New Zealand police step in to end protests, and violence erupts

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New Zealand police step in to end protests, and violence erupts

For more than three weeks, hundreds of demonstrators have cordoned off the center of New Zealand’s capital, occupied the area in front of parliament and increasingly impeached politicians and other public figures in an apparent fight against the country’s vaccine mandate. Violent threats are issued.

On Wednesday, the 23rd day of the protest, police launched an aggressive crackdown in Wellington, descending on the site at 6 a.m., tearing down tents, toilets, a kitchen and other camp infrastructure, and urging protesters to leave. Eventually, most did – but without a fight.

In chaotic and sometimes bloody clashes, protesters used fire extinguishers, paint-filled projectiles, homemade plywood shields and pitchforks. Some threw stones at the officers. Others piled on the gas-fueled fire, including an explosion at a playground near Parliament.

Protest leaders against the national anthem and the soundtrack of the 1980s Māori pop song “Poi E” urged protesters to hold the line and called the police “The Gestapo”. Several officers wearing riot shields responded with pepper spray and rubber bullets. At least 60 people were arrested, and three officers were taken to hospitals.

Such scenes are rare in New Zealand, a country known for its relative remoteness, peace and stability. In this case, however, the police expected “hostility, resistance and violence”, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference. “That’s what he and the people of Wellington have experienced for several weeks.”

As the protest intensified itself, she said, the police had refrained from escalating the situation. But the escalating violence had left officials with few options in “trying to bring this business to a conclusion”.

The capture, which was prompted by recent anti-government protests by truck drivers in the Canadian capital Ottawa, was a response to New Zealand’s overly restrictive approach to the pandemic, which allowed the country to go months without a single case of community transmission .

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The restrictions appear to have isolated a small group of New Zealanders, many of whom have been left without work after refusing to comply with the country’s broad vaccine mandate.

There was a peaceful, even carnival-like atmosphere in the first days of the protest, as protesters spread mud and grass on the lawns outside Parliament and set up their campsites.

But in the weeks that followed, the makeup of the crowd changed, resulting in far more violence and forcing police to intervene, Police Commissioner Andrew Koster said at a news conference on Wednesday. “The damage being done is far greater than any legitimate protest,” he said.

The protest was unpopular from the start: in a survey conducted for almost a week, 61 percent of those surveyed opposed the occupation. Over time, hostility towards the protesters grew even more, especially as residents of Wellington faced blocked streets, harassment and violence from protesters, and an increasingly stinky protest site.

As protests related to the pandemic hit Canada and elsewhere, a section of people protesting against virus restrictions in New Zealand gradually joined the far right.

In a working paper published late last year, members of the New Zealand think tank Te Punaha Matatini warned that the two groups were merging in a disturbing manner. “The most recent COVID-19 outbreak and vaccine are highly visible, powerful symbols used to advance various far-right and conservative ideologies,” the paper’s authors wrote.

“Telegram channels and groups disseminate content that is violent, far-right and related to the conspiracy theory QAnon, which is almost frictionless to New Zealanders from vaccine hesitation to vaccine resistance and then to content that reflects broader conspiratorial ideologies. Indicates transfer,” they added.

By Wednesday evening, police had cleared most of the protest site, forcing the few remaining protesters to flee instead of facing them. Some got off at the city’s nearest central train station, and at least one group headed to the camper van parking areas in Porirua, 50 miles west of the capital. Several dozen people remained on the streets in the vicinity of Parliament.

Speaking at the news conference, Ms Ardern praised the police and said it would take two reviews to determine whether more could have been done to stop the capture. She hoped that the events of the day would not change how New Zealanders remembered their response to the pandemic.

“When we look back at this period in our history, I hope we remember one thing,” said Ms Ardern. “Thousands of lives were saved over the past two years by your actions as a New Zealander on the front lawn of Parliament today.”

Pete Mackenzie Contributed to reporting.

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