Covid 19 Omicron: 122 arrested in unprecedented day of protest at Parliament

More than 120 people were arrested in a volatile day of “unprecedented” protests at Parliament yesterday, with stretched police indicating the anti-vaccine mandate occupation could last days.

Wellington District Commander Superintendent Corrie Parnell said on top of 900 officers in the district another 150 had been pulled in from across the country, with potentially more to come.

Protesters say the standoff will last until mandates are removed.

By the end of day 3, dozens of tents remained on Parliament lawn, with food services and portaloos set up and reports of reinforcements arriving from across the country.

Parking wardens escorted by police began ticketing vehicles on Thursday, which have been blocking streets around Parliament and causing severe disruption to businesses.

It is also understood the NZ Army is being considered to remove vehicles if tow-trucks are unavailable.

Tensions flared as police moved into “enforcement mode”, and scores of officers advanced on the crowd.

Protesters pitched tents on Tuesday, the protest’s first day – in breach of the rules for protest, which prohibit putting up any structures on Parliament’s ground and making threats to the public.

A trespass notice was also issued on Tuesday.

The Speaker, who has jurisdiction over the grounds, asked police to assist Parliamentary security in enforcing the rules, including giving permission to temporarily close the grounds to the public.

During the confrontation, protesters urged each other to remain calm and not to resist arrest.

However, violent scenes ensued and police arrested more than 120 people.

Some protesters, including those with the Voices for Freedom group, have claimed those arrested and instigating violence were separate to the main group of protesters.

The confrontations included ugly scenes of police dragging protesters onto the concrete, physically holding them down as other protesters swarmed around them.

Police used pepper spray twice, once injuring an officer by accident.

Another officer suffered a few minor scratches.

Parnell denied allegations from protesters of excessive force by officers.

“I think if you’ve watched any of the footage today, which I have intently, our people have acted proportionately, fairly and very professionally.”

Those arrested were charged with trespass or obstruction, bailed to later appear in court and given a trespass notice, Parnell said.

CCTV and drones are being used to monitor and identify protesters who may return after being arrested and trespassed, he said.

Parnell said officers would stay at Parliament overnight and continue to monitor the protesters. Additional officers would be coming from all over the country in the next few days.

“This was never going to be a short task in front of us,” he said.

Officers initially had communication with key organisers, but Parnell said that was no longer the case, citing the multiple groups protesting and a lack of leadership.

“What’s transitioned today, you will have seen, is a number of arrests; we have moved now to a state of enforcement action.

“This is unprecedented for New Zealand, we haven’t had an occupation of this scale.”

Parnell said the health and safety of staff and the public were “paramount” given the nature of the protest.

He acknowledged the right to protest but said activity from protesters had affected people and businesses.

“Our role will remain law and order and fundamentally [to] restore the peace, which we will stay focused on,” he said.

Director of criminal justice at University of Canterbury Dr Jarrod Gilbert said the group had been given a suitable amount of time to protest for their cause.

“I think that’s appropriate in a democracy, regardless of the merit of the protests. But at a certain point, particularly around blocking the street, it becomes an issue that needs to be resolved.

“When is long enough? I think that most reasonable people would say that time is approaching fast.”

Police had handled the situation “as good as we could possibly expect” by removing some protesters and dampening down the protest without escalating problems further.

“We don’t want the solution to be worse than the problem. The idea that they’ve gone in without any shields or batons, without aggression, and are attempting to end the situation as peacefully as possible is something that we should be encouraging.”

Political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards said there had been much larger protests at Parliament before, and also ones that involved camping out, but there was “something quite different about this one”.

“It is quite a small but passionate group who are here for the long haul. The fact they have set up camps and systems, even feeding themselves; we are into very different territory.”

There was also an “incoherence” to the protest, with lack of central messages and organisation, making it difficult to engage with the wider public, he said.

“Typically protests do seek to disrupt, but have a central message and attempt to gain sympathy from the public to put pressure on politicians to make change.

“The hostility to media, to politicians, to even members of the public, does not appear to be going down well either.”

Attempts by the Herald to reach protest organisers have not been successful, but protesters spoken to largely indicated strong anti-vaccine and anti-mandate rhetoric.

The Herald has also viewed a vast array of concerns, including misinformation about vaccines and natural immunity, along with protests about Oranga Tamariki, Three Waters reforms and even about saving Marsden Pt near Whangārei.

Edwards said compared to Covid-19 protests of the past, this was quite united behind the anti-mandate message, although there was also a common distrust of authority.

“It is obvious a lot of people are more marginal elements of society who feel oppressed, betrayed in some way.”

Given the level of violence and confrontation, Edwards said some might draw comparisons to the Springbok Tour. However, the level of division was incomparable, he said.

“During the Springbok Tour arguably the country was split 50/50, there was a real feeling of civil war. Whereas here they might have support of 2 to 3 per cent or so; the unvaccinated.”

Polls have also shown strong public support for mandates in certain workforces and vaccine certificates.

Earlier Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said while there was “a lot of emotion” at the protest, the views held were not reflective of most people.

She added it was time the protesters moved on.

Meanwhile, convoy protests in Ottawa, Canada – the genesis for these protests, have crippled the city for a fortnight and disrupted trade with the United States.

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