THE COUPLE sat in the middle of Molesworth Street sobbing. The young man turned his face away from the camera, shoulders heaving. The young woman stared directly at the camera lens, her face a pitiful picture of hurt and confusion. How had it come to this?
On Day 23 of the Occupation of Parliament Grounds, the Police’s patience ran out – as it was bound to, eventually.
Seldom has New Zealand witnessed a policing strategy which placed so much emphasis on “de-escalation”, or was so loathe to use violence to end what was, from the very beginning, an unlawful protest.
The restraint of Police Commissioner Andrew Coster offered a compelling historical contrast to that of Police Commissioner John Cullen, the man who called forth “Massey’s Cossacks” in 1913, and who in 1916 led the Police raid on Rua Kenana’s religious community at Maungapohatu. From the very beginning, Coster was determined to avoid the sort of violence for which Commissioner Bob Walton’s policing of the Springbok Tour is remembered. Coster was, after all, the senior police officer responsible for managing the Ihumatao occupation – the one that ended peacefully.
Unfortunately, it takes two to tango, and what passed for “the leadership” of the occupation steadfastly refused to dance. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that a peaceful resolution was never going to happen.
As the reports of the SIS’s Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) released to the NZ Herald under the Official Information Act, make disturbingly clear, the “extremist elements” within the multi-faceted and “overwhelmingly peaceful” anti-vaccination and anti-vaccination-mandate movement, never had anything to gain from a peaceful resolution.
Coster, well aware of the CTAG assessments, gave every opportunity for the “overwhelmingly peaceful” elements encamped on Parliament Grounds to send him representatives with whom a meaningful dialogue about the character and duration of the occupation could be sustained. That this proved to be impossible indicates just how completely the residents of “Freedom Village” had allowed themselves to become enthralled to the ideas of its “extremist elements”.
Epitomised by that traumatised young couple in the middle of Molesworth Street, so many of the people participating in the occupation did not appear to grasp the reality of their situation. In spite of the fact that they had set their faces against the laws of the land. Heedless of the dangerous behaviour manifested by a growing number of their fellow occupiers. Regardless of the harm and inconvenience their actions were causing to others. The protesters continued to behave as if they were somehow immune to the likely consequences of their actions.
|A pitiful picture of hurt and confusion. Two young protesters, Molesworth Street, Wellington. 2 March 2022.
Like the Native American “Ghost Dancers” of the late-nineteenth century, the protesters had convinced themselves that their powerful “medicine” would save them. The little world they had created on Parliament Grounds was stronger that “Jacinda’s” government; stronger than the journalists of the “evil media”; stronger than Andrew Coster and his “pigs”; stronger than anything the corrupt “system” could throw at them. Every attempt by that same system to engage with them and negotiate a peaceful resolution to their occupation was presented by the movement’s extremist guides as proof of their enemies’ diabolical cunning. All the more reason to “hold the line”.
The New Zealand government, and the New Zealand public, were prepared to let Coster give his de-escalation strategy a decent try. But, their patience was not endless. As the days turned into weeks, and the occupiers’ alternative reality kept smashing into the reality of everybody else, even Coster was forced to concede that his policy of reaching out and attempting to establish common ground had failed.
What’s more his intelligence reports began to align more and more alarmingly with the findings of CTAG. The peace, love and mung-beans crowd was thinning out, replaced by individuals eager to play the roles of “saviour” and “avenger” – by any means necessary.
It was time to wind it up.
And wind it up Coster and his highly-disciplined constables did. In scenes that will long be remembered, the Police in considerable numbers, and properly equipped (at last) with the riot gear needed to do the job, unleashed a torrent of pepper-spray on the protesters attempting to “hold the line” against the Police Commissioner’s encroaching army.
People reeled back in pain and shock. Eyes burning, skin burning, stumbling blindly, they were met by “medics” carrying 5 litre containers of milk to soothe the fire in the victims’ eyes. The skirmishers learned quickly to turn their backs to the Police, but that just offered the men and women with the riot shields increased surface area upon which to apply pressure. Remorselessly, the “line” was driven back.
And on this, the 23rd day, to the dismay of the protesters, the Police did not stop. Like the amplified messages on continuous loop telling the protesters that continued resistance would result in arrest, phalanxes of police officers just kept on coming. Soon, every corner of “Freedom Village” was under assault. In the manner of a garotte, the contracting police lines began, slowly but surely, to throttle the protest.
There was no perimeter to defend now, the blue tide was surging across Parliament Grounds, ripping out the occupiers’ tents, hurling them aside. Then the fires broke out. Tents and belongings burned. The protesters’ angry retreat became a rout. The Götterdämmerung the extremists had willed into existence over the preceding 22 days was finally upon them. Black smoke billowed-up from beneath the Pohutakawas, swirled around the statue of King Dick Seddon, and scudded over the nation’s Parliament on the wings of an early-autumn wind.
New Zealand had never seen anything like it.
In the dying days of World War II, as the British and Americans advanced deeper and deeper into western Germany, and the news of Adolf Hitler’s suicide spread, his people began to give up. His soldiers, too, started to surrender. One of these was photographed by Allied newsmen. Hans-Georg Henke was just sixteen, one of the boy-soldiers that had been Nazism’s last hope, and he was weeping openly before the cameras. His child’s face a pitiful picture of hurt and confusion.
|Another Pitiful Picture: Sixteen-year-old Hans-Georg Henke surrenders. May 1945.
What had it all been for? How had the Fuhrer led Germany into this nightmare of death, destruction and defeat. Why had the German people allowed him to set their whole world on fire?
The look in the eyes of that young woman, as she clung tearfully to her young man in the middle of Molesworth Street on the 23rd day of the occupation; and the expression on the face of Hans-Georg Henke; were strikingly similar.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 3 March 2022.