A surreal anti-lockdown protest took place today outside the Auckland electorate office of the prime minister, who is currently in Wellington. Alex Braae went along.
If the anti-lockdown protesters outside Jacinda Ardern’s Mt Albert electorate offices say their voices aren’t being heard, they’re absolutely right. For most of this afternoon they were drowned out by the death metal coming from the flat next door.
The occupants started blasting the tunes out of annoyance, apparently because the protest had woken them up from a lie-in on the first day of level three. Unfortunately, I couldn’t speak to them to confirm this.
The sudden soundtrack capped off a surreal afternoon that saw about 50 protesters crowd the footpath outside Ardern’s office, under shelter from the torrential rain. Within the protest, opinion on the music seemed split, with some clearly annoyed by it – one protester was overheard claiming she was going to call noise control on the flat – while others were apparently enjoying it.
The protest took place in flagrant violation of the current restrictions around Auckland – that was, after all, the point of it. Currently people in Auckland are required to remain in their bubbles, and not gather in groups. The vast majority of scientists support such restrictions as being effective for stopping the spread of Covid-19.
At the protest, these restrictions were not being enforced in any meaningful way. Lone squad cars could sometimes be seen in the distance, but by and large police did not interact with protesters – and for much of the afternoon it seemed their presence was non-existent. At one point an officer exchanged heated words with protest organiser Damien De Ment, but it was brief and the officer soon left the scene.
People in public are also expected to observe social distancing, and wear masks. At the protest, the heavy rain and limited shelter made social distancing near impossible, while the fact that I was in a mask clearly identified me as a reporter. Nobody else had their face covered, indicating apparent unconcern with either the potential spread of the virus or facial recognition technology.
I nevertheless identified myself as a reporter to everyone I spoke to. Most of the conversations were pleasant and polite, people being eager to put their views across, even if they didn’t necessarily trust the media or its representatives.
A few were less friendly. “Why don’t you go and get a real job?” snarled one man. He wasn’t impressed by my response, which was that I’m not really that good at any other jobs.
The grievances ranged from specific points taking issue with lockdown measures to much bigger-picture conspiratorial fears that Covid-19 was being used by governments (or even potentially manufactured) as a way to impose totalitarian control. Lockdowns are “destroying the economy, and destroying people’s lives”, as one woman put it to me. She also said scientists had been muzzled from putting out the real truth (said scientists would probably disagree) and described the Covid-19 vaccine as an “experiment” being imposed on the population. Generally conversations would start at one end of the continuum before ending up at the other, suggesting that many of the protesters now hold the full package of anti-lockdown views.
One man holding a sign depicting Ardern as a communist was standing at the bus shelter across the road. When I went to talk to him, he opened his jacket to reveal a Motörhead t-shirt; he said he’d been loving the musical accompaniment to the protest. He was firmly of the view that Ardern had been “bought and paid for” by the Chinese Communist Party, and would be imposing a dictatorship over the country.
If that were true, I responded, why would local self-described communists hold Ardern in such contempt? And if a police state was the goal, why was the riot squad not cracking down on this protest? We agreed to disagree.
Many of the protesters were also filming or livestreaming the event. If police wanted to follow-up, finding them would be incredibly easy as a result. It seems unlikely that the police will take further action, however, not least because arrests would only further radicalise them.
Near the end of the day, I became a prop in one of those videos. Organiser Damien De Ment approached me with a wide and vaguely ominous grin, planting himself in front of me and introducing himself. His friend stood off to one side to film the interaction.
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We had a discussion, or rather, he talked at me with a range of propositions about why the protesters were there, media dishonesty, whether my organisation is funded and controlled by the Deep State and so on. I may be proved wrong when the video comes out, but I’d like to think I stayed polite and civil throughout. No doubt there will be moments of it that can be edited to prove that I have been “owned”.
Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the full scope of his final argument to me – but the general gist of it was that by not platforming his views, I was going against my own “journalistic code of ethics”. And shouldn’t journalists always ask for the views of all sides before reporting a story?
“Well …” I started to answer, gathering my thoughts on matters like editorial judgement, the base of evidence for conspiracy theories, and the consensus of many reputable scientists around Covid-19 and the effectiveness of lockdowns. But I didn’t get the chance.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” he snapped at me, before turning on his heel and storming off.