Fairly early in the occupation protest against mandatory vaccination, I walked through the site on my commute to work from Wellington Railway Station. I didn’t “go exploring”, just went my usual way, but slowly.
I was unmasked but carrying my mask in my hand, as I had just worn it on the train and would soon wear it again to get into my workplace.
It was earlyish and the relatively few protesters up and about were making breakfast or other preparations for the day. If anyone looked up to notice me, I’d say or nod “Good morning”, and occasionally the degree of eye-contact enabled me to stop and ask a question or two – for example, about the meaning of nearby banners.
I was neither for them nor against them on the issue of mandatory vaccination, just curious, and that seemed to be enough to enable a conversation or two to take place. Those I spoke to were civil and friendly, not vehement, aggressive or mad-eyed – just Kiwis, though upset Kiwis.
That experience enabled me to maintain a basic sympathy through all the drama that ensued – the size and duration of the protest, the motley causes, the chronic protesters and simple trouble makers that attached themselves to the main cause, the resulting inconvenience to some Wellingtonians and the very bad behaviour of some participants in the occupation.
I found that this sympathy was reinforced by the constant and pervasive barrage of condemnation and vilification of the protesters by countless journalists and letters to the editor. This commentary was uniformly furious and contemptuous – and was unjustly directed at all the protesters, not just those who behaved badly.
They were described as anti-science, superstitious, ignorant, filthy, spreaders of disease, anarchists, deluded religious cranks, free-loaders (whose benefits should be cut), and on it went day after day. It quickly became repetitive and just kept hammering away.
Much of this commentary was not even genuine, but entirely capricious and hypocritical. I know this because I asked a friend who was railing against the protesters’ behaviour whether he was equally critical of similar behaviour at leftist protests (eg BLM and LGBTQI+). I suspected that his judgement (and the judgement of many others) about protester behaviour was linked to his view of the protesters’ cause. I was astonished by his candour: “No”, he replied, he gave those superior leftist protesters a free pass for their conduct. To his credit, he was discomfited by this revelation.
The same caprice was evident in opinion articles by “expert” protest organisers (such as Kassie Hartendorp, “The real meaning of freedom for all”, Dominion Post 18/2) who wrote lyrically about their support for the democratic right of protest – Hartendorp says protest is “spiritual” – with the minor caveat that their support depended on protesters’ “values”. Here’s Kassie Hartendorp (online version) (if you think I haven’t been fair to her and her article, do please let me know):
Despite all this caprice, the commentary included the reasonable point that freedom carries responsibility. However, only some participants in the occupation acted irresponsibly (and even criminally). I have no reason to believe the leaders of the core protest were able to control the behaviour of everyone who showed up.
The commentary tended to overlook the fact that the organisers of this protest are relatively new to the game. They lack the expertise of leftist protesters who have learned from many decades of practice at protesting, both with and without violence. At grass-roots level, the left pretty much “owns” the skill of manipulative messaging; and even their violence is well organised, courtesy of Antifa and other groups.
Of all the wrong things that took place during the occupation, it was the unrelenting supremacist commentary, and the moral conceit underlying it, that made the biggest impression on me.
This impression deepened further when I noticed that so many commentators used the apparent minority status of the protesters as just another reason to revile them. New Zealand culture has been strangely dominated by minorities in recent years. By some minorities, I mean. It turns out that this influence has nothing to do with minority status at all – nothing to do with supporting the underdog – as we now know that some “other” minorities (the wrong ones) are given so special recognition or support at all. In fact, they are despised.
It seems to me that New Zealand’s exciting new cultural values are a little murky; and that it is time they were put on the table, face up, and discussed.
We have now witnessed the creation of a leper class. I hope that merely recognising that something this dreadful has happened will give rise to a pause during which we can gather around that table and discuss those values. This discussion is urgent.