THE ONE AND ONLY TIME I’ve been arrested was for the offence of obstructing a carriageway. The arrest took place at the intersection of Rattray Street and Princes Street in Dunedin during the 1981 Springbok Tour. In attempting to assist a fellow protester, whose arm was pinned against a metal post, and who was obviously in considerable pain, I somehow ended up sprawled on the street. Deemed to be obstructing this important carriageway, I was bundled into the back of a windowless van and deposited in the holding cells of the Dunedin Police Station, where I spent the next few hours singing every protest song I knew. Small wonder that my involuntary constabulary audience tossed me back onto the streets!
I was thinking about that incident earlier this week as hundreds of motor vehicles made their way to Parliament grounds to protest the Labour Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. It prompted me to wonder if that quaint old charge (of which, many months later, I was acquitted) is still on the statute books.
Well, it is. Under the Summary Offences Act 1981:
Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who, without reasonable excuse, obstructs any public way and, having been warned by a constable to desist,—
(a) continues with that obstruction; or
(b) does desist from that obstruction but subsequently obstructs that public way again, or some other public way in the same vicinity, in circumstances in which it is reasonable to deem the warning to have applied to the new obstruction as well as the original one.
That the anti-vaxxer convoy did not set out on their protest without apprehending that, at some point, their actions were bound to impede the normal, lawful, passage of other users of the public ways, strikes me as highly implausible.
Certainly, the protesters who blocked motorways, ran onto airport runways, attempted to blockade rugby fixtures, and even interrupted the television broadcast of the final test match between the All Blacks and the Springboks, were all-too-aware that their actions were unlawful. They fully expected to be, and usually were, confronted, apprehended and charged by the Police.
The protest organisers understood the political impact of otherwise law-abiding citizens courting arrest and risking conviction in the name of combatting the racist system of Apartheid. They were also aware of the sheer practical difficulty of the Police, the Courts, and Corrections processing and accommodating hundreds (or even thousands) of arrestees in secure facilities.
It was to overcome these difficulties that the police relied upon the minor offence of “Breach of the Peace” to arrest, briefly detain, and then release (without the need for formal charges) so many of the more “disruptive” anti-tour protesters.
On occasion, however, the Police resorted to more direct methods of bringing protests, if not to an end, then to a sudden halt. I had friends who were bloodied by Police truncheons on Molesworth Street, right outside Parliament grounds, on the night of 29 July 1981. I was there in Wilson’s Road, outside the First Test at Lancaster Park, when the “Blue” riot squad smashed into the front row of protesters with their notorious PR-24 long batons.
In one sense, it is mighty puzzling to witness a protest movement publicly announce its intention to engage in actions which appear to be – at least to the ordinary person in the street – a flagrant breach of the law, without incurring the stern intervention of both the Government and the Police that characterised the 1981 Springbok Tour protests.
In another sense, however, the behaviour of the authorities is perfectly understandable. The prospect of having to effect mass arrests of anti-vaxxers is, very clearly, one which the Police Commissioner and his fellow senior officers are loath to contemplate. His forces are overstretched as it is. Certainly, they have a great deal more to contend with than the cops responsible for policing the more innocent New Zealand of forty years ago.
Halting the anti-vaxxers in their tracks would require a level of force unseen in this country for decades. Some of the anti-vaxxer crowd would need more than a PR-24 to subdue them. The wholesale use of tasers, tear-gas and pepper-spray would be required. Even, ultimately, the use of deadly force.
In 1981, students like me went quietly. Will the anti-vaxxers do likewise in 2022?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 February 2022.