The day the park of parliament burned down
March 2 is now forever inscribed in New Zealand history. Toby Manhire examines the forces that brought us here and asks what comes next.
The ending was ugly. A reel of scenes that seemed to come from a distant place shone against the backdrop of our parliament. Hundreds of riot police, many wearing body armor. Pepper spray. Sonic cannons. Fire hoses. Rioters threw bricks, fire extinguishers, whatever they could get their hands on, all raining down on plastic shields. Fires were started on the crumbling grounds, tents turned into pyres, the crowd fueling the flames with cardboard, plywood, gas cylinders – indifferent to anyone who might be nearby. The children’s playground was the target of arsonists. Someone tried to burn down the old government buildings.
One of the ugliest days in our history, but it could have been uglier. By the end of March 2, 2022, the motives of parliament were clear, if barely recognizable. The police – whose restraint throughout was commendable – did not expect to accomplish so much by dusk. No one had stormed the Houses of Parliament. No one had lost their life.
Hindsight suggests that Commissioner Andrew Coster erred in not adopting the tough and early mantra in dealing with the illegal encampment. Likewise, the outbursts of violence in response to yesterday’s effort justified his assessment that attempting to end the occupation when it was two or three times larger would have created an unacceptable risk for all.
In a new episode of Gone By Lunchtime, Annabelle Lee-Mather, Justin Giovannetti and Toby Manhire assess the repression in parliament, the political response to the occupation and the omicron push.
For more than three weeks, the occupation of the Parliament grounds in Wellington was disproportionately large in relation to the number of participants. Pipitea’s crowds, even at their peak, were only a speck compared to the thousands of people who quietly traveled every day to get vaccinated, to protect themselves, the healthcare system and the community at large against omicron’s worst havoc. It was not an expression of a New Zealand divided down the middle. But as unpredictable as the components of the saga are – from Barry Manilow to rubber bullets to desperately sad scenes of people buying very obvious bullshit that their Covid-19 infection was actually a weapon-induced disease electromagnetic – the momentum he built on was not.
In the same way obvious since the protest in parliament in November last year, it was the product of misinformation, fear and conspiracy, the import of ideas, languages and memes from abroad. All far too serious and grounded to ignore an old savvy not serious. Just as human waste was pumped beneath the busy streets, a malignant, violence-hungry undercurrent ran beneath the parliamentary campsite. The slogan of the 22-day occupation went something like this: Peace, Love and, you know, Execution by hanging of politicians, academics, journalists and policemen.
This does not mean that the majority of people who gathered during the occupation were violent. Most were upset, broken, distressed, isolated, discontented, helpless. Part of our challenge is to welcome these people into their homes with compassion. But as anyone who cared to lift a single stone on the grounds of Parliament or its social media substrates could see, the induction of anti-mandate and anti-vaccine to be tried for genocide was terrifyingly effective. Somewhere in between were the “natural healing” scammers who claim psychic power to cure cancer and the nurse who told the crowd that her lamb’s blood had turned thick and black because he had been touched by the spouse of a vaccinated person.
Like many people who grew up, worked and loved the city of Wellington, I feel genuine sadness that the grounds of Parliament, when they reopen, are bound to be different: less user-friendly, less accessible, less easy to enter by accident. . But that’s just one of the overseas realities that are hurtling down at our feet.
On the ground floor of the Beehive late afternoon yesterday, as the sounds of an ongoing riot echoed just yards away, Jacinda Ardern addressed the press and public. As she had done after the mosque attacks in 2019, as she had done after the arrival of Covid-19 a year later, the prime minister tried to distill the crisis facing Aotearoa.
“One day it will be our job to try to understand how a group of people could succumb to such wild and dangerous misinformation,” she said. “And while many of us saw this misinformation and dismissed it as a conspiracy theory, a small portion of our society not only believed it, it acted on it in extreme and violent ways.”
She was right that no New Zealander should allow our Covid response to be set in the last three weeks. But neither should we view what happened as a fleeting freak show. After the appalling racist mass murder of March 15, 2019, Christchurch’s call was made and good faith action was taken to curb the spread of extremism online. Today, this process seems all too friendly. Offshore tech giants, alongside newer but rapidly growing fringe channels, continue to be extraordinarily effective means of spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation, while raking in extravagant, largely tax-free profits. . As Te Pūnaha Matatini’s Sanjana Hattotuwa has shown, the past month has frequently seen misinformation fueled by social media past breath the reach of reality-based media on Facebook.
Yesterday in parliament we were served a heartbreaking illustration of what happens when you let the mind virus rip itself apart. In a few days, we will mark the third anniversary of something much worse, something that has shown how extremism and online radicalization do not need an army to sow unspeakable terror.
I was probably wrong to say at the start that yesterday was the end. The most dangerous ringleaders grow bolder, even though most of them had slipped away when the people they had provoked to violence launched makeshift missiles at the police. These people don’t give a fuck about warrants or face masks; they are more interested in declaring Covid a hoax, claiming that trafficked children are locked up by pedophile politicians under the beehive and plotting an overthrow of the entire system of government, with ‘Nuremberg 2.0’ trials and a field of executions. And they see their mailing lists and Facebook groups growing.
One would think that the “sensible” and “moderate” groups who declared themselves leaders of the “anti-mandate” challenge would repudiate these positions, distance themselves from the extremists within them. What could be simpler ? One would think that the anti-vax group Voices for Freedom, for example, would shun such people, especially given their claim in a weird puff piece the other day they represent the majority of people at the demonstration. Surely? Nope. Despite numerous invitations to do so, not a word.
One such extremist, Kelvyn Alp, a would-be cult leader who commands an audience of tens of thousands, yesterday lamented that March 2, 2022 would have been different if his “boys” could have fired AK-47s. of their car boots. They couldn’t because they had been “disarmed…under a false flag,” he said, referring to gun law reforms that followed the 2019 terrorist atrocities. Alp and his friends are not done. As one person who keeps a close eye on this stuff told me yesterday, “now they have megaphones.”