by Daphna Whitmore and Don Franks
After 23 days camped outside parliament the End the Mandates protest was stormed by 500 riot police. A few hundred hardcore protesters fought back all day, and around a hundred were arrested. Earlier that week the High Court had ruled that vaccine mandates for police and defence personnel were not lawful and were an unjustifiable breach of the Bill of Rights. The government still refused to listen to the protesters on the lawn.
The occupation had set up on parliament grounds on February 6. The government and opposition MPs formed a pact and refused to speak to them. This was the first time citizens who had turned up en masse to protest a government policy were not given a chance to meet an MP to state their case. It was also the first time riot police in New Zealand had fired upon a protest with ‘sponge’ bullets. It was the first time pepper spray was widely used on crowds. It was the first time that police commandeered Fire Department hoses and doused the protesters.
It wasn’t the first time protesters had used civil disobedience or resisted police attempts to move them on, nor the first time people had thrown things at police. And it wasn’t the first time police had covered their numbers so they could not be identified, or used their shields as weapons, nor the first time police punched and kicked protesters.
When the protest was finally put down the Prime Minister walked out on the grounds, safe in the knowledge that the people were gone. She expressed her sadness at seeing the damage done to the children’s slide that had cost $582,000. The Speaker of the House had slid down that slide himself when it was finally completed a few years earlier. Now it was charred and needing repair. People of inner-city Wellington, who had been horrified by the End the Mandates protest, rallied around to fundraise for the slide to be repaired.
From the start the police had tried to remove the protesters and around 150 were arrested in the early days. Whenever the police retreated the protest was peaceful and thousands of people came to the tent city, especially during the weekends. It took on a carnival atmosphere with food stalls, music, an array of alternative health stalls, yoga classes, and a bouncy castle for the children. The gilded slide was well used by children at the camp village.
The crowd was mixed,but mostly working class. There were several organisations involved, some were specifically anti-vaccine and anti mandate, some were church-based, there were Hari Krishas, some people were from Maori sovereignty groups and some from an array of causes like anti 5G, and anti-1080 pesticide. Like most demonstrations the majority of people were not members of an organisation but came along to end the mandates. There were some people with deep fears about vaccines, but also plenty of people who were vaccinated and simply opposed the mandates.
Most commentators in the media and on social media took to mocking the anti-vaxxers. Few showed any understanding or sympathy. One who did was commentator Damien Grant who pointed out if you believe that the vaccine will change your DNA then there’s no way you will accept having it. Similarly, George Henderson on Twitter noted it was like telling vegans they have to eat meat if that was shown to be an effective treatment against severe covid. Most opponents of the protest did not try to understand the motives of the mandates protest, instead they labelled the unvaccinated crazy and selfish. The majority of New Zealanders did not support the protest, but a sizeable 30 percent did.
From the very first day the woke left and the government used dehumanising rhetoric. This was taken up by all the parliamentary parties. The woke left called for the protest to be put down. They raged on their keyboards when the police failed in their early attempts. Some on the left called for greater force to be used including bringing in the army. They demanded the vehicles be towed. Most tow truck companies refused in an act of solidarity with the occupation, some said they were concerned about reprisals. It was humiliating for the police commissioner who turned to the Defence Forces only to be rebuffed again.
It became very clear how little the woke left and their government respect or defend civil liberties. They justified their illiberalism by claiming the protesters were far-right white supremacists. They claimed to have sighted one or two alt-right people among the thousands of demonstrators. A Qanon placard was seen and taken as proof that this was a giant conspiracy theorists’ gathering. A couple of Trump supporters’ placards were read as evidence of a far-right movement gathering momentum. The self-declared experts on conspiracy theories had themselves become conspiracists.
The aspect of far-right participation was given far too much weight. There was also a narrative that working people were being manipulated by shadowy far-right forces. This just didn’t match reality. We both knew participants at the protests and they were the last sort of people to be manipulated by anyone, let alone far-right forces. The government and the mainstream media continually inflated the very worst aspects of the protest for their own ends. That is a familiar process and is what has happened at every contentious strike or demonstration.
Where were the civil liberties groups? They were missing in action, with the exception of the Free Speech Union.
Wellington is very much a civil servant city, and some of its residents were outraged that a few streets were blocked. There were unpleasant scenes reported of scruffy looking individuals walking on the streets of the city shouting at them for wearing a mask. For the more anxious mask wearer this was deeply traumatising. Many more just wandered on, ignoring the rants as you do with anyone who seems a bit unhinged. Those interactions, well away from the parliament lawns were then conflated with the occupation as a whole.
A full-scale demonisation campaign ran the entire time. The Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard described the protesters as “feral” while harassing them with sprinklers, loud music and trespass announcements all night. The Deputy Leader of the House Michael Woods called the occupation a “river of filth”. The Prime Minister othered the protesters stating they “are not us”. She refused to criticise the “feral” and “rivers of filth” language.
The media mostly embraced the demonising tactics and gave one-sided reports. For example, there were reports of the number of police injured in the final clash but no reports of protesters injured by police.
There was interference with press freedom from the Government. Mallard told veteran journalist Barry Soper not to mingle with or interview protesters, which advice Soper rightly ignored. This interference with the press was not criticised by the Prime Minister or any other government MP. Nor, for that matter by any of the woke leftists denigrating the occupation. Recognising the seriousness of Mallard’s blatant attempt to control the narrative, the Free Speech Union organised a petition to remove Mallard from his position. As elected leaders, the Speaker and the Prime Minister are supposed to be representative of all citizens, including the less fortunate and less educated.
The arrogant dismissive actions of the government confirmed the worst suspicions of the protesting masses. The politicians provoked peoples’ rage and left them with no alternative but to abjectly slink away – or fight to the end. This was not a union demonstration but a line from the song Solidarity Forever seems apt:
Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organise and fight?
Politicians made much of death threats and calls for their execution. This was on the basis of a few crude placards in parliament grounds. Such things are not new to political demonstrations. Extreme hyperbole has long been a part of vigorous protest. Nooses, red paint “blood”, mock executions, axes and coffins are regular props in street theatre. For example, Wellington University students in 2004 burned an effigy of the Vice Chancellor in the quad.
During Muldoon’s time in power it was commonly declared by militant unionists and others that “someone should shoot the bastard” and “Muldoon should be shot”. So frequently that a novel was written, “The man who shot Rob Muldoon” by Jason Calder. A popular joke doing the rounds of offices and factories went: This little boy saw Muldoon drowning in the ocean, ran in and managed to save him. The grateful Prime Minister asked the kid what he wanted for a reward. “I’d like a state funeral please”. “Why on earth would you want that you’re only young!?” “Well, when I get home and tell my dad what I’ve just done he’ll fucken kill me!”
The anti-Springbok tour protests in 1981 saw protesters don helmets, protective vests, and take homemade shields and baseball bats to demonstrations where fences were pulled down, and people stormed onto a rugby field. An airfield was stormed, the harbour bridge was blockaded and a plane dropped flour bombs on a rugby game.
Ostensibly pro working class groups painted the occupation as entirely negative and “reactionary”, with zero recognition of the social and economic deprivation which had driven many protesters to participate. Significant sections of End the Mandate protesters included trades people and health professionals who had lost their jobs. That is what drove them to arrive at parliament with their families, demanding audience with the government.
The group International Socialists were very dismissive saying “The reactionary protest at parliament has now dragged on for several weeks. As the various antisocial demands of the protesters are amplified by the media, the quiet opposition of thousands of people doggedly continuing to follow public health measures can easily be lost.”
The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) also wrote off the protest: “This reactionary mob, with fewer than 1,000 participants, was allowed to blockade parliament and the surrounding area for weeks, because its central demand for the population to “live with” the virus, aligned with the needs of the New Zealand business elite. The rally received unprecedented media coverage, and was used by sections of the political establishment to pressure the government to dismantle public health measures. The occupation was brought to an end after it had largely fulfilled its purpose of shifting official politics further to the right.”
Long term ramifications
The police clampdown on protesters at parliament was not the only state clampdown on working people’s discontent.
On March 2nd, just hours before it was set to go, New Zealand’s Employment Court banned a 24-hour nationwide strike by 10,000 healthcare workers and a second strike that was scheduled for March 18. The ban followed acceptance of an injunction application from the District Health Boards, the managers of New Zealand’s health system on behalf of the government. Unions representing health workers could do worse than learn from the fighting spirit of anti mandate protesters.
Asked for comment after the occupation, Wellington economist Rosie Collins said Covid has heightened inequities in society, which the Government should consider redressing.
If we look at who suffered the most, and who’s had the least support in the last two years, it’s people on the brink of poverty essentially, benefits have increased a tiny bit.
All these drivers of inflation are going to eat away at benefit increases. The lack of rental stocks will also eat away at any benefits – there are 25,000 families on the housing register.
If we don’t get the policies right to meet the needs of that group, we’re setting ourselves up for 20 years of consequences.
Nothing in this government’s social or economic policies suggests they are capable of or even wanting to seriously address poor people’s deprivation. Protests and fightback from the dispossessed are set to reappear in renewed intensity.