Thursday, March 03, 2022

Thoughts on a riot

Like a lot of Aotearoa, I spent today watching the police's efforts to clear the anti-vaxx / pro-Nazi occupation from Parliament and surrounding streets. Initially, it was mostly pushing and shoving, with some fire extinguishers and pepper-spray when things got heated. But after police began to take back Parliament grounds, it rapidly devolved into a full-on riot, with occupiers setting fires and throwing metal poles and cobblestones at police. They burned the Parliamentary playground, and tried to burn down the Old Government Building, the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere. At one stage, they (again) tried to use a car as a weapon, reversing rapidly into a police line. I am amazed that no-one was killed.

It was probably always going to end this way. This occupation was violent from the start, with nooses, death threats, and execution lists from day one, and (fortunately muppetlike) attempt to storm Parliament in the first few days. As it embedded itself, it harassed and intimidated locals, while relying on the persistent threats of violence to discourage police action. And when the police finally did take action to stop it from taking over the streets and making them unsafe for local residents, the occupiers escalated their violence, throwing shit and acid and driving cars at police lines. This was just more of the same.

In the aftermath, I'm concerned about what this will mean for the right to protest, and particularly the right to protest at Parliament, where the government has to see you. Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard is already talking about turning it into a walled fortress, allowing the government to lock the gate whenever it doesn't want to hear from the peasants, and in the wake of this shitshow - which was nothing like any protest I have ever seen before in Wellington - he might be allowed to. A better idea would be to focus on the actual problem, and block cars, not people, either temporarily when required, or by pedestrianising the entire government precinct. Parliament's grounds are the People's Lawn, a taonga, and Mallard needs to guard them on our behalf, not try and lock them away from us.

I'm also concerned about what it means for police use of force. Generally, this was very restrained (which is good), but the final stages saw the police using rubber bullets on the streets against stone-throwing rioters. Which is not something I recall happening before in Aotearoa, and seems to be a significant escalation. It may have been a justified and proportionate use of force - cobblestones can cause serious injury, or even kill - but no-one should be comfortable with it, and we should all be deeply concerned that the police will start taking such weapons to protests in future, rather than keeping them in reserve for extreme situations (its bad enough that they're allowed to take tasers, which should never be required at any normal protest in Aotearoa).

Finally, I hope the "celebrities", media figures, and politicians who enabled and excused this shitshow are taking a good, hard look at themselves at the moment. Today's events may not have been what people like David Seymour or rich white boat dude intended, but its how it ended up, and the public are fully entitled to judge them for their role in it, both politically and socially. If you were a friend to the occupiers, you should expect to have no friends now, because that stench sticks. And if they don't like that, well, maybe they should have shown a bit more care in their choice of friends.