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Source: Massey University

Dr John Battersby says the perpetrators of violence in Wellington on 2 March were rioters, and their dispersal does not equate to the resolution of a protest.

There was genuine relief in the streets of Wellington the day after the violence subsided. In an unusually fine and still capital morning, with the rancid stench of a landfill wafting about, there was a sense we had our city back. Ordinary people could come and go again, without being abused or harangued for exercising their freedom of movement because others exercised their right to protest.

But the dispersal of a riot is not the resolution of a protest. They’re different things. And if the underlying issues at the heart of the latter go unaddressed, then protest will go on. These revolve around the segregation of our society – a state of affairs entirely unacceptable based on gender or race, but openly institutionalised on vaccination status. It seems the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is unleashed now. Those returning to New Zealand are more likely to catch it here than to bring it with them. How long do we keep this up? This is a reasonable question that many of us ponder.

The scientific evidence that vaccination reduces serious illness and death stacks up, so dissenters need to offer evidence-based alternatives. Protest all you like – but what is your answer for keeping New Zealander’s safe? I am not taking sides here – I am not telling you what to think. I am trying to prompt us all into thinking, critically, about everything.

This includes any mythmaking as the powerful seek to reclaim the peace – “this is not us.” Voices have emerged from the ‘righteous’ attempting to reassert their control of the protest with constant assertions that the violence was due to foreign influences, conspiracy theories, mis-information and of the Alt-Right. There have even been claims that the protests from the Springbok Tour weren’t this violent. Yet they were, and none of this is new.

This is us.

Amid the chaos of the Depression years, the 1951 waterfront strike, the Vietnam War period, the 1981 Springbok tour and others, those motivated by a perfectly reasonable desire to dissent and challenge the status quo created situations that attracted those far more violently disposed. The Springbok tour saw several protests turn to riots. One activist publicly admitted years later that he and others had turned up just to fight police. A number of protestors and police officers were seriously injured in the months of protest and rioting that occurred. Additionally, there were multiple death threats, bomb threats – a number of improvised explosive devices were located. A small number exploded. One exploded underneath a raised section of the Wellington urban motorway. If this wasn’t us, then who was it?

There was a noticeable reluctance by the Lange government to legislate against domestic terrorism after the Rainbow Warrior bombing in 1985, for fear it would leave uncomfortable questions about the protest tactics in 1981 that its key supporters had sympathised with.

Protest activity over the Vietnam War and Apartheid in South Africa did not start with New Zealand’s involvement with those countries. It started when protests began internationally, which inspired an emerging generation to emulate what our new television screens were showing happening overseas. Social media is having a similar effect now. By sanitising the uncomfortable aspects of these past events as we have done, we risk mainstream misinformation.

The Alt-Right appear to be the new bogeymen, an acceptable target of our prejudice who mainstream media, and other interest groups, are exhibiting a clear desire to pin the riot on. There’s evidence that individuals associated with identity-based groups were present, as were a mish-mash of others, many of whom had no particular ideology, some clearly anti-authority, and others simply keen to indulge in violence. The images of nonsensical signs asserting factual errors and people wearing tin foil hats suggests that most prevalent extremism in New Zealand currently is an uncritical acceptance of contestable information. 

How about less spin, less selective memory creating myth, the availability of more evidence-based information, and a critical questioning of everything – even our own views – by all of us.

Dr John Battersby is a Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, and a specialist on terrorism and counter-terrorism. He is Managing Editor of National Security Journal and Fellow of the Commonwealth Security Group, London. The opinion expressed here is his own and not necessarily that of any organisation he is associated with.