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(Image / Archi Banal)
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OPINIONSocietyFebruary 26, 2022

A week on the ground at the ‘freedom village’

(Image / Archi Banal)
(Image / Archi Banal)

After a week reporting from the ongoing parliament protest, Stewart Sowman-Lund reflects on his experience.

The first thing you notice as you walk towards what would normally be the bustling Wellington bus terminal is just how big the occupation really is. With the protest now into its third week, the streets all around the Beehive, including Bunny and Molesworth Street, have been completely taken over by tents, portaloos, cars, and even makeshift showers. It’s an elaborate operation and it’s hard to truly appreciate the scope of it from videos or photos. 

Then you hear it: chanting and cheering, often a repeated chorus of “peace and love”, followed by the distant echo of cars tooting their horns in support as they drive past. In the distance, on parliament grounds itself, you might hear the muffled voice of Trevor Mallard blasting out a message over the loudspeakers. He’s drowned out by air horns or people singing the national anthem.

While the streets around parliament building may still be closed, police appear to be moving the barricade closer to parliament by a few metres every day. The number of cars is slowly dropping each day, with police now estimating around 300 remain parked illegally on the surrounding streets in contrast to the 900 or so that were there about a week ago. Permanent protesters are now around 150 to 300 – although if you ask any of them for an accurate figure they’ll likely add another zero.

I’ve been in Wellington since Monday night, two weeks after the convoy of protesters, many anti-mandate but others anti-vaccination, anti-government, or simply anti-anything-else-they-want, descended on the capital. After a fortnight of reporting on events from Auckland, heading down to Wellington seemed like the only way to really know what was going on.

Dubbed a “freedom village” – complete with a welcome banner and all – parliament lawn has turned from a collection of tents into what now feels like a permanent occupation. There are street signs, including “No Booster Lane”, that point you toward different factions of the so-called village. Some of the tents now have letterboxes or gardens. Baby lettuce plants are found in pretty much any patch of dirt. You might be offered a scone by a small child carrying a platter. There are countless food stalls, a yoga zone, a dance tent where bands perform generally OK cover renditions of classic hits, a church, a basketball court, a skate park – and even a “kids movie area”. Aladdin was playing on Tuesday.

‘Freedom village’ (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

At the front, directly in front of the Beehive, a main stage allows people to speak freely on whatever their chosen subject is. Most criticise the government, even advocating for MPs to be arrested. One man on Thursday prayed for Jacinda Ardern’s soul and said that Satan had got between us and the government. Many preached that they wanted vaccination mandates to be ditched on or by March 1 – the same date that protest splinter groups plan to rally in the streets.

The mainstream media has faced criticism from protesters for not reporting the truth or fronting up to speak to people on the ground. Of course, both of those assertions are false, but nevertheless I made it my goal to speak to a wide range of people on parliament’s front lawns. Almost all were happy to chat, albeit after first questioning why I was wearing a mask (“I really want to see your teeth,” said one protester) and then telling me that the government was funding The Spinoff and informing me what to say (spoiler alert: they’re not).

Most of the protesters I spoke to, like Tania and Nathan, considered themselves purely anti-mandate. Tania said her daughter had lost her job over the vaccination requirement and that was enough to prompt her to volunteer as security at the protest. Nathan said he felt justified blocking the roads and causing “inconvenience” to Wellingtonians as that was “outweighed by the fact many people [at the protest] don’t have homes or jobs to go back to”. 

Others, like Winona, were there as freedom protesters. She was one of many who subscribed to the “sovereign citizen” conspiracy theory – a type of “pseudolaw” whereby people claim not to be subject to legislative law. Winona told me that she only learnt about the sovereign citizen ideology on her way to Wellington.

Those I’ve spoken to over the past few days all consider themselves core protesters. That’s to say, they’ve stayed put despite the sprinklers being put on, the repeated Barry Manilow, and the lack of engagement from politicians. All have been quick to reject that they are associated with fringe beliefs like white supremacy or QAnon, but equally all were happy to continue protesting in the knowledge they were possibly standing alongside people with these fringe beliefs. Everyone I spoke to acknowledged that those views had been part of the protest, at least at the start. Tania told me that the grounds had become alcohol and drug free in order to try to snuff out inappropriate behaviour, blaming booze for people acting out of line.

Protesters from the parliament occupation (Photo: Birgit Krippner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

I may not have personally encountered anyone from any of the more fringe groups (although I did meet one flat-earther), but anti-vaccination rhetoric was common. Alongside a tent alleging itself to provide “health” advice was a garden filled with crosses, each one purporting to represent a person killed by the Covid-19 vaccine. 

While the protest crowd was generally relaxed over the past week, many of the signs that remain on parliament grounds point to a more sinister element. Aside from the blatant misinformation, antisemitism was common and misogyny directed at the prime minister was rife. Tania, the security guard, admitted that as a feminist she found those messages hard to grapple with. But, she said people were just really angry. “People have different responses.” One such example: a horse float that is emblazoned with: “Jacinda, your taxi is waiting”. Tania told me the owner is a “lovely” woman. “[She’s] up on the front line keeping the peace, but she is angry.” One van had “lying bitch”, written in ominous red paint, scrawled across it.

Some of the crowd were less happy with my presence. One man, who appeared to identify as a member of the “independent media”, trailed me around with a camera pointed in my face, blurting conspiracy theories about The Spinoff, my colleagues and the media in general. I’m sure that footage will end up in my inbox eventually. Another protester served me with a “trespass notice” and claimed that parliament grounds and the neighbouring streets were no longer public land. The notice was riddled with inaccuracies, using He Whakaputanga (or the 1835 Declaration of Independence) as a way to try to claim control over the land. A police officer told me he’d been given “a bunch” of notices, pointing me to a nearby pole where one was taped up. “We’re still here though,” he said. The trespass notice also claimed iwi were now in control of the area, despite local Wellington iwi rejecting that assertion days ago when they asked protesters to leave. 

Police officers have remained a largely passive presence over the week. Every potential entry to the protest is lined with cops, standing silent, and enduring near constant abuse from protesters. “This is a police state,” I heard one protester yell. “We used to live in a democracy: we don’t any more.” A man in a ute pulled over by one blockade and yelled: “Jacinda is the real criminal. Why don’t you go and lock the whole lot up.” The officers just smiled and waved. Roughly once every day, officers in riot gear surrounded the crowd as the giant concrete bollards were moved, one by one, further into the camp.  

(Photo by MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images)

I’ve been asked by numerous people whether there is an end point to the occupation in sight. It’s honestly hard to say. Some protesters told me they would leave if Ardern or a senior politician fronted up and listened. “We just want dialogue,” said one. “We’ve been here for two-and-a-half weeks and nobody has even bothered to speak to us.” Most, however, told me that it would take an end date for vaccination mandates to be announced, or even for all Covid-related laws to be scrapped immediately. 

It appears as though the protesters who remain are the most determined to see immediate change. “We don’t want to be here either,” said one. “But many of us have nowhere else to go any more.”

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