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Protesters have resisted police calls to leave. (Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters have resisted police calls to leave. (Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images)

The BulletinFebruary 18, 2022

When will this end?

Protesters have resisted police calls to leave. (Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters have resisted police calls to leave. (Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images)

Wellington’s protest is unlikely to be over any time soon, as MPs say they won’t begin speaking with protesters until their vehicles and tents are removed, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

This has to end eventually, right? That’s the question many New Zealanders are asking themselves as the protest outside parliament – now an occupation, according to the prime minister – nears its second week. What’s happening in Wellington is a largely unprecedented phenomenon, which drew its inspiration and playbook from an ongoing protest in the Canadian capital. It’s a stationary camp in the middle of one of the country’s largest cities, attempting to wage a charm offensive while simultaneously inconveniencing thousands of locals. It’s been described by some as a peaceful music festival, raising valid questions about vaccine mandates. It also includes racist elements, far-right symbols and has directed death threats at journalists and politicians. As I’ve written previously, it defies easy description.

The current state of things. There’s every indication that the occupation is settling in for a long siege. There are food markets and hairdressers setting up shop, with no request to see a vaccine pass. While the protest is largely described as anti-mandate, I’ve popped into the area around parliament a number of times over the past two weeks and I’ve yet to speak with someone who thinks Covid-19 vaccinations are safe. However, the days where a phalanx of police and protesters stood all day in opposition seem to be over at the moment. With a number of groups competing for leadership, a situation Toby Manhire describes in The Spinoff today, no one is in charge and the protest has no codified set of demands. An immediate end to all Covid-19 rules seems to be the one unifying call, along with anger at the prime minister and a fear of vaccines. Misinformation is near universal.

This will likely end in negotiation. To get a sense of the options available to police in the coming days, I spoke with Ross Hendy, a lecturer of criminology at Monash University. “It’s really difficult because we haven’t really seen anything like this before at parliament. There have been land occupations in different parts of the country at different times, the approach that has been taken there is to negotiate and naturally come to a consensus. The deep causes have to be resolved before people leave,” Hendy told The Bulletin. He stops and takes a deep breath. “It’s complex, I think.”

With a whimper, not a bang. Stuff has exclusive polling showing 30% of New Zealanders now support the protest. While some experts have warned in the Dominion Post that the protest will “fizzle” after months, there’s a need for more immediate negotiations to clear Wellington’s roads. The form of those negotiations is now being set. As One News reports, the speaker gathered all parliament’s parties to agree on how to approach the protest. In the end, they all agreed not to start a dialogue until the protest is “within the law”, by clearing all illegally parked cars, removing all structures and stopping the “intimidation of Wellingtonians”.

This could be a very slow process. There’s just no appetite in New Zealand for mass arrests and the application of overwhelming police force to clear parliament’s groups. Chris Cahill, the president of the Police Association, said as much to Newstalk ZB. He said the group camping outside parliament will probably still be there in three months, however he expects the vehicles blocking neighbouring streets will need to be cleared in the coming days. I asked to speak with Cahill, but the association said he won’t speculate on how the protest will end. I sent Cahill’s staff the interview he’d just done with ZB where he did just that. They stopped answering my emails. I’ll take the silence as a reflection of the delicate policing situation.

Police have responded to the protest over the past week by pulling back. Apart from a few constables standing on the forecourt of parliament, there’s little sense that anyone is keeping an eye on the protest any more. Even where you’d think enforcement would be heaviest, right at the foot of parliament’s front steps, protesters have hopped over two sets of temporary barricades, one plastic and the other concrete, and scrawled graffiti without so much as a verbal warning. As the police have retreated, the protest has spread further from parliament, with some protesters setting up checkpoints on the surrounding streets. Instead of police deciding who is coming in and out of the area, the protesters now are.

Keep going!