5 Mar 2022

Parliament amok: A photo essay

From The House , 5:20 pm on 5 March 2022

In an early morning operation on Wednesday, 2 March, large numbers of police pushed back the encroachments that had spread out from the precinct like an infection creeping up Molesworth Street, Hill Street, Aiken Street and the surrounding area. It had been confrontational but successful.

The protest had been corralled. It was time for a quick clean-up (a number of dump trucks full of rubbish and camping equipment), a rest, the processing of multiple arrests, and then perhaps the big push. 

The area around the Parliamentary Library had been cleared but the view from Parliament across the occupied lawn was little changed. Some frustrations are expressed that police have made good progress and then stopped.

A protestor holds up a white flag and, for some reason a portion of rock melon.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The ‘camp’ is calm. Placards declare peace and love, but also that media are traitors and, along with MPs, will face a Nuremberg-style trial for genocide. The protest has always exhibited a love/hate dissonance.

The occupiers’ loudspeakers are a soporific prattle over the gentle tones of a meditation soundtrack. Even paraphrased his words belie his calming tone. ‘It is nearly over’, a young man intones, ‘the country is rising up, …police and doctors will all lose their jobs... a reckoning is coming… ’. At one point the speaker’s hypnotic tone is so successful he forgets his own context and begins giving actual relaxation instructions. 

Protestor girds herself for police, finding suddenly that masks are not bad.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

But the protestors do also seem to guess the next push is coming. Bottles of milk are being cached, ready to sooth eyes; and protestors seem to have suddenly discovered that face masks actually don’t suffocate you or destroy your freedom.

As Parliament assembles inside the Debating Chamber, police assemble outside. 

In mid-February when police first tried to clear the lawn (pushing from the northern end down towards the Beehive), they were undone by protestors exiting the grounds through the lower gates, walking up Molesworth Street to re-enter behind them at the Parliamentary Library. They needed a better tactic and more officers. They had both.

Police in Parliament's grounds assemble at the northern Molesworth gate and wait for the Police on Molesworth street to meet their position.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

This time they close the gates, empty and block the tributary streets and have dual forces ready to make a unified push down Parliament’s front lawn and down Molesworth Street. 

Above, helmeted police assemble in Parliament's grounds at the northern Molesworth Street gate (foreground) and wait for the police out on Molesworth Street to push forward to meet their position (background).

Just minutes later the police on Molesworth push protestors down to a matching position.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Just minutes later the police on Molesworth have overwhelmed and pushed protestors down to a matching position. It’s on.

Police coax protestors down from the Molesworth gate posts with what appears to be fire extinguishers.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

This time no one will be allowed to circle back or outflank them, including protesters livestreaming and shouting from atop the high decorative gate posts. Police coax them down with what might be a blast from a fire extinguisher. 

The Police opted for overwhelming force

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The plan seems to involve both overwhelming force and unified fronts.

'Can we go this way?' Two protesters make a quick exit as police push through to remove the first area of tents.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

A couple of older protesters who had been offering first aid make a quick exit.

At the Parliament barrier protestors grab a last chance for live streaming some invective as police quietly hold the line

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

At the Parliament-facing barrier protestors grab a last chance to record some one-sided invective as police quietly hold their line. 

The police show impressive discipline and hold a line till the other sections can advance across a front that stretches from the forecourt barrier to the far side of Molesworth Street.

Throughout the 23-day occupation police have implacably withstood hundreds of hours of harrassment, abuse and appeal.

Odd fellows at the barricade. Two protesters stand at the forecourt barricade during the police clean-up. One holds a small New Zealand flag and wears swimming goggles, the second gives a nazi salute.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Thirty or so metres behind this odd couple at the forecourt barricade, police hit their first hold-up. They have paused to wait while the first area of tents are cleared behind them, and while they hold in place, a group of protesters have decided to move past simple trespass and resisting arrest and into assault with a weapon.

A police line waits for a picnic table to land on it

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

This image of a flying picnic table is one of a group of pictures I took that included the throwing of a picnic chair, a pallet and 3-metre lengths of 4x2 planking.

A bar stool flies at police through the mist from a fire extinquisher

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

…and the spraying of fire extinguishers, which seems relatively innocous but had the impact of obscuring officers’ view of objects about to land on them. In this case a bar stool is on its way to hit them.

A first fire is lit and fuelled by protesters.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Those fire extinguishers would have been handy if the protesters had used them to put out fires, but instead a protester group is busy lighting the fires. Add arson to the list. 

The first fire is a tent lit up in the middle of the largest camping area (about 10-15 metres in front of the police line). Immediately protesters begin finding fuel to throw on the fire, along with more things to throw at the police.

A chair flies through smoke from a fire lit in front of the police while they try to extinguish the blaze

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Police move forward far enough to aim fire extinguisers at this first blaze. But being closer to it also brings them further into throwing range. Here a chair hurtles past the smoke. Other pics show more chairs and another 4x2 landing on the police. 

Battle lines over a fire

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

It’s around this point that some protesters decide this approach is not really their kaupapa and the ranks rapidly thin out leaving just those craving violence, those live-streaming it and those cheering it on. That’s still quite a large group. 

The camp behind the police line has been largely cleared now. Police have also removed many of the placards along the demarcation line between Parliament’s forecourt and the occupation site. This way they can enter from the side if necessary.

A fire is lit under the largest pohutukawa

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Arson has slowed the police advance once so protesters use it again and again. At least five more fires are lit in Parliament's grounds. The first was in open ground, most now are lit under a tree (or in one case under a tree and the beautiful playground slide). 

The second fire is lit at the base of the ‘Royal Pōhutukawa’, planted by the then-Prince of Wales in 1920 (Edward, who later abdicated). 

Police stand in the hot embers of the first fire to aim hoses at the second.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Police stand in the hot embers of the first fire to aim hoses at the second. 

Provocateurs have suggested that police started the fires themselves (for inexplicable reasons). That is a ludicrous idea. All were started well in inside protester lines (and often quite visibly lit by protesters). Each fire paused the police advance and led to them withstanding a brutal assault until they could control it.

The third fourth fires burning on the Parliamentary lawn

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

As each fire was being controlled another was lit behind it. The third was at the base of a huge elm which (unlike the slower-to-catch pohutukawa), quickly threatened to be consumed. It is rescued, but remains badly scorched and damaged.

Protesters gathered material to add to blazes including tents, mattresses and furniture.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

And why were the fires so large and hot, even without the trees being succesfully lit? Because, each time one was lit groups of protesters would rush to gather fuel to add to it. Fuel I saw being added included other tents, mattresses, wood, furniture, basically anything handy. Unsurprisingly straw bales burn very well. Much of what burned was likely highly noxious.

A group of police dash in with fire extinguishers

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

A group of unprotected police dash in to manage hotspots with fire extinguishers.  

Make influenza great again protester with gas mask in front of fire

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

I have no idea what that is meant to mean. But it is strange that protesters suddenly seemed to have no problem wearing masks when it was to protect their identity rather than their own or others’ health. It is also interesting that throughout the occupation some protestors worked hard to make sure they and their signs were front and centre of TV cameras.

An injured police officer is carried away

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Combating the threat of a massive blaze probably forced more police (and less well protected police) onto the front line than was planned at this point and with so many projectiles being thrown there were inevitable injuries. And many of the objects thrown led to injuries regardless of helmets and armour.

By this point the police have forced the protesters to the bottom of Molesworth street and to the bottom of Parliament’s eastern slope, down onto Lambton Quay where they have also reinforced the Bowen/Lambton intersection near the cenotaph to stop them heading up either route.

'Peace' scrawled in coloured chalk on the Parliamentary forecourt

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

'Peace' scrawled in coloured chalk on the Parliamentary forecourt. Yeah, nah. I’m really not getting that vibe.

At this point a lengthy hiatus occurs where police have largely hemmed protesters into the wide street that lies between the Law School (the huge old wooden government building) and Parliament, with the Cenotaph at one end and the bus terminus at the other. 

Throwing rocks into the Police lines

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

For a lengthy period police at the perimeters use fire hoses to keep protesters at bay (and to douse the fireworks and flash-bangs that are also thrown). 

The protesters decide to up their violence and the charge sheet further. They are now breaking up the cobbled pavement  (damage to property) to hurl the sharply cornered stones at the police lines (assault with a deadly weapon possibly).

Using that much effort to hurl a deadly projectile tends to make your mask slip down your face

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The incredible thing is that many of the perpetrators are plainly and easily identifiable. And sometimes when they do attempt to cover their face, the sheer effort of hurling a deadly projectile makes the mask slip and reveals them. 

On the Lambton/Bowen corner, next tot he Cenotaph police are pelted by paving stones.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

On the Lambton/Bowen corner, next to the Cenotaph a small group of police in body armour are pelted by paving stones. And despite the armour a number are injured and dragged away. 

A paving stone is thrown at police on the Bowen/Lambton corner

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

A paving stone is thrown at police by a youth on the Bowen/Lambton Corner

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

These rock throwers were not alone. There were quite a few of them, and behind them a small crowd cheering them on, breaking and collecting the cobbles, and prompting others to get involved. I saw one young man who may well now spend a long stretch in prison hurl a cobble after being handed it by a young woman and prompted to do so.    

Protesters gain control of a fire hose and aim that at police as well

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Protesters gain control of a fire hose and aim that at police as well. 

A man throws a paving stone at police at close range

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The level of police restraint was astounding. They were being injured regularly. They were standing bravely and taking regular barrages of bricks to ensure protesters did not run amok up Lambton Quay or flank them to get back to Parliament up Bowen Street. But beyond a few borrowed fire hoses they had few options to take out the attackers without resorting to deadly force.

They had employed a deafening sound cannon with limited effect and now needed more specific options to counter those hurling deadly projectiles. Considering the battering they were receiving it was extraordinary that no one called in heavily armed police.

It wouldn’t have been very difficult. Surely there were plenty within easy reach in case they were needed. But no one did. Instead the officers stood and took a battering until a less violent solution was possible. That is extraordinary restraint, and bravery.

Police silhouetted against a projectile-strewn battle ground they have retreated from.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Police are silhouetted against a projectile-strewn battle ground they have retreated from. The cobbles are retrieved and hurled again.  

Police advance with the assistance of beanbag shotguns

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

And then officers arrive down Bowen Street with beanbag shotguns. And imediately that tips the tide. A beanbag shotgun can be seen second to left.

A tide of Police take the bottom of Lambton Quay.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

With armed support and reinforcements, a tide of police quickly take back the bottom of Lambton Quay. 

At this point the rioting is more-or-less over. But not quite. The remaining rioters are pushed up Bunny Street where windows are smashed at the Pipitea Campus and the Railway Station is closed until the dregs are brought under control. Some criminal also tries to burn down the beautiful and historic VUW Law School (which had had its own occupation camp). But it’s mostly just a mopping-up operation.

Trevor Mallard deals with the final holdouts on the Parliamentary lawn

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Back up the hill on what had been Parliament’s green and picnic-friendly lawn is now a huge scorched rubbish dump, an immense pile of detritus in a sea of mud. With the action all now off-precinct, the Speaker Trevor Mallard dons a Parliamentary Security coat and heads out front with some staff to assess the damage and plan the clean-up.

And sitting out amid the rubbish are three elderly Māori, the last hold-outs. The Speaker gently warns them to leave before police come to escort them from the premises. 

Even before the rioting is quite over a team is cleaning and replanting Parliament's flags, reminiscent of US Marines at Iwo Jima.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Even before the rioting is quite over a team is removing, cleaning and replanting Parliament's flagpoles, reminiscent of US Marines at Iwo Jima.

A ratty looking pigeon begins the cleanup.

Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

One of Parliament’s slightly ratty pigeons descends to help with the cleanup. By the next morning he will be joined by a huge grader, a digger, a cherry picker, water blasters, forklifts and dump trucks.