WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The antigovernment protests that jolted Canada have been quashed. However, 9,000 miles away, in the capital city of another Western democracy, largely unaccustomed for violent tears in its social fabric, an occupation of Parliament has established itself and turned increasingly ominous.
Hundreds of demonstrators opposed to New Zealand’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate are in their third week of encampment in Wellington, erecting tents, illegally parking vehicles and establishing communal kitchens and toilets in a deliberate echo of the Canadian siege.
Initially, the New Zealand occupation was a carnival atmosphere with a popcorn stand, a doughnut truck, and children brought in by their parents. New Zealanders joked that it was the country’s only Omicron-era music festival: Officials blared Barry Manilow and James Blunt to try to drive out the protesters, who responded with some Twisted Sister of their own.
However, the protests have become more violent since the police attempted to expel some protesters. On Monday, protesters threw their feces at police officers. On Tuesday, a driver tried to ram a car into a large group of officers, and three other members of the force required medical attention after protesters sprayed them with what a police statement called a “stinging substance.”
Many demonstrators call Prime Minister Jacinda Aldern, a global symbol for the political left, a dictator. Some threatened journalists and politicians with their execution. Some others have shouted at students who were wearing masks to get to school. Many support conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
Although the protesters are a small minority of New Zealanders they are notable for their division in a country that has been praised for its highly effective response against Covid-19. Experts say the escalating violence and words show the danger that disinformation from America is having on otherwise stable democracies all over the globe.
“There is a tsunami of bile every day,” said Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher at the New Zealand think tank Te Pūnaha Matatini who studies disinformation. It is “a torrent of hate and harm directed towards individuals promoting the vaccine and the prime minister.”
Although rifts were already present in New Zealand society, they were “exacerbated by conspiracism which had its genesis outside the country,” Dr. Hattotuwa said. “Everything which you would associate with QAnon in the United States is here.”
The initial rally was united under the banner against vaccine mandates. This covers workers in certain fields in New Zealand. But they include a wide range of people, including vaccine critics, those who have suffered job losses due to mandates, and far-right conspiracy theorists.
The protests, which lasted weeks and were initiated by truck drivers in response to mandatory vaccines, were stopped on Saturday by tear gas, mass arrests, and other measures. The police in New Zealand have been more cautious, partly because of the early challenges and the still-fresh memories from a brutal crackdown against protesters 40 years ago.
On the protest’s third day, when officers attempted to dislodge some demonstrators, more extreme protesters sidelined the occupation’s organizers and pushed back against the police. After a daylong struggle in which children were placed on the protest’s front line, the police were repelled.
Since then, officers have carefully monitored the protest. Andrew Coster was appointed as the police commissioner in 2020. Coster stressed the importance to maintain public support for the force and expressed concern about the possibility of more confrontational tactics leading to bloody clashes.
Mr. Coster spoke of the 1981 Springbok Tour, where thousands of New Zealanders protested against South Africa’s traveling rugby team. The police violently broke up those protests, including by using batons against protesters on Molesworth Street — a street that anti-mandate protesters now occupy. The episode harmed the police’s reputation for decades.
On Sunday, Mr. Coster spoke out to TVNZ about his reluctance at repeating that experience. “If we look to the low points of policing in our country, we would look to points like the Springbok tour,” he said.
But the police’s reluctance to take stronger action seems to have emboldened the protesters.
Many hundreds more people joined and droves joined. The occupation engulfed Wellington and closed down many businesses. Staff were threatened by demonstrators and forced to show proof of vaccination and required masks. Some protesters made holes in the ground to anchor their tents in anticipation of a long stay. In other cities, new protests arose.
Some protesters are happy to be part of what they consider a global movement. Reuben Michael, a demonstrator who was sitting at the occupation’s eastern edge on Wednesday, noted that “this phenomenon has gone around the world.”
New Zealand protesters have succeeded in forcing a conversation about vaccine mandats. In what many saw as an attempt to encourage protesters to leave Ms. Ardern stated Monday that vaccine mandates would likely end after the Omicron outbreak peak in the next months.
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But the protesters have largely dismissed the prime minister’s comments. One young woman sitting on the steps of a parliamentary war memorial angrily insisted, “She’s told too many lies. It’s too hard to trust her.”
Although the police have not taken a decisive action against the demonstrators yet, officers have taken more active steps in order to contain the occupation.
Police carried large concrete blocks in forklifts as they escorted police officers to the protest site. The police have been trying to force protesters to leave by shrinking the border during early morning operations.
The number of protesters appears diminished. They have left behind a group of protesters that is not interested in de-escalation, raising concerns about the likelihood of violence.
When five male protesters sitting on the lawn of an occupied law school were asked what would happen if the police tried to evict them, one answered, “We’ll hold our line.” A second noted, “There might be bloodshed,” prompting a third to insist, “But it’ll be peaceful.”
The second protester paused, then emphasized, “We’ll stay to the end.”
Source: NY Times