Covid-19 Wellington protest: The moment occupation turned into a riot

OPINION:

Political reporter Michael Neilson reports on when the protest at Parliament turned into a riot.

“Let’s burn down the Law School, it’s made of wood!”

It seems unbelievable those words were even said, let alone that they could become a reality.

But as I looked around, as bricks and steel poles rained down on police, as black plumes of smoke billowed off Parliament grounds emanating from fires lit with impunity, I realised what had been a reality only hours before had changed dramatically.

The Law School, in Old Government Buildings, never burned down. But we later learned protesters had set fire to the base of the building, only to be thwarted by heavily outnumbered security who quickly doused the flames.

Thursday was the 23rd day of the occupation. I’d been on the ground most of those days, trying to observe and understand this historic protest, even if many of the protesters didn’t want us there.

And so I was there again among the protesters, with a handful of other journalists, as police looked set to clear the site once and for all, to bear witness as best we could.


The police operation, which began in the early hours of Thursday on the outskirts of Parliament, had gone relatively smoothly, with officers working in an effective and efficient manner desperately missing in the previous 22 days.

In a couple of hours they managed to take back the streets, but as dozens of police advanced onto Parliament’s lawn, where that morning had stood a village, protesters held their ground.

This was their line, their everything.

A confrontation ensued and scenes of violence played out – on both sides.

Protesters doused officers with fire extinguishers – officers responded with pepper spray. Medical teams on the side of the protesters darted about splashing milk into burning eyeballs.

Slowly but surely as police advanced across the lawn though, the mood among protesters grew increasingly enraged. Calls for violence emerged.

Seeing police tear structures down many protesters sought to do the same, and used the items as projectiles.

Soon fire extinguishers, LPG gas bottles, steel poles, two by four planks, along with the odd roll of toilet paper, were launched into the line of officers.

Officers at the front deflected most with shields, but many of those behind were struck.

Officers were escorted away by medics, some with blood pouring down their faces.

As protesters further backed across the lawn someone set fire to a tent. It is currently unclear exactly how the first one started (police are investigating) but what is indisputable is that protesters fuelled that fire with tents and other items.

It was then like a switch had flicked.

With the writing on the wall, what until then could be described as a protest, albeit a violent one, became a riot.

“Burn it all!” a woman next to me screamed.

“If we can’t have it burn it all to the ground!” she said, referring to the political system as a whole.

A frenzy took hold and spread through the crowd like wildfire. Soon people started rustling tents, checking if anyone was inside, before ripping them apart and adding the highly inflammable outdoor equipment as fuel to the fires.

“Boom!” an explosion was heard.

At first, it was unclear what had happened, then I saw people running forward with LPG gas bottles and launching them into the infernos just metres away.

The gravity of the situation hit me as I rushed back, and felt the heat of subsequent explosions.

I looked around and people weren’t scared, they weren’t retreating. They were cheering, taking selfies. Even those not instigating the violence were doing nothing to prevent it.

“Jacinda, this is your fault!” they’d yell, continuing to blame the Government and allegedly heavy-handed police for everything that was unfolding.

Someone then lit a fire beneath the slide in the playground. There was no thought to put it out nor stop people loading extremely flammable camping equipment on top.

There was a hose nearby, fire extinguishers even. Nobody questioned what was happening.

Instead, people gathered items nearby and threw them on the children’s playground, as others cheered and called for everything to be burned to the ground.

Pōhutukawa that have provided shelter and relief at Parliament for over 100 years were starting to catch alight. Instead of trying to save them people loaded mattresses and bags of rubbish onto the base as fuel.

More LPG bottles were thrown on, with people crowded nearby and officers advancing – it was clear there was little care for the safety of others.

Police, now with firefighters working alongside them, continued to advance. Scuffles broke out.

Young and even elderly protesters were seen beaten by officers. A man I spoke to who looked in his 70s was punched in the face.

I interviewed him by the medics’ tent. When I took his photo a man nearby yelled: “It’s the f****** media!”

Several others turned on me and started yelling obscenities too, advancing. I gave them a puzzled expression.

“He’s not media!” someone else yelled inexplicably. I didn’t correct her.

That wasn’t the only such experience, and it made it difficult to get the full story when protesters would turn on you if you were visibly a journalist.

Many reporters had to stay away because of the threats.

Meanwhile, police continued to be pelted by projectiles. It was increasingly violent.

As the crowd was pushed further across Parliament’s lawn some protesters began to set the remaining tents on fire with impunity.

It appeared a relatively small group doing most of the work, some protesters are claiming they only turned up for the violence and were “agitators”, but nobody tried to stop them.

Many watched on and cheered, filming on their phones.

Many of these items were large tents, filled with sleeping gear and equipment. These were peoples’ homes for over three weeks, and the items were likely not cheap.

And some people near the outskirts, visibly distraught, hurried to pack them up before the rioters took hold.

Several fights broke out among the protesters, between those who wanted to salvage, and those who wanted to destroy.

For some it was clear this was a protest, for others it was their attempt at a revolution, however poorly planned.

On the forecourt there were frightening moments where police were backed against the peace and love art wall without shields being pelted by projectiles.

There were moments when it looked like police might just lose control. But police did not back down, and marched across the Parliament grounds to reclaim the territory.

The atmosphere of impunity spread further as police eventually forced the crowd on to the streets.

At the bottom gate police held their line as protesters dismantled their “freedom camp”, ripping down large structures and launching tables and planks of wood, steel poles and even chilly bins onto officers sheltering beneath plastic shields.

Firefighters working alongside police to douse the flames also worked to push back the protesters.

Protesters began pulling up bricks and paving stones off the driveway.

It was the calculated nature of it that struck me: the tools they used to wedge the first bricks out; the production line they formed, where people would pass bricks to others to load into shopping trolleys, who’d then deliver them to the frontlines, where people would attempt to break them in two to make them easier to throw.

It was clear many of those on the frontlines were disaffected youth. I hadn’t seen a lot of them at most of the protests. They appeared to be getting a thrill out of it.

But mixed in with them were protesters who had been there from the start. There were middle-aged women loading the bricks for the young men to lob at police.

But none of those who had been pushing the messages of hatred and revolution through their social media channels were there on the frontlines.

Again, dozens stood by. Some shook their heads. Some cried.

“It wasn’t meant to end like this,” a woman wailed. “This is not peaceful.”

Nobody listened.

A protester I met on one of the first days of the protest was also upset. He said he was disgusted at the violence. He too argued police had sparked it.

The battle had now spread to the streets. Well over 100 police lined up at the corner of Bowen St and Lambton Quay, riot police in front with shields and helmets.

A similar number of police stood guard at the Parliament grounds.

Under this watch, protesters continued to light fires, including to a tree next to the Cenotaph.

It was at this point I heard someone call out for Molotov cocktails.

“Let’s burn down the Law School, it’s made of wood!”

Several people yelled in agreement and ran off in that direction.

Protesters set a line and began pelting police with bricks, fed by that supply chain.

Police kept them largely at bay with fire hoses, but occasionally protesters took hold of these too.

Then all of a sudden there was a loud “bang!”, followed shortly by a “thud”.

“I’ve been hit!” a protester yelled.

Then another, and another. Young men ran past clutching their stomachs. I asked them what happened, and they showed me huge welts. They’d been struck by sponge bullets.

These bullets rained down and sent the crowd running towards the bus interchange. Police advanced, and managed to split the group.

As the crowd retreated someone smashed in glass doors to the Victoria University Pipitea Campus, and set fire to a skip.

But as police advanced towards the train station somehow the violence was quelled and a sense of calm restored.

Most protesters then left, with only the most hardcore remaining through the night.

Over the past three weeks media have reported on the violent underbelly of the protest camp, originally formed to campaign for “freedom” and an end to vaccine mandates and other policies to combat the deadly Covid-19 pandemic.

From day one there were death threats to journalists and politicians. There were white supremacist slogans, nooses hanging in trees and veiled threats omnipresent on the peace and love chalk wall.

There was definitely a festival atmosphere, at times. There was peace and love. There was yoga, there was a daycare centre. Many gathered were outcasts in their communities, they had lost a lot and here they found a community, a family, one that believed them.

They felt safe, and many said that was why they would not leave voluntarily. This was their home.

It is not possible to paint the protesters with a broad brush, but underneath that love for many was a simmering hatred.

Media and those who questioned their views were abused. People who wore masks were physically and verbally assaulted (not always, but when it happened few intervened).

Not one interview I did with protesters avoided some sort of distrust and/or disdain for authority and longing to overthrow the Government.

Talk of revolution was common, a need to burn the political system to the ground and start again.

And one did not need to look far into the social media channels, many encrypted, to see even darker realities being advocated.

On various alternative media platforms hosts spindled lies and mistruths, likened the Government to Nazi Germany and urged listeners and followers to even take up arms.

Still, come Thursday and as police launched their operation, I don’t think many thought the scenes that unfolded really would, the way they did.

Even if Police Commissioner Andrew Coster repeatedly warned it could.

Thursday saw scenes of violence many in New Zealand would struggle to imagine could ever occur in this country, let alone on at the heart of our democracy.

But it did happen, for whatever reasons, and those reasons need to be reflected on and not simply ignored and brushed under a rug.

Come Friday, Parliament lawn resembled a farm paddock.

Diggers and bulldozers worked to clear the mountains of rubbish off site, and workers began waterblasting the paint and chalk plastered across monuments and walls.

The slide though, while singed, stood defiantly.

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