Yesterday Aotearoa saw a level of violence between protesters and police we haven’t seen for forty years. That was in 1981 during the South African Springbok rugby tour of this nation. The government of the day refused to ban the tour on the grounds that governments should not interfere in sporting events. Also many at that time had convinced themselves that by continuing sporting contacts with South Africa, that nation would see how a multicultural society can function and so abandon Apartheid. My father was of this opinion and I admit as an idealistic teen in the 1960s I was hopeful that by maintaining sporting and cultural links with South Africa, they would learn from our example. By the mid 1970s I had come to the conclusion that Apartheid ideology had so closed the minds of the South African authorities that reason, persuasion and showing by example would not work.
Riot squads were created for the specific purpose of ensuring the rugby tour went ahead. They were confronted by thousands of anti Apartheid protesters who were determined to prevent matches from being played. There was violence on both sides but the public perceived the police as being brutal and the worst offenders. It shook the public’s confidence in the police to act reasonably, with restraint and with respect. It took decades for that confidence to be restored and I believe within some communities, confidence is still tentative at best.
For the past three weeks there has been an occupation of Parliament grounds. Protests on Parliament ground are an established part of our political system. But this was different. The protesters chose to occupy the grounds instead. Encouraged by the protests in Canada, they blocked the roads in the vicinity of Parliament and the Beehive – the building that houses the executive branch of government.
However it was more than a protest. Elements hurled abuse at passersby wearing face masks. Even children on the way to and from school were verbally abused. Faeces was thrown at police. The original core were mostly those objecting to covid mandates especially those related to some sectors of the workforce where the mandates effectively mean “no jab, no job”. In an interview, one protester described his situation as grim. He had lost his job, and was about to lose his home, and all he wanted to was to return to the work he loved. When asked what that was, he informed the interviewer in all sincerity that he was a caregiver looking after the disabled and elderly, but he didn’t want to be vaccinated. It seemed he genuinely did not understand the harm he could cause to those he cared for.
The original protesters were soon joined by anti vaxxers, covid hoax believers, QAnon believers, 1080 objectors (a topic for another day), 5G protestors and more. Before the end of the first week, there, were up to 3000 people occupying Parliament grounds and some of those present were openly hostile calling for extremes such as the arrest and trial by “people’s courts” of politicians of all persuasions, leading health professionals and advisers, and senior government officials and administrators. Some called for the military to take over – a coup.
For the police the occupation was a case of damned if we do, damned of we don’t. The right to protest is an integral part of our system and had the police moved in early, there would have been public disapproval, even though the occupation was illegal. Confidence and trust in the police is an essential component in their ability to carry out their role. Also, as the police commissioner has noted, if they had moved in to remove the occupation in the first few days, the response from the three thousand occupiers could have been very nasty, and the public would more than likely have been highly critical of the police action. From the perspective of the police, they had to balance the harm that was being caused by the illegal occupation against the harm that could occur if the occupation turned into a crowd of 3000 rioters rampaging within metres of the seat of government. There are no fences or other barriers to prevent or limit access to Parliament building or the Beehive. Had a riot occurred and government buildings breached, we would have been looking at a situation not dissimilar to that in the US on 6 January 2021.
Instead, the police waited while sworn staff from across the country were being deployed to Wellington. There are less than 9000 police officers across the entire country, and there’s certainly not enough within the Wellington region to control an unruly mob of 3000 bent on harm and destruction. The last thing the police wanted was to prod an angry bear while they were unprepared for its response. They were also concerned for the wellbeing of the many children the occupiers had with them.
By yesterday, the occupation had dwindled to a core of several hundred, and that’s when the police moved in. Even so, the response by that hard core sector was quite shocking to most Kiwis as the events streamed live into offices and living rooms. For a few hours, Ukraine was forgotten. We’ve witnessed many riots over the decades, but only from a distance. Not within our own borders. Not for more than forty years.
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, acknowledges the pain felt by many during the pandemic is real and many have fallen for misinformation and disinformation to such an extent, that not only is their belief strongly held, many are willing to act on it. As she pointed out, much of the false information comes by the way of social media. People are less trusting of authority world wide and countering it through traditional channels such as main stream media is less than fruitful. The disaffected have come to view such platforms as being complicit in causes they are fighting against.
Perhaps misinformation and disinformation are now the greatest threat to democracy and freedom. As it grows, the willingness of individuals and groups to act on strongly held but false beliefs will increase. Censorship or curbing platforms of expression is draconian, limits our freedom of expression and will ultimately fail. Suppressing protests and demonstrations is undemocratic and undermines our right to publicly disagree with authority. Placing those perceived as troublemakers under close surveillance reeks of a police state and makes us all fearful of possibly being spied upon.
I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps there’s none. Perhaps the very freedoms enjoyed by liberal democracies will be the instrument of their own destruction. Perhaps, but for now I prefer to believe that social dissatisfaction is caused through an ever widening gap between those with power and those without, the haves and the have nots, the educated and the uneducated. These we mostly have solutions for. What we now need is the willingness to put those solutions into action.
The Youtube video below depicting the ending of the occupation of Parliament grounds may seem tame by international standards, but for many, perhaps most Kiwis, it has been very distressing. On a brighter note, in less than 24 hours, more than 5000 volunteers have signed up to help clean up and restore Parliament grounds to their original condition.