Many unable to make their way to Wellington have been seeking ways to join the movement closer to home – but with all eyes on parliament, they’ve been relegated to the sidelines.
As the parliament protest enters its fourth week, with the peak of support seemingly passed and police mounting a massive operation to bring the action to an end, the question for many watching, supporting and participating in the once-convoy-now-occupation seems to be: what next?
The relative success of the convoy and the subsequent occupation seems to have been something of a surprise to everyone. It was clear that police underestimated the event, and while many of us in the media saw it coming, few could honestly say they expected it would still be going days later, let alone weeks.
While some supporters of the protest have suggested at various times that they represent “the majority” of the population, and that “hundreds of thousands” would show up outside parliament, it seems that even they were perhaps unprepared for it to actually take off the way it did. They’d made similar predictions in the past about protest efforts, none of which came even remotely close to being correct.
So it’s natural that some have been determined to catch that lightning in a bottle again, and expand the protest nationwide – they want to create Convoy 2.0 with outposts all over the motu. But so far things haven’t quite taken off the way some may have hoped.
One of the larger NZ Convoy channels on Telegram, originally part of the planning for the initial protest, renamed itself “Freedom Camp NZ” and began to promote the expansion plans in mid-February, then spawned a second Telegram group to facilitate planning for each city.
A conversation thread was created for each major New Zealand city and town, with locals encouraged to coordinate directly with one another to bring the “Freedom Camp” movement to the nation. New Zealand’s most populous city, Auckland, managed fewer than a hundred comments.
But the effort to create satellite occupations has one advantage: some have been there almost since the start. At the beginning of February, as the North Island and South Island convoys reached their destinations, most of those in the South Island identified their big challenge: Cook Strait. With the majority of the convoyers unvaccinated, and many unwilling to be tested, getting a ferry ticket was impossible. Picton was the end of the line for the bulk of the southern convoy, and many went home. But some remained, and Picton has also played host to an occupation.
Then, as the success of the Wellington occupation became evident, some of those in Christchurch, who had been unable to reach the capital, decided to start their own offshoot. They set up camp in Cranmer Square a few days after the speaker, Trevor Mallard, unleashed sprinklers and 80s pop on the parliament occupation.
And so, for almost as long as the Wellington occupation has raged on, there have been sibling protests in Christchurch and Picton, and yet you’ve probably heard very little about them. And you’ve definitely not been watching live streams from either of them on the nation’s leading news websites.
The same has been true for ideologically aligned Facebook and Telegram users. In the many and varied groups that make up the online community of Covid denial in New Zealand, the parliament protest has been the story. It’s the main storyline in every single group and channel. Details of the goings-on each day are posted and shared with no context or explanation required. A post saying “police have stormed the site” is understood by everyone to mean the occupation camp in downtown Wellington.
Mention of the other protest camps is sadly lacking, even there. Occasionally, if extraordinary news breaks, updates will filter out and thoughts turn briefly to other camped-out protesters. But for the most part it’s out of sight, out of mind.
A group hoping to establish a protest beachhead in Auckland piggybacked off the Freedom and Rights Coalition’s Harbour Bridge march on Saturday to establish the Tāmaki Makaurau Freedom Camp. But rather than set up tents in Victoria Park, where the march’s thousands of participants ended up, they moved across town to the Auckland Domain where they were largely unnoticed by most of the city. Police blocked roads into the Domain to prevent more people joining, and the council issued bylaw breach notices to demand the campers leave.
By Tuesday afternoon the camp’s Telegram channel reported “there’s only 12 including kids on site”.
And, due to the fragmented nature of the protest movement, a different group of protest supporters led by a QAnon-promoting Telegram influencer were discussing their own separate Auckland-based protest days after the Domain protesters had first pitched their tents.
Another Telegram conspiracy influencer, Karen Brewer, has been frustrated that her appeals to shift the protest to the governor general’s official residences in Auckland and Wellington have been drowned out by the parliament occupation. Brewer has been appealing to believers to gather outside the official homes of Dame Cindy Kiro in order to demand she dissolve parliament and issue a writ for a new election. A small number of her supporters have been meeting outside government house in Auckland to take turns stepping up to the gate in order to shout their demands at the presumably empty house.
The success of the Wellington protest that inspired copycat events has also, ironically, consigned them to the sidelines. With all eyes on parliament’s long-deceased lawn, there’s been little attention paid to the smaller actions around the country for those trying to join in closer to their own homes. The media aren’t that interested, and even supporters have only so much love to give, and it’s all headed for the capital. But with police making it clear they’ve run out of patience in Wellington, the outposts may soon find themselves the centre of attention.