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Wellington Live’s First Documentary – Protested: Our City Recovers and Reflects

On the 6th of February 2022, Wellington saw flocks of anti-vaccine and anti-mandate protestors convoy into the city centre to protest outside of Parliament. Over the following 24 days, these protestors set up camp on the grounds outside of Parliament and refused to leave, ultimately ending with the March 2nd riot. We share our experience with the protest and show just how out of control things got.

 

When the protestors first arrived at Parliament grounds, nobody could predict the extent of their occupation. It was estimated that at its largest, the protest had amassed 6000 participants, with hundreds of people arriving each day. Some that were participating fell under the category of conspiracy theorists, who doubted the extremity of Covid-19 and believed that the mandates were put in place solely for government control over the people. In an interview with us, Sue Grey claimed “What we’re really dealing with is another version of the common cold, that has been hyped up into something that has terrified people.” As of the 9th of June, there have been 6.3 million Covid related deaths, 1,216 of those right here in New Zealand. 

 

At first, feeble attempts were made by the government in an effort to get the protestors to leave. ‘Musical torture’ was carried out, with speakers blasting songs like ‘Baby Shark’ and ‘Macarena’, although it was clear that this would not deter the protestors, who simply danced and sang along. A trespass notice was also issued by the government, however, this was largely ignored. 

On the 12th day, we were invited to talk to Sue Grey – one of the unofficial organisers of the protest. Grey enforced the idea that the group at Parliament was unified in wanting just one thing – for the government to drop the mandates; “We’re grown-ups, let us choose for ourselves what precautions we need to take.” Another idea that Grey tried to drill into us was that the protest was, at its core, peaceful. “I’ve seen more smiles and more hugs and more laughter than I’ve seen in the last two years.”

 

It wasn’t long before we discovered this was far from the truth. After being invited by Sue to see the protest for ourselves, our reporter Graham Bloxham and cameraman Joseph Parr attempted to enter what was then referred to as ‘Camp Freedom’, or the ‘Freedom Festival’. It was at this point that the so-called loving, friendly environment turned hostile. ‘Hold the line’ was screamed repeatedly, while sirens screeched through megaphones held by angry protestors. There was no attempt from protestors to cease the violence, and Parr was shoved from the gates while Bloxham was dragged away in a headlock. Bloxham suffered injuries including bruises and scratches on his face; “I got the full wrath of the violence that was down there”. Parr likened the experience to intruders that had been caught at the gate and highlighted the hypocrisy of this. The primary basis for protestors arguing that their occupation was completely within the bounds of the law was that Parliament’s ground is public, and the people of Wellington had a right to be there. Interestingly enough this logic did not apply to the people who protestors did not want to be present, including the media.

On the 2nd of March – 24 days since protestors first took over the grounds at Parliament – police moved in. What was supposed to be a simple task of pushing the people out quickly escalated, and in no time a full-blown riot had formed; “It was organised chaos. Chaos in a really violent and incredibly intimidating and nasty way.” Graham Bloxham went to the scene to document it via a Facebook live stream that was subsequently viewed 3 million times before it was deleted. Footage from the live stream shows bricks being thrown into police (some even by children), police water hoses blasting protestors, and much of the camp set ablaze. “I think that the protesters knew they weren’t going to be arrested, so they were enamoured by the fact that they could get away with whatever they did.” A man was even recorded reversing his car at high speed into a crowd of police, who scattered. By the evening, police had succeeded in vacating the camp.

 

The occupation lasted 24 days, with 250 arrests and 40 police officers injured, and the repercussions of the protest were felt in the months that followed. Businesses near parliament that were forced to close down for the duration of the protest slowly started opening up again, having to clean off graffiti and repair any damages that had been done by protestors. The Victoria University bookstore – Vic Books – was not so fortunate in its recovery. After dealing with extreme damage to the store including a smashed door, and closure during their busiest time of the year – Vic Uni O-Week – Vic Books will sadly be closing down. Workers whose offices were situated near parliament and had to work from home were able to return to their offices once more. Parliament grounds had to be closed to the public while the mess, including all the protestors camping equipment, was cleaned up and the grass resowed. Most of Parliament grounds were officially reopened to the public on Wednesday the 16th of March, and the remainder opened on the Thursday the 23rd of June.

It was a while until a sense of normality returned to Wellington. Mayor Andy Foster said the capital needed to find a way to heal from “the emotional feeling of a home invasion”. This documentary captures the damage done and the wide impact it has had on our city. This publication will continue to write local stories about the businesses and lives that have been affected, and keep updated on the arrests that continue to be made.