THOSE WHO DISMISS mass political protest as historically ephemeral, leaving nothing of significance behind it, are wrong. The Springbok Tour protests of 1981 made a huge impression on the NZ Police. So much so that, in the 40 years that have elapsed since the Tour, the policing of political protest in New Zealand has undergone a profound change. Just how vulnerable that change has left the New Zealand people was made frighteningly clear during the occupation and eventual clearing of Parliament Grounds in 2022. If the NZ Police are not now conducting a root-and-branch reform of their political protest policing methods, then they are failing in their duty as protectors of the state and its citizens.
In the weeks and months that followed the Springbok Tour, the Police found themselves repeatedly humiliated in the New Zealand courts. Thousands of New Zealanders had been arrested during the Tour but only a tiny minority of them were convicted – and even fewer were jailed. In case after case it became clear that, right from the start, the Judiciary had been ill-disposed towards the Tour, would rather it had not taken place, and were not prepared to saddle those who had protested against it with a criminal record. Consequently, only those guilty of the most egregious acts of protest (especially those involving aircraft) were subjected to the full rigor of the law.
The Judiciary’s unwillingness to punish protesters conveyed a disturbing message to the Police. On some issues, the usual close co-operation between the Judiciary and the Police could not be relied upon – quite the reverse, in fact. As instanced by the famous case in which protesters pled “Not Guilty” to being unlawfully on a building, but without the intent of committing any other offence. Their lawyer argued that his clients had every intent of committing other offences – hence their “Not Guilty” plea. The Judge, clearly amused, acquitted the defendants. The look of dismay and bewilderment on the face of the Police Sergeant prosecuting the case is readily imagined!
It did not take the Police very long to realise that they were being told to go easy on the sort of people who participate in protests against morally indefensible systems like Apartheid, and/or the pernicious ideologies that spawn them. Regardless of the fact that they are sworn to uphold the law, while it remains the law, Police researchers were left in little doubt that, in the Tour’s aftermath, a great many members of the New Zealand public identified the Police as the Government’s enforcers and the Springboks’ protectors. More bluntly, the Police had made it possible for an immoral and divisive tour by a racist Rugby team to go ahead.
The research data was unequivocal: the policing of the Springbok Tour protests had resulted in a significant decline in the public’s trust and confidence in the NZ Police. Worse, the people whose trust and confidence had been dented the most were, by-and-large, members of the urban professional middle-class. This was not a social formation whose support the Police could afford to lose. Their skills, coupled with their location in the power-structure, made them indispensable mouthpieces for, and buttresses of, the state. The working-class was expected to despise the fists and boots of the Police – but not the middle-class. Henceforth, its protesting children would be treated with kid gloves.
Winning back the trust and confidence of the urban professional middle-class wasn’t the only, or even the most daunting, of the challenges facing the NZ Police after the Springbok Tour. Police commanders were acutely aware that in policing the Tour their human and material resources had been stretched to the limit. Had someone been killed in the protests, the Police’s ability to preserve law and order without resorting to deadly force would likely have been exceeded. As it was, on the day of the Third Test between the Springboks and the All Blacks serious violence broke out on the streets surrounding Eden Park. Armed naval personnel from HMNZS Philomel were very close to being called to the assistance of the Civil Power. Deadly force came within an ace of being used.
Senior Police and the nation’s political leaders would have been aware of just what a near-run thing they had lived through in 1981. Very few of them, if any, would have wanted to risk another highly organised challenge to government policy.
The more thoughtful among them would have considered the policing of the Springbok Tour alongside the Police operation mounted three years earlier at Bastion Point. Clearing away the Māori occupiers of the Point had required an enormous number of Police officers, backed by significant logistical support from the NZ Defence Force. Politicians, public servants, police commanders and senior defence personnel, seeing the effort required to clear a few hundred protesters, operating in a single city, would have shuddered at the thought of one, two, many Bastion Points. In such circumstances, the use of deadly force would be inevitable.
But, even the possibility of the state resorting to deadly force was abhorrent to most New Zealanders – as the Police would learn the hard way in 2007 during the course of Operation Eight. The possibility of an armed terrorist cell training in the Ureweras could not be ignored by the Police – and it wasn’t. The deployment of masked police officers wearing helmets, body armour, and carrying semi-automatic rifles to the tiny settlement of Ruatoki, however, shocked and angered not only the local Tuhoe iwi, but also that same urban professional middle-class whose support for the Police had been so sorely tested 26 years before. Once again, the Judiciary and its minions were less-than-impressed. Once again the Police were humiliated.
The cumulative effect of these lessons in how far the Police’s “social licence” might be stretched was on display in February-March 2022 when Parliament Grounds were occupied by hundreds of New Zealanders protesting against the Labour Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic – most particularly its coercive vaccination mandates.
Over and over again, New Zealanders heard the Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, reiterate the citizen’s “Right to Protest”.
Confronted by protesters who refused to play by the rules, however, Coster and his commanders were at a loss. Their confusion grew when the all-important urban professional middle-class began insisting that the Police clear the grounds – by any means necessary. The same people who had objected to 81’s riot squads, and the gun-toting “ninjas” at Ruatoki, were now insisting that Coster’s officers start cracking heads.
Except that more than 40 years of affirming New Zealanders’ Right to Protest had left the NZ Police without the training or the equipment to “move on” hundreds of determined protesters (many of whom were working-class battlers and not at all averse to mixing-it-up with the cops). The Police’s first attempt to enforce the law ended in ignominious retreat, and it took weeks to assemble the person-power necessary to clear the protesters’ encampment. Even then, the operation ended in fire and fury on a scale not seen in this country for 90 years.
Horrified New Zealanders, looking at the extraordinary photograph of Police officers with their backs to a granite wall, huddled together and cowering behind their Perspex shields, as all manner of missiles are hurled at them by furious protesters, suddenly realised that their state was no longer equal to the task of protecting its citizens from serious political violence.
What was (just) possible in 1978 and 1981, had ceased to be a sure-thing by 2022. And, on all three occasions, it was political protest that provided the critical test of what New Zealanders were – and were not – prepared to tolerate from the forces of the state.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 9 June 2023.