a social or public service, the motivating factors for the function of the entity become money-oriented rather than about the quality of service being provided, or the needs of the public they are supposed to be serving. With surveillance this is especially pronounced. The businesses involved need more targets to make more profit, more spying to generate growth. This is completely antithetical to the justifications of why they are supposed to be spying in the first place. It becomes spying for the sake of making more money out of spying, surveillance for the sake of making more money out of surveillance.
When you walk down a central Auckland side street and see four surveillance cameras placed three metres apart on a single wall, you know there is a problem. When you discover that the targets of state spying are not terrorists, murderers, rapists, or gang members, but activists, journalists, scientists and doctors you know there is a really, really big problem. The more this industry is privatised the less accountable it becomes. Slowly the jobs of the police, military, are being turned over to private industry. This is a worldwide phenomenon and it is really dangerous. We saw this with the private security companies and private investigators wielded against Occupiers. The end result is more money leeching out of the public purse with less oversight and less transparency. The security company ‘Provision’ at Occupy Auckland announced themselves as ‘Warranted Officers of the Council’. So we have unelected private companies wielding civic powers. This has proved to be a recipe for disaster.
Do you think there’s a place for government surveillance? Where’s the line?
I think if the surveillance apparatus that has been constructed by the government were used to tackle serious crime then every single member of the Roastbusters would be in prison. Our rape and sexual assault epidemic would be over in a calendar month. Corporate tax fraud, collusion and evasion would be ended. But instead of referring people like the Roastbusters to the NSA to have PRISM used on, they referred activists, journalists and other politically expedient targets instead. Which is evidence that the spy apparatus has not been constructed, and is not being utilised, to act in the public interest. It is being used to act for political interests, to maintain the status quo. I also do not believe that there are any moral grounds for New Zealand spy agencies to be passing the data of their own citizens to a foreign power, no matter what legislation they rammed through to retroactively legalise it when they got caught.
“We have unelected private companies wielding civic powers. This has proved to be a recipe for disaster.”
Supplying ANY foreign nation with private information of your own citizens is treason by definition – let alone accepting money from a foreign nation to do so. New Zealand’s government has completely betrayed its mandate and almost every democratic principle. It no longer acts for or by the will of the people. The GCSB movement had widespread, bi-partisan support. Yet the government acted to subvert it, like every other movement, and passed the legislation regardless. Opposition to the TPPA was also the stance of the vast majority of the country – not only did the government also act to subvert that movement but they had the audacity to declare it a ‘threat to national security’ in early 2016, while passing the associated legislation regardless. By August 2016 they were trying to remove the definition of ‘threat to national security’ entirely, which suggests that there was no legal grounds for ever deeming a peaceful, democratic movement a threat in the first place.
The government has a terrible and longstanding habit of committing illegal acts, realising they are going to get caught, presenting legislation to legalise their illegal acts, acting like it is a new or overdue idea or initiative, then shoving it through Parliament under urgency regardless of how the citizenry feel about it. These are the people entrusted with our vast modern surveillance apparatus. Are we safer for it? No. Nor are we safer for allowing US agencies to operate on New Zealand soil. Such abuses of power, law and misuse of public infrastructure is precisely why I immediately stood up in support of Kim Dotcom* when we realised there was likely a connection between the FBI presence in New Zealand at the time of the mansion raid and the “police” wearing fake badges – perfect replicas of real ones – at the Occupy Auckland eviction three days later, while the FBI was still in the city.
Given all we now know about FBI coordination of the evictions of Occupy, it is impossible to believe the official ‘actions of rogue police officers’ story that the government spun after a year-long and highly dubious investigation. This is one of the reasons that in the wake of the revelations of the illegal spying against Dotcom, we began campaigning against the actions of the GCSB. When the FBI showed up in New Zealand we should have done what Iceland did when the FBI went after WikiLeaks there – sent them packing. Instead our government allowed itself and its agencies to be used and directed in the interests of a foreign power, compromising itself at all levels in its fever to be seen as a dutiful servant. In doing so it revealed itself as a vassal state. Five years on, these blights on our international reputation are worsened by the continuing inability of our government to admit its foolishness and provide redress. It is a travesty.
You describe yourself as a citizen journalist. How do you define citizen journalism, and could you talk a little about how you believe the lines are blurring between the ‘formal’ media, and citizen journalism in a digital, social media world? Why is citizen journalism valid and important?
A citizen journalist is usually someone with a drive to speak the truth, who doesn’t have an editor to reassign them or skew their work to prevent them speaking politically dangerous facts that the public are not otherwise allowed to become aware of. Citizen journalists usually don’t have a personal economic interest in subverting their own efficacy in pursuit of career opportunities or social status – quite the opposite. They often have to sacrifice both economic security and personal reputation in order to serve the greater good. Essentially they are someone who does what the media is supposed to do, but without the money, the access, the protections of organisational backing, the prestige or the perks.
Some mainstream media like to look down their noses at citizen journalists but simultaneously they are bewildered by the massive impact that citizen media are having and at the erosion of the audiences of traditional corporate media platforms, as more and more members of the public become aware that the truth really is out there, if they look for it. I think a number of members of the media also experience some level of envy towards citizen journalists, as they see them doing what they themselves wish deep down that they had the guts to do. But the personal price of being a citizen journalist is so high that few make the transition, although there are exceptions. They certainly inevitably emulate our work, while trying to pretend we don’t exist. The NZ Herald printed a photograph of mine without credit and ignored requests for an apology. Other print outlets regurgitate our headlines or subject matter, but refuse to source us.
“Some mainstream media like to look down their noses at citizen journalists but simultaneously they are bewildered by the massive impact that citizen media are having.”
The enmity comes from our willingness to call them out but also because they see us achieving results that they couldn’t even dream of and gaining international reach that is usually beyond them. Citizen journalists rule social media. Mainstream journalists in New Zealand have a tiny fraction of our engagement and reach. Just as one of many examples, we had a $0 budget for starting the #TPPANoWay tag, and through concerted effort and coordination were able to trend it at #2 worldwide. That is priceless exposure that even marketing companies with major budgets can’t match. A core focus of our media team in New Zealand was to teach every member of every movement to participate in creating their own media and training them in the tools to spread it. We would literally teach people to install Twitter on their phones then use our accounts and network to amplify their content. Live-streams, too, have become pervasive. Where there was once one live-streamer per event five years ago, there was then two, then four, then eight. The techniques have spread like wildfire and it is a beautiful thing. It is hope. Where government, politicians and corporate interests have a chokehold on information broadcast by traditional channels, ordinary citizens have stepped in and become the media.
What has the asylum application process involved, and where are things at with it for you?
The process is a long and involved one that I entered into after a huge amount of legal consultation as more facts regarding the seriousness of my case and the worsening political situation in New Zealand were coming to light. In 2017 it is highly likely that we will see more revelations as to precisely how severely I was targetted, at what level and how far-reaching it was. In time this will make it even more obvious why I had to make the hard decisions that I have had to. Contrary to what Western powers would have people believe, Russia does not simply hand over asylum on a platter to anyone who opposes the West – far from it. Everything is by the book, which means long hours in waiting rooms, many documents to file, and legal processes that must be strictly followed, with no guarantee of success. At this time I have no idea what the outcome will be but I am extremely grateful for the respite that has come from no longer suffering constant daily persecution from the international agencies that were relentless in their punishment of me for my journalism, activism and political beliefs.
Where are you currently located, and how are you feeling?
I am residing in Moscow. After you are seriously targetted for a prolonged period as I was, and you finally get to relative safety, it takes some months for it to sink in and to begin to relax, to begin to imagine a future where you aren’t constantly under duress. I feel very privileged to be living free from physical harassment, interference, intrusion, assault and sabotage and have learnt to live with the uncertainty of my situation. Moscow itself is beautiful and so are the people. It is far removed from what the world is told about it, the contrast is remarkable. I do not say this to curry favour – the politic thing would be for me to refrain from making positive statements lest assumptions be made that I am doing so out of self-interest. But I am a truth-teller and it is time people knew that the majority of what we are taught about Russia by our governments is propaganda.
My primary political interests and my loyalty remain with New Zealand. In 2011 during Occupy, and in 2014 during the last election cycle, we thought homelessness was a major problem, now look at it. We thought child poverty was epidemic, now look at it. We thought we had major environmental issues, now look at it. I am devastated by how swiftly and how far New Zealand has fallen and the fact that it can no longer hide the extent to which it persecutes those who speak truth about it is just one more stick on the donkey’s back. Our international reputation is hanging by a thread, just like our much-touted “rockstar economy”, the rhetoric about which is not bloated enough to hide the National government’s tripling of our international debt. Although I am now living in one of the few countries in which I have some chance of being protected from the tyranny of the Orwellian, international military-industrial complex of the US Empire to which our government is beholden, my thoughts, my memories and my aspirations for the restoration of the political sovereignty of New Zealand, are at home.
Suzie Dawson is a New Zealand-born activist and citizen journalist. Read and support her work, and find out more about her application for asylum in Russia at helpsuzi3d.tumblr.com and suzi3d.com. Follow her on Twitter as @endarken and @Suzi3D.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.
*Sarah’s father is a defence lawyer on the ongoing Kim Dotcom extradition case, but prior to this interview there was no link between her and Suzie.