For more than three weeks, hundreds of protesters have disabled the center of New Zealand’s capital city, occupying the area in front of Parliament and issuing increasingly violent threats to politicians and other public figures in an ostensible battle against the country’s vaccine mandates.
On Wednesday, the 23rd Day of the Protest, the police began a brutal crackdown. They arrived at Wellington at 6 AM to take down tents, toilets and other camp infrastructure. They also urged protestors to leave. Eventually, most did — but not without a fight.
Protesters used fire extinguishers and paint-filled projectiles to disperse the crowds. Some hurled cobblestones at officers. Others piled their debris on gas-fueled fires, including one which caused an explosion at a playground close to Parliament.
Protest leaders, against a soundtrack of the national anthem and the 1980s Maori pop song “Poi E,” urged demonstrators to hold the line and called the police “the Gestapo.” Officers, many bearing riot shields, responded with pepper spray and rubber bullets. At least 60 people were detained and three officers were taken into hospital.
These scenes are rare in New Zealand which is known for its relative isolation, serenity, and stability. In this case, though, the police had expected “hostility, resistance and violence,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference. “That is what they and Wellingtonians have experienced for several weeks now.”
She said that the police had managed to keep the situation from getting worse as the protest grew in strength. But growing violence had left officers few alternatives in “trying to bring this occupation to a conclusion.”
The occupation, which was inspired by the recent antigovernment protest by truck drivers in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, was a response to New Zealand’s highly restrictive approach to the pandemic, which allowed the country to go months without a single case of community transmission.
The restrictions appear to have alienated a small group of New Zealanders, many of whom have been left without work after refusing to abide by the country’s sweeping vaccine mandates.
The protest began with peaceful, almost carnivalesque, atmosphere. Demonstrators spread mud and straw on Parliament’s lawn and set up camp.
Over the following weeks, however, the makeup of the crowd changed resulting in more violence and forcing police to intervene. Andrew Coster, the police commissar, stated this at a Wednesday news conference. “The harm being done far outweighs any legitimate protest,” he added.
The protest was not popular from the beginning: A poll that was conducted about a week after it began showed that 61% of respondents opposed the occupation. As Wellington residents faced blocked streets, harassment, violence, and a more ominous protest site, the hostility towards protesters grew.
Like in Canada and other pandemic-related places, protestors in New Zealand against virus restrictions were gradually subsumed by the far right.
Members of Te Punaha Matatini, a New Zealand think tank, warned that the two groups were merging in an alarming way in a working document published late last year. “The most recent Covid-19 outbreak and the vaccine are highly visible, potent symbols used to push various far-right and conservative ideologies,” the authors of the paper wrote.
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“Telegram channels and groups proliferate content which is violent, far-right and related to the conspiracy theory QAnon, signaling a near-frictionless shifting of New Zealanders from vaccine hesitancy, to vaccine resistance and then to content reflective of wider conspiratorial ideologies,” they added.
Wednesday evening, most of the protest site had been cleared by police, prompting some demonstrators who remained to flee to avoid being confronted. Some descended on the city’s nearby central train station, and at least one group headed for camper van parking areas in Porirua, 50 miles west of the capital. A few dozen people remained on streets around Parliament.
Ms. Ardern, speaking at the news conference, praised police officers and said that two reviews would take part to determine if there was more she could have done to prevent occupation. She expressed hope that the day’s events would not change how New Zealanders recalled the pandemic response.
“When we look back on this period in our history, I hope we remember one thing,” Ms. Ardern said. “Thousands more lives were saved in the past two years by your actions as New Zealanders than were on that front lawn of Parliament today.”
Pete McKenzieContributed reporting
Source: NY Times