Claims are flying that anti-mandate protesters have stolen rubber mats from a local skate ramp and used them on parliament grounds. Madeleine Chapman investigates.
In the images and livestreams of the ongoing anti-mandate protest at parliament, the mats are immediately recognisable. Square and rubber, 50cm x 50cm, with holes for ventilation and drainage. Most commonly – or more likely, exclusively – seen under children’s feet, carpeting council playgrounds throughout the country. The mats are black and green, with interlocking edges like a kids’ play-mat puzzle.
They’re recognisable to anyone who’s been near a playground in the past decade but the particular mats seen lining the now-swampy grounds at parliament for the past week were recognisable to Capital BMX coordinator David Harkness because they were, in his mind, the same ones he’d helped dig up, clean, and move across the BMX track at Ian Galloway Park in Karori just this month. The same ones that were then gifted to their neighbours at the Wellington Skateboarding Association in two lots – one neat stack and one haphazard pile – for them to lay alongside two skate ramps. The same ones that were recently stolen – the neat stack over Waitangi weekend and the second pile last weekend during the storm – by an unknown culprit.
When Wellington City Council was decommissioning playgrounds around the city two years ago and lifting the rubber matting from the ground, Capital BMX got in touch. They were working on developing the BMX track at Ian Galloway Park and needed soft ground for the riders to walk on to protect their specialised clip shoes. Unwanted playground matting was perfect, so the council donated a heap of soft squares to the club to use at their discretion. They laid them along the banks of the course to help with flooding and used them to make a path back to the starting line. They made a rest area with rubber matting that wouldn’t flood or get too muddy. When they had used all they needed, they still had piles left over.
A stone’s throw away from the track (if you’re a good thrower) sit two skate ramps alongside each other. In between and around the ramps is a walkway lined with stones so that skateboards won’t get muddy when they inevitably roll off the ramp. Except now when boards hit the stones, the stones bounce up and onto the next ramp, creating a hazard for skateboarders in the middle of a run. Young children also love to throw the stones onto the ramps for fun. Last year, seeing the piles of leftover matting at the BMX track, the skateboarders asked Capital BMX if they could have some of it for their path. Harkness agreed, and when preparation was being done for a Waitangi weekend BMX meet, volunteers cleaned and shifted “a couple hundred squares” over to the ramps.
“It was going to be a really nice give and take between the two clubs,” said Harkness. “All the stones they didn’t need they were going to give to us to help drainage between the straights.” The trade was a first step in what Harkness hoped would be a strong alliance between the clubs as they looked to lobby for more facilities, like restrooms, at the park.
The skateboarders laid down the first section and scheduled a working bee to lay the rest, but when they returned after Waitangi weekend, one of the piles was gone. Reached for comment, a Wellington Skateboarding Association (WSA) spokesperson confirmed the theft and said it hadn’t taken long to work out where the mats might have been taken.
“People started sending me photographs of what looked to be them down at the protest. Then as the storm came through and the rain got heavier, the rest of the piles of mats disappeared,” he said. The spokesperson didn’t want to be named so as not to become “a target for the protesters”, after receiving aggressive messages from those supporting the protests when he posted about the incident on social media.
He filed a police report on the missing mats, noting that he believed they were being used at the protest, “in the hope that after they’ve finished with them we’d get them back”.
“It just sucks that they took them. But that’s life so we’ll just get on with it,” he said. “I guess if you don’t have something nailed down then people will take it.”
On February 15, political commentator Bryce Edwards shared footage he’d taken from the protest. The caption: “Festival atmosphere walking through the Parliamentary Grounds occupation right now – video part 2”. The very first frames of the video show the grass covered in hay, with a makeshift path being walked on by protesters. The path is lined with rubber square mats.
A number of people not associated with the clubs caught wind of the situation and shared the story on various social media platforms, including a still from Edwards’ footage as evidence of the crime.
A Stuff report on the event published on February 13 includes a photo of a different makeshift path at the frontline of the protest, again made up of square rubber mats. For the skateboarders, it’s less about the cause and more about common decency. “I don’t have prejudice against people who are anti-mandates, or pro-mandates for that matter,” said the WSA spokesperson. “It just sucks that they took the mats. I don’t care who they are or what they’re doing but it doesn’t justify them taking our stuff.”
One of the people who sent images of the protests to Capital BMX and WSA was a manager in the parks, sport and recreation department at the city council. He had been liaising with WSA about assisting with lifting and moving the stones in order to lay the mats when he spotted the familiar-looking squares on the news.
When asked for confirmation, a council spokesperson said that “though we can’t prove conclusively that the mats at parliament are the same ones stolen at the weekend from the Karori stockpile, we have our suspicions and we’ll be hoping to retrieve them at the end of the occupation”. The mats used around Wellington City Council playgrounds are “quite distinctive in design”, the spokesperson said. And the donation to the BMX club was a one-off arrangement, meaning there aren’t piles of unused rubber mats all over Wellington.
A search online for the same rubber matting produced zero results of the same product for sale outside of a Trade Me listing for 12 squares in a different colour in Auckland (buy now $50).
It’s not known whether the mats were taken by someone familiar with the two clubs, but the WSA spokesperson suspects that, given the relatively obscure location of the park, the culprit must have been someone who frequents the area, either as a dog walker or a local resident.
No one has come forward to own up to the crime and no one can be “100% certain” who took the mats, but for all those affected, the suspects are hiding in plain sight on parliamentary grounds. And the skateboard association just wants them back eventually.
“There might be someone down at the protest who’s quite willing to give them back but I doubt they’re gonna wash it and return it and be good sports about it,” said the spokesperson, before adding a disclaimer.
“We don’t 100% know it’s them, but it sure looks like it.”