The cover of the March 16 2019 edition of The Press is seen in front of Christchurch District Court where the suspected shooter was due to appear in court. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

March 15, Christchurch

A day that began with the hope of the climate march ended with the despair of a massacre, writes James Dann from Christchurch.

I want to say it started like an other day, but it didn’t. It was grey and wet. By the time school climate strike kicked off, the rain had stopped, and the city smelt of damp asphalt. I’ve been to a bunch of protests in my time, even organised a few. This rally was something different. Though it had many of the targets you might find on protest bingo – dreadlocks, vegan t-shirts, a recumbent bicycle, a sub-functional sound system – it had something else: hope.

The students were the force behind the protest. One group, bored of waiting for the official proceedings to start, were winding up with their own rival catalogue of songs. I saw a number of activists and agitators, MPs and councillors, all happy to stand on the sidelines and watch the younger generation take the wheel.

Kids and adults at the Christchurch climate march, 15 March 2019. Photo: James Dann

Convinced that they were doing a fine job steering, I headed back to pick up my bike from the bus exchange. Just as I was about to unlock it, I saw my brother’s distinctive car coming up Colombo St. He’s a teacher, and though his students weren’t on an officially sanctioned trip, he had come in to see how the march had gone. Once he’d parked, we headed back to the square. The main parts of the protest were over, and people were starting to dissipate. Many of the students, placards in hand, were setting off in large groups to spread the Good Word around the streets of Christchurch.

There had been a small police presence at the rally since the start, but they hadn’t bothered anyone. Now, they were starting to approach the students and ask them to leave. At first, it seemed like an overreaction to a well-behaved protest. My brother asked one of the police people what has happening, and was told there was an ‘incident’. I checked in with Twitter to see what was going on. At this stage – a few shots being heard – I just assumed it was probably something minor. Maybe one of those car exhausts that goes pop obnoxiously loudly. Immediately though, my brother switched from off duty to on. There were around 40 students from his school who had come to the protest, but we could only see a couple. A large contingent had joined one of the marches, which had headed off in the direction of the council building. By the time contact was made with them, some were stuck inside the building, which had been locked down. News from school informed the rest that they wouldn’t be able to go back either.

I left town as the last half dozen kids were jumping into a minivan. Heading south down Colombo Street, I could hear sirens to both the east and the west. A police car screamed through one intersection, and an ambulance heading back the other way. At the intersection with Brougham St, a roadblock was being constructed to my left, while there were flashing red and blues to the right. Only when I get home did I realise that those blue lights were the police car that had run the Subaru that carried an IED off the road.

The view from the Brougham St roadblock, with the attacker’s car in the background. Photo: James Dann

On February 22nd 2011, the day of the earthquake, everyone was shook – quite literally. We returned to find our homes in various states of disrepair, from broken glasses and plates to houses lifted up by their scruff before being violently dropped down again. We couldn’t have a shower or use the toilet. Power was out in places, some times for weeks. Roads were rendered useless. We were deeply shocked, living in a state of emergency for weeks afterwards.

This is so different. Outside of those who knew the victims, or the emergency services who have again switched seamlessly into unquestioning hero mode, we are not inconvenienced. Instead, as a blanket of unease and sadness sits heavily across the city, life goes on as normal. Water comes out of the tap. We’re not digging out metres of fetid soil from our hallways. We’re taking on the information about this tragedy using the same media people in Nelson or Tauranga or San Francisco might be. All the while, helicopters and planes continue to fly low over the city, and emergency sirens still cut through the silence.

The hours before the first announcement of fatalities felt similar to the afternoon of February 22nd 2011. Then, we were huddled around a transistor radio, waiting for Prime Minister Key to tell us the news. We knew it would be bad – we’d seen the destruction with our own eyes – but we didn’t know how bad. When PM Ardern said that this was New Zealand’s ‘darkest day’ – a phrase also used by Key in 2011 – I knew it was going to be awful.

I didn’t honestly believe it could be as abysmally awful as it was. When I was standing in the Square, with the carcass of the Cathedral looming over the climate strikers, I did allow myself to think – if even for just a moment – that maybe it would be OK. Not just the planet, but Christchurch too. Battered, beaten, brutalised Christchurch. As the horror of the day’s massacre unfolded, I’m not so sure.

We were still struggling to get over the events of eight years ago, stumbling towards something like a rebuild. While we could argue about the political response to the quakes, no one was to blame for the act of nature itself. The same cannot be said about the events of March 15. The earthquake was a disaster of our soil, but this massacre is one on it. As a city, and as a country, we all need to look within ourselves. We have allowed this to happen. We cannot let it happen again.

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