A host of groups and views are contained in the ongoing protest in Wellington, and they don’t all get along. Who are they?
Annabelle Lee-Mather, Toby Manhire and Ben Thomas discuss the protest and the response from politicians and police in the Spinoff’s Gone By Lunchtime podcast. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.
What began with a convoy inspired by Canadian truckers had in the space of a few days morphed into a vast occupation of parliament grounds, something never seen before in Aotearoa. As became immediately clear to police attempting to communicate with participants, there was no clear leader. Equally obvious to observers of events was that the movement had become riven by factionalism and in-fighting.
At one end of the spectrum of participants and supporters – both on-site and in the online groups that make up their circuitry and inspiration – are many who plausibly insist they are simply anti-mandate, and decry the impacts of the vaccination requirements on themselves and their families. It continues through swathes of people promoting anti-vaccine and “natural healing” balderdash, and to those who menace members of the public for wearing masks, and on it goes through to the most poisonous far-right extremists. A better word than spectrum, perhaps, is continuum, a chain of hands leading from decent people to would-be lynchers. The greatest worry for us all is participants moving the wrong way along that chain – the sight of a fertile recruitment ground for the ugliest, most hateful and dangerous people among us. It is not yet three years, after all, since a terrorist attack in Christchurch shook us from a complacent slumber.
Speaking on a livestream yesterday, one woman on the edge of parliament grounds said: “At first I thought I was here to stop the mandates. But now I want them out.” Since arriving at the occupation she had become indoctrinated in the sovereign citizen conspiracy, whose followers believe they are exempt from the legal system and taxation. “I am a living man!” she declared. “I have jurisdiction over my body.”
Earlier yesterday, one prolific livestreamer posted a video attempting to paint the disorganisation and disunity as a positive. “Our leadership is decentralised. We’re made up of hundreds, possibly thousands, of leaders,” he grinned. “Just like the hydra that Hercules fought, every time one head is cut off, another two pop up.” Notwithstanding that he didn’t mention the end of that story – the defeat of the hydra with flame and a golden sword – let’s take a whistlestop tour of the factions and figureheads.
Convoy NZ 2022
In late January the idea of a “freedom convoy” converging from both ends of the country on Wellington was hatched, modelled on the Canadian example. Participants, most in vans and cars rather than trucks, set off on Waitangi Day and arrived in Wellington two days later. The ambitions were considerably more modest at the outset than the tent villages witnessed today in Wellington and its Picton outpost. One organiser, Derek Broomhall of Invercargill, told the Southland Times as they hit the road that the plan was to make some speeches on the steps of parliament. “We’ll see if anyone will talk with us,” he said. “If not, we’ll leave letters on the doorstep.”
Convoy NZ 2022 today has more than 80,000 members in its private Facebook group. Leaders have been all but invisible, and some of those originally involved appear to have headed home, but they are named as one of the six signatories of a letter outlining demands that was published on Monday. “Participants are determined to maintain their presence until the mandates end,” concluded the letter, summing up a position shared across the protest. The letter was co-signed by the Freedom Alliance, NZ Doctors Speaking Out with Science, the Outdoors & Freedom Movement, the Freedoms and Rights Coalition and Voices for Freedom. It also included a reference to “sovereign rights” and the false assertion that Covid is no more severe than the flu. A follow-up letter two days later said they had “spoken with a highly experienced mediator who has offered to facilitate a mediation between us and the government on a pro bono basis”.
Counterspin – Kelvyn Alp and Hannah Spierer
Apparently inspired by Alex Jones’ conspiracy platform Infowars, Counterspin has accelerated its operation dramatically during the protest, with Hannah Spierer running hours-long coverage from the studio and Kelvyn Alp now installed at the grounds, from where he delivers lengthy monologues. The couple sometimes argue or blow kisses at one another, but the ideas they promulgate could not be less endearing. The language of the livestreams often reveal the American inspiration, with references, for example, to “Trevor Pelosi”, the “deep state”, Pizzagate-esque theories, and repeated claims of “false flags”.
Previously infamous for saying he’d built an armed militia to overthrow the government in the early 2000s, Alp’s conspiratorial subjects range from the moon landings to the Christchurch massacre. He feeds his viewers the flagrant falsehood that Covid is a hoax – “there is no virus, there never has been” – and urges the overthrow of the entire system of government. Its livestream and a Telegram channel with more than 3,500 members are riddled with deranged claims, including the insistence (from many) that arrests were legally invalid “because they’re not wearing hats” and that trafficked children are incarcerated in a dungeon under parliament, interspersed with spam hawking fraudulent vaccine passports, weight loss pills and crypto.
Alp – who says he deals in facts while offering no evidence for his inflammatory fictions – insists he wants a peaceful overthrow of the government, ideally with the military seizing control. He’s also said the government is “practising genocide” in its pursuit of “the transhumanist agenda and the great reset”, and jokes that he wouldn’t mind seeing “a few heads chopped off” at parliament.
Counterspin, which has now established its own tent HQ on the lawn, has in recent days devoted many hours to denouncing the other groups involved, people “appointing themselves leaders”. Alp accuses others of trying to “hijack”, of “stuffing up every single thing” and amounting to “controlled opposition”. Clearly Alp does not speak for anything like the majority of the protesters. It is tempting to dismiss Counterspin as a fringe of a fringe, eye-popping but irrelevant. That would be a mistake. Their audiences online number in the tens of thousands, and the energy and volume of their online supporters’ comments are profoundly troubling.
The Freedom and Rights Coalition / Destiny Church – Brian Tamaki
Brian Tamaki’s bail conditions prevented him travelling, but the presence of his organisation, the Freedom and Rights Coalition, is significant. When the Convoy organisers failed to plan for a public address system, the FRC came to the rescue. They subsequently sparked the fury of Counterspin and others when suggesting people remove their cars, as well as for apparently trying to stop “sovereign citizen” Brett Power from breaching the police line in his deluded belief that he can arrest Andrew Little. FRC has also been attacked by others in the movement for its religious underpinning and for Tamaki’s perceived political ambitions. Alp claimed that a member of the group – “a silverback gorilla looking fucker” – had tried last week to impede his filming. The FRC retorted that Counterspin had embarked on a “blatant smear campaign”.
The FRC has arranged dozens of protests around the country, including at the Auckland Domain, the motorway “gridlock” and the large gathering at parliament in November, where one FRC speaker declared the media to be “an army of terrorists”. Tamaki remains at home on bail having been charged for breaching the Covid Response Act, but in a release issued the same day as the joint letter that FRC signed, he claimed New Zealand was heading “down the path of UN ideology of socialism”, asserted his organisation is not anti-vaccine, issued a deadline for the end of mandates by March, and attacked politicians who have backed the protest (such as Matt King, Rodney Hide and Winston Peters) and other “wanna-be politicians” for “clambering over the top of each other for the limelight”.
Voices for Freedom
Set up by Claire Deeks – an unsuccessful candidate for Jami-Lee Ross’s Advance Party, which teamed up with Billy Te Kahika in the 2020 election – alongside two other women, VFF describes itself as a grassroots organisation, but the abundance of the material it has created, including mass-produced misinformation pamphlets, posters that dominate demonstrations and giant billboards, have raised questions about funding.
Voices for Freedom members have harassed families attending vaccine centres, though its organisers say such actions are against their protocols. Sneered at by Alp and attacked by Billy TK, the group backed the convoy, has a presence at the protest in parliament and supports the action on its social channels, as well as signing the letter with demands, but is mostly quiet about the action in its emailed newsletters to supporters.
The Instagram-ready face of the protest, Chantelle Baker and her sidekick Meghan have produced dozens of “lives” on Facebook from the protest, presenting a relentlessly upbeat, ebullient picture of the gathering. Her broadcasts to a following of 80,000 users sometimes hit a snag, however, such as in a stream this week when Baker struck up conversation with a protester crouching on the back of a parked truck. “This doesn’t stop with the mandates,” he said. “We’re not leaving till we hang them.” Baker immediately stressed she disagreed with the sentiment. “It’s hard to know [what will happen], when you go live,” she said. “I am not advocating for the injury of anyone, that’s not my vibe … that’s not my jam.”
It’s one in a string of jarring contrasts that have come to encapsulate the last fortnight. 1News reporter Kristin Hall related how she was “told I’m going to be executed by a woman holding a sign saying ‘love is the cure’”. The crowd were urged to embrace peace by speakers standing a few feet from a chalked scrawl roaring “Hang em high”. On another Baker stream, she gushed over messages such as “love conquers all” inked on a vehicle. Except some of the messages in the frame were wishing death upon politicians. And the vehicle was adorned with a picture of Jacinda Ardern behind bars, emblazoned with a conspiracy theorist Q.
A former leader of the New Conservative Party – and the father of Chantelle – Baker has been an intriguing presence at the protest, enthusing about the “party atmosphere” and seeking to engage in a dialogue with authorities. When he and his daughter encouraged people to move their vehicles out of a bus stop, they provoked fresh fury from – guess who – Kelvyn Alp. They’re “controlled opposition”, he said. At one point, meanwhile, he mocked Chantelle’s presentation style, saying: “I don’t care about wearing make-up, and going around going ‘Oh! Hahaha! Hi!'”
Outdoors & Freedom Movement – Sue Grey
A rebrand of an unsuccessful political party, the “movement” – which had no obvious presence under this name until the letter was published on Monday – is led by conspiracy theorist and lawyer Sue Grey, who is currently being investigated by the Law Society. Grey has addressed the crowd at parliament a number of times and repeatedly appeared on Counterspin. She has been at the forefront of various anti-vaccine legal efforts and was co-leader of the Outdoors Party, which in the 2017 election won 0.1% of the party vote.
Freedom Alliance NZ
An anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine group that promotes conspiracy theories, the Freedom Alliance is based in Masterton and linked to failed political candidate and prominent conspiracist Billy Te Kahika.
Billy Te Kahika
Blues musician turned conspiracist and aspiring politician, Billy Te Kahika is currently bailed on charges relating to alleged breaches of lockdown rules, preventing him from travelling. He has been active on Facebook, however, producing livestreams including, last week, a disquisition on UFOs, the “alien agenda of Satan” and how it all connects to the UN. Te Kahika has squabbled with various other factions, including VFF and the FRC, once claiming that Tamaki was trying to steal his territory, saying “I was way before Brian”. Tamaki responded by suggesting Te Kahika “just feels left out”.
He has not given up on getting to Wellington, and has told his followers he is “desperate” to be there, so has “been underground … trying another avenue of approach”. He also revealed this week that his bank had disabled his account, judging him an “unfit client”.
New Zealand Doctors Speaking Out with Science
A tiny minority of current and former health professionals who have joined the anti-vaccine bandwagon and promulgate misinformation. Many have been suspended or are under Medical Council investigation. The group is a signatory to the “demands” letter.
Sovereign Hikoi of Truth
Remember that protest road trip that created a ruckus at the Auckland border during the delta lockdown? Its leader, Carlene Hereora, is in Wellington, and a regular talking head on the Counterspin coverage. Her contributions include promising media that they will be sent to Guantanamo Bay. As Dylan Reeve explained of the Hikoi at the time, the group is deep down the “sovereign citizen” rabbit hole. Veteran Māori radicals including Tame Iti and Hone Harawira vehemently denounce and disavow the movement.
Damien De Ment
An NZ-based American QAnon conspiracy theorist and Counterspin guest, De Ment is not at the protest but eagerly promotes it. He was urging protesters on yesterday by declaring a democratically elected government to be “entirely illegitimate” and “a weaponised corporation masquerading as the authority of NZ”. He has threatened and badgered numerous people who have achieved prominence in the Covid response, including politicians, academics and media, and frequently promises a “Nuremberg 2.0”. This approach, which is echoed on signs at the protest, calls for military tribunals to order the execution of leaders, media and others. It is just one example of the appalling appropriation of holocaust-related images and ideas that permeates much of the online anti-vaccine cause.
A volatile Northland-based Australian with a substantial following on both sides of the Tasman, Brewer arrived in Wellington this week and swiftly set about denouncing Counterspin and “probably a third of the people here” of being – there’s that term again – “controlled opposition”, freemasons-in-disguise tasked with “stifling the truth”.
A New Plymouth resident and failed district council candidate, Powers took a file of papers to his local police station demanding the arrest of Andrew Little for what he believes are vaccine-caused deaths. He also led the protesters to the Taranaki Daily News office in an attempt to confront journalists.
Powers was arrested after attempting to breach the police line on the first day of the parliament protest. After being bailed he posted a message via his partner insisting that he had not broken the law, and taking a shot at FRC figures: “PLEASE SHARE AND TELL THE PERSONS WHO DELIBERATELY TURNED THE VOLUME DOWN WHILST I WAS SPEAKING AND THEN TOLD THE CROWD TO SIT AND THEN DENIGRATED MY NAME THAT THE TIME FOR SING KOOMBIAH ME LORD IS OVER. THIS ONLY CHANGES WHEN WE AS BOB MARLEY SAID. SRANS UP FOR YOUR RIGHTS. NOT SIT DOWN AND SING. NOT CRWATE DISUNITY AMONGST US. PLEASE TAKE YOUR DEMENTED EGIS ELSEWHERE. I’M NOT STOPPING TILK THIS STOPS.” He intends, he’s said, to continue attempting to serve the arrest papers.
A former television presenter who returned to view when issuing long, impassioned and claptrap-ridden video monologues late last year, Gunn has appeared repeatedly from the Wellington protest on Counterspin. She is keen to start a political party, which sets her at odds with Alp, who wants all political parties abolished.
Former National MP for Northland. Flirted with anti-vaxx misinformation. Quit the National Party. Attended and addressed the protest. And now joins the queue of figures who say they want to start a new political party.
A far-right white supremacist group, Action Zealandia has boasted of a presence at parliament grounds. A member also accessed a construction site on a nearby building that is usually part of the parliamentary complex and filmed the protest, raising alarm bells.
The convicted white supremacist was arrested in Picton this week while on his way to the occupation in Wellington after being heard in a petrol station saying he was heading for a “public execution” and suggesting he was likely to be imprisoned.
This article originally stated Brian Tamaki was appealing a conviction. In fact he successfully appealed his remand and is contesting charges. Apologies for the error.