New Zealand

‘It’s a moment’: New Zealand reckon with consequences as smoke clears over violent protests | New Zealand

“WWe will not be defined by this,’ said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as the grounds of New Zealand’s parliament descended into chaos, fires and violence in a shocking end to anti-mandate protests that have occupied the center of the capital.

An undercurrent of violence had simmered throughout the weeks of Ottawa-inspired occupation, which was marred by abusive behavior, conspiracy theories and death threats. On Wednesday, riot police intervened with pepper spray and rubber bullets, and the powder magazine exploded. Protesters set fire to their tents and lit a bonfire under the parliamentary children’s playground. You could hear people screaming and yelling, “Burn it, burn it.” As fires burned on the lawns, some demonstrators struggled to spread them and burn other tents, while a woman shouted, “What are you doing? People are going to be hurt.” Gas cylinders exploded as they were consumed by the fire. At a bonfire next to the Cenotaph war memorial, protesters threw tents, rubbish and wooden pallets onto the flames. Others hurled anything within their reach at the riot police lines: chairs, fireworks, garbage cans and cobblestones torn from parliamentary aisles.

Protesters clash with police near parliament in Wellington. Photograph: Dave Lintott/AFP/Getty Images

By evening, fire hoses had dimmed the flames and revealed a graveyard of scorched tents, blackened grass and overturned portaloos. A small group of 150 protesters who were funneled down a side street continued to clash with police.

As the smoke cleared, New Zealand was to reckon with scenes unprecedented in recent decades. Violence is a rarity in the country’s parliament, which has a tradition of openness, relatively light security and high levels of public access. The protests marked an opposite change in tone from the first two years of the New Zealand pandemic, which were characterized by unusually high levels of consensus and support for government public health measures, as well as increasing levels of trust in science and experts.

Many protesters blamed the violence on police factories, outside agitators or “antifa” infiltrators. Christopher Best, a protester who was standing back from where the scuffles were breaking out, appeared in shock. “What you see here are not the protesters who actually want to protest for the mandates, it’s the extremists,” he said. Best had been at the camp for 23 days and said the tone of the protest had changed dramatically in the past 48 hours, but he struggled to articulate who the newcomers were. “We saw another group of people who just want to make trouble. These people come and destroy it.

A man throws a desk over a lit fire in a children's playground on the parliamentary grounds.
A man throws a desk over a lit fire in a children’s playground on the parliamentary grounds. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

“They’re so new…we’ve been here a long time and we don’t know them,” said Fern Cameron, who had been at the protest for eight days.

Now the bill to clean up the grounds, gardens and surrounding streets of Parliament could run into the millions. But the leaders are also counting on how to deal with the social disorder that the occupation of parliament – and its violent end – represented.

A protester throws cobblestones at the police.
Many protesters blamed the violence on police factories, outside agitators or “antifa” infiltrators. Photograph: Dave Lintott/AFP/Getty Images

A massive increase in extremist language

“One day it will be our job to try to understand how a group of people could succumb to such savage and dangerous misinformation – and while many of us … have dismissed it as a conspiracy theory, a small part of our society not only believed it, they acted on it in extreme and violent ways,” Ardern said.

Dr Sanjana Hattotuwa, a specialist in disinformation and extremism at the Te Pūnaha Matatini research centre, said that all the ingredients were in place for the protest to escalate into violence. “With the conditions you see online…it doesn’t take a genius to say that this leads to greater volatility and greater possibility than something like what happened today. happen,” he said. “Aotearoa New Zealand is not exceptional [in seeing this], but for the country, I think it’s a moment,” he said. “We’re going to talk about this for a very long time, what this means.”

Te Pūnaha Matatini researchers have monitored a massive increase in production and engagement with extremist language and misinformation on New Zealand social media sites, he said. “For months we have watched the magma build up and build up and build up – then the pressure and the final eruption.”

While the convoy and occupation began as a protest against mandates requiring many frontline workers to be vaccinated, it quickly expanded to accommodate a much broader and more extreme range of views. Theories have proliferated that would once have seemed foreign oddities to many New Zealanders: stories of Q-Anon prophecies, of a planned genocide plot by Bill Gates, of an impending “Nuremberg 2.0” trial that would see the Prime Minister and many others indicted for crimes against humanity. The outburst of violence on the grounds of Parliament will no doubt draw comparisons to Washington’s 2021 storming of the capital.

Violence is a rarity in New Zealand's parliament, which has a tradition of openness, relatively light security and high levels of public access.
Violence is a rarity in New Zealand’s parliament, which has a tradition of openness, relatively light security and high levels of public access. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

“There has been, throughout, an element of this occupation that has not been like New Zealand.” Ardern said Wednesday. “He has this almost imported feel.”

But Wellington’s occupation also had distinctly local elements. The country faces rapidly rising inequality, a crisis in housing affordability and deep-seated ethnic inequalities – elements that researchers say could contribute to resentment and anger among some on the ground of the Parliament. “What struck me…is less the feeling that violence and fascism are widespread [at the protests], although it’s certainly there – but more than that conspiracy theory thinking is prevalent,” said inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke. “I think that’s worrying – and yes, some of them will have become vulnerable to that because they feel disenfranchised.”

Protesters sit in the rubble of the occupation after police cleared it.
Protesters sit in the rubble of the occupation after police cleared it. Photograph: Eva Corlett/The Guardian

Many of the protesters were Maori and some said New Zealand’s history of violent colonization and disenfranchisement had contributed to their distrust of the crown and their desire to see mandates abolished.

Earlier in the week, Ema Weepu, a rongoa [traditional Māori medicine] practitioner, told the Guardian that there were many different agendas, but the central focus on mandates was shared. Visiting the week before the violence began, Weepu said at the time that settlement had contributed to some protesters’ anger and distrust of the government. “We have been oppressed,” she said. “They take our land, they take our children, they take our language, they take all these things. So we are left with battered and bruised generations – and those are some of the angry people here.

“We have a challenge ahead of us, but so do many democracies,” Ardern said. She said there were no simple or short-term solutions on the table. “It is not about preventing people from having different opinions, having debates, taking different positions and positions. People should, of course, always have that freedom of thought, point of view and perspective – and in New Zealand we celebrated that. But when the debate you have is no longer based on facts, where does that leave you? This is the challenge we have.

On the forecourt of parliament, abandoned placards piled up or leaned against the palisades: “Jabcinda, crimes against humanity: guilty,” said one. “Peaceful protesters, not prey to predators,” read another. A third asked: “So what next?”

‘It’s a moment’: New Zealand reckon with consequences as smoke clears over violent protests | New Zealand

Source link ‘It’s a moment’: New Zealand reckon with consequences as smoke clears over violent protests | New Zealand

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