10 Jan 2023

Parliament protests: Charges dropped after month-long occupation

9:39 am on 10 January 2023

By Hazel Osborne of Open Justice by NZ Herald

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Security staff and police monitor the crowd's at the protest at Parliament in February last year. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It has been nearly 10 months since the first arrests were made outside Parliament during a protest that held the Capital, and the country, on tenterhooks. One woman who was arrested but has since had her charge dropped speaks out about her experience.

When Susan Denham stood in court after being arrested during the Parliament protests, she told the judge she was just a regular person.

"I'm not a criminal, I'm a regular person who just wants peace and normality."

Weeks earlier, she'd joined a convoy from her Christchurch home that made its way to Parliament. Weeks after her arrest she would watch the protest reach its violent end.

Within days of arriving in Wellington, she was arrested, taken into custody and charged with wilful trespass.

The 41-year-old cosmetic tattoo artist is one of 122 people arrested and charged with trespassing on Parliament's front lawn in the first week of the protest that lasted nearly a month.

The number of total arrests from the protests is more than double that, with 253 people charged "in relation to protest activity", according to police.

Denham was notified in August via email, six months after her arrest, that her charge had been dropped.

She said hers was not an isolated example and many of those arrested alongside her have had their charges withdrawn.

In statistics provided to Open Justice by police, 160 people who were arrested between 9 February and 4 March have since had their charges withdrawn.

A reported 29 individuals received diversion for one or more charges, 17 have pleaded guilty, two youths received a warning, one person was found not guilty and 42 people are still facing charges before the courts.

Two people were arrested for breaching bail.

Police arrested a further 40 people after 4 March in relation to the protests. Charges have not been withdrawn from that group but six people have pleaded guilty, one has been sentenced and four youths have been dealt with either through referrals and warnings or alternative resolution.

Denham described being part of the protest convoy as one of the best moments of her life.

When she arrived at Parliament in early February, she was among the first groups of protesters to park up.

"A lot of people had lost a lot of things... they had no choice but to get on that convoy to Wellington," she told Open Justice.

Denham, who was vaccinated before attending the protests, said a number of people at the protest had their own agendas, from conspiracy theorists or MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters.

However, her cause was simple.

"For me, it wasn't personal it wasn't about the mandates... I went there for other people who couldn't afford to lose their jobs."

For the most part it was peaceful, according to Denham, but on 10 February, the tide turned when police descended on the "Freedom Village" and took 122 people into custody.

Denham said protesters came from across society, from grandmothers with knitting needles to gang members and their patches.

Day 15 Police at Covid convoy protest Parliament, Wellington on 22 February 2022.

A peaceful protester on day 15 of the protest at Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

There were 50 tents on Parliament's lawn when she and a large number of protesters linked arms against a wall of police.

The group would sing peace songs, Denham said. They would spark up conversations with police - and some officers would chat back. That was before the arrests began.

When she was put in the "paddy-wagon", Denham's main thought was "what the f*** have I done".

"I didn't think I'd be arrested and I didn't know what was going on."

Denham thought she had ruined her life. She knew nothing about getting arrested and being put in a prison cell or appearing in court as a defendant.

She chose to spend two days in a police cell and three in a women's prison, rather than signing her bail bond on a charge she refused to recognise.

She was joined by several other women who took the same stance.

When she appeared in court a day after her arrest, Open Justice was there to hear her plea to Judge Jenny Binns.

"I'm just a regular person that went from playing netball and being convinced to go on a convoy, to standing here," she told the court.

"I'm not a criminal."

After she was released from prison, she returned to the protest and stayed there until 2 March, when the protests came to a violent and fiery end.

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The protests came to a fiery end on 2 March after weeks of occupation. Photo: RNZ

Denham said the "inhumane treatment" reached boiling point that day and she spent time trying to talk people down.

Her efforts were futile, with protesters hurling bricks at police.

Denham said there were many who had lost everything due to the mandates.

"I could see in some people's eyes that some could be violent."

She described her own journey through the legal system as confusing, particularly accessing legal aid.

"[It] confuses the s*** out of a regular person and most people who went through the court are regular people," she said.

Her legal fees were covered by crowdfunding but others had to use their own money to defend their charges, she believed. Many were jobless because of mandates.

"Lots of people didn't have an income at all."

Denham, who was part of the protests for three weeks, said she didn't condone the violence that broke out on the final day, but her trust in police had been broken.

"Being up against them that day and for so many hours.... when it came to the end and we were pushed right down to the bottom, when people started throwing bricks, I wasn't surprised," she said.

"I don't condone any of that behaviour, I would never want to see that behaviour... [but] you can only poke a sleeping bear for so long."

The police

More than a third of police staff who were involved with the protest have been referred to support services in dealing with the impacts from their experiences.

Many police suffered physical and psychological damage during the occupation and it was reported this year that those impacts were significant for frontline staff.

Information released under the Official Information Act shows 35 staff were referred to psychologists with more than 750 referred to wellness advisers months after the protests ended.

Five police officers were hit in the head by flying bricks, and some lost consciousness.

The numbers

During the occupation, 253 people were arrested in relation to protest activity in and around Parliament Grounds between 9 February and 4 March.

  • 160 people have had charges withdrawn
  • 29 people received diversion on one or more charge
  • 17 pleaded guilty to one or more charge
  • 2 youths received a warning
  • 2 breach of bail arrests with the individual receiving a warning
  • 1 person was found not guilty
  • 42 people still have active prosecutions for one or more charge

Prosecutions after March 4

  • 40 arrests
  • 6 guilty pleas
  • 1 person sentenced
  • 0 withdrawn
  • 4 youth referrals or warnings
  • 1 alternate resolution for youth

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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