AROUND MID-DAY on Sunday (31/10/21) Auckland City Councillor, Josephine Bartley, tweeted. “Anti vax now turning violent smashed shop front of our local pasifika provider here in Panmure after our successful community vax yesterday and the online abuse they been receiving unacceptable.” Half an hour later, the Councillor tweeted again. “Oh boy pacific leaders turning up here angry that’s not helpful. Just waiting on police and have sorted business Association for camera footage. I know we have strong anti vax movement here in my area but what we don’t want is for this to become violent and for retaliation.”
The vandalism in Panmure came just a day after an estimated 5,000 anti-vaxxers staged an impromptu march from the Auckland Domain to Newmarket and back. Clearly, the maintenance of social cohesion in Auckland is fast becoming a critical issue for the authorities as the Covid-19 Delta Outbreak intensifies across New Zealand’s largest city.
The biggest concern for the political and law enforcement agencies should not, however, be the behaviour of the anti-vaxxers – deeply concerning though that may be – but how much anti-vax provocation the vaccinated majority is prepared to tolerate. No matter how ugly the anti-vaxxers get, any kind of co-ordinated backlash from the vaccinated is bound to get uglier.
Seized with all the passion of true believers, the anti-vaxxers have yet to demonstrate any awareness of this acute vulnerability. There are a number of reasons for this. Not the least of which is that the communities from which they draw their energy and (mis)information are virtual – not real.
Without social-media, the anti-vaxxers would be unable to escape the reality of their isolation from the broader society’s shared understanding of the Covid-19 crisis and its remedies. Prior to the arrival of the Internet, it required considerable fortitude for a single citizen, or tiny group of citizens, to challenge the accepted wisdom of the overwhelming majority. Human-beings do not like to live outside the social embrace. Ostracism is a terrible punishment.
With social media, however, it is possible for individuals to join communities in which their dissident views are echoed enthusiastically by every member. The natural safeguards against making oneself a social outlier, with all the risks which, historically, marginalising oneself incurs, are simply over-ridden by the twenty-first century’s astonishing communications technology. When everyone you talk to reads the same thing, and believes the same thing, then your outlier status is concealed and your outré convictions strengthened.
This misapprehension of reality is aggravated by the fact that so much of the anti-vaxxers’ world view is bound up with the notion that those who reject their ideas are not simply mistaken, but malevolent. That so many people share a completely different understanding of what is going on in relation to Covid-19, and what to do about it, is taken as proof of the monstrousness of the global conspiracy, of which the virus is but one part. Far from seeing themselves as the deluded victims of disinformation, the anti-vaxxers regard themselves as an heroic minority of truth-tellers. Some go further, describing themselves as “purebloods”. What does that makes the rest of New Zealand society? Zombies?
The problem this poses for the Police is enormous. Although the percentage of hard-core anti-vaxxers may be very small, when manifested in flesh and blood, on the streets of Auckland, even a small percentage can take on an extremely menacing aspect. Five thousand anti-vaccination protesters, many of them vociferously anti-government, have the potential to do a lot of damage: to private property; to their vaccinated fellow citizens; and – not least – to the Police themselves.
There has been much criticism of Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, for appearing to “do nothing” about obvious and egregious violations of the Level 3 Covid-19 regulations. In the eyes of those Aucklanders who have done everything they were asked to do: stay at home; social distance; wear masks; get vaccinated; the inaction of the Police in the face of anti-vaxxer defiance is intolerable. Many cannot help feeling that the likes of “Bishop” Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church are laughing in their faces. Why aren’t the Police getting stuck in?
The surprisingly forthright answer of the Health Minister, Andrew Little, when questioned on this matter by Q+A’s Jack Tame was: “Because you can’t arrest 5,000 people.” The Minister is quite correct, and this is Coster’s dilemma. Taking even 500 protesters into custody would require a Police operation of unprecedented scale. The Police Commissioner simply does not command the human and material resources needed to mount such an operation. And, even if he did, he would be most unwise to do so.
The level of craziness in the anti-vax movement is such that an aggressive Police response would, almost certainly, spark a ferociously violent reaction from the hard core anti-vaxxers. Coster will be very anxious to avoid the sort of running battles between protesters and riot cops that took place on the streets of Melbourne for three straight days.
Not the least of these worries would be straightforwardly tactical. To arrest and detain a fully-grown human-being who is behaving aggressively requires at least two – more likely three or four – police officers. Unwilling to deplete their on-the-ground strength by ordering such mass arrests, Police commanders will resort to tactics designed to immobilise and/or disperse violent protesters. Pepper-spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, truncheons: all of these riot-control weapons were deployed in Melbourne. It ain’t a pretty sight.
What’s more, it doesn’t work. Escalation of force on the part of the Police, simply begets escalation of force on the part of the protesters. Whatever moderation remaining among the leadership of Auckland’s anti-vaxxers would be shunted aside by hard-core extremist elements – many of them Pentecostal Christians convinced they are on the eve of the Battle of Armageddon. Better by far to let 5,000 people let off a bit of steam by marching from the Domain to Newmarket and back again, than to have at least some of them running down Queen Street smashing windows and beating up cops.
All well and good, but for how long are people like Councillor Bartley and her Pasifika constituents supposed to put up with abusive and threatening phone-calls and the vandalising of vaccination clinics? If conscious law-breaking is not met with a decisive Police response, then it will increase. All that is ever required to bring out the absolute worst in human-beings is a rising level of confidence that their actions will not bring consequences.
If it becomes clear to Police commanders (and one hopes that Police Intelligence is in a position to advise them) that such voices of moderation as could be counted on among the anti-vaxxers are no longer being heeded, and that, even in the absence of heavy-handed policing, extremist violence is about to escalate –– then all bets must be considered off.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 1st November 2021.