This week’s headlines have followed the ‘protest’ in Parliament’s grounds. Last night it was hoped that turning on the sprinklers, together with forecast rain, might dampen the protestor’s ardour to the extent they would depart. Diffusing protests with sprinklers sounds great from the point of view of peaceful resolution. However, the protestors covered the sprinklers with road cones and made a social media call for plumbers in the crowd to assist; human resilience at work.
I put the word ‘protest’ in inverted commas because the strangest thing about this event is its incoherence. What are people protesting? There is no single leader and no single issue that is being communicated. Calls range from railing against the ‘plandemic’, to shutting of the Marsden oil refinery, to manipulating children’s genomes through vaccines, to vaccine mandates. The protest could be a true form of anarchy, in that the participants are not recognising authority, including within their own group. If there is no core issue being protested, nor any specific request being made, it is going to be very difficult to resolve the protest in any active way, because their needs cannot be answered.
I would think the only way such a protest will end ‘naturally” is because protesting stops being fun. There is an intrinsic excitement in people massing together, (protests, sports games or concerts). If that excitement is lost then the crowd will diminish. I guess it wasn’t a coincidence that the protest commenced the same week as Parliament returned after the summer recess. There’s little point being at a stadium when the game isn’t on.
The protest does have a general slant of protesting restrictions that have been put in place to reduce circulation of coronavirus. The trouble with a general protest against restrictions is that some restrictions remain useful and minimally restrictive e.g. masks to slow spread of virus between people and reduce load one our hospital system, while other restrictions might be too severe e.g. waiting till October to allow people generally to come into New Zealand without having to go through MIQ.
One things that is certain is that the level of ‘anti-‘ sentiment in New Zealand is rising. While the protestors are anti-mandates, there are increasing numbers of people who are anti- the protestors. I don’t enjoy seeing people I know proclaiming on social media that the protestors should be summarily removed because they are breaking the law. It looks to me like some of the protestors are breaking the law, and some are not – it is legal to protest at Parliament, the rules for such protests are published online. In the case of protestors breaking the law e.g. by erecting tents and blocking roads, should police simply haul people off? You would get a nasty shock if you went over the speed limit and the police hauled you out of your car and off to the police station… The police have an interesting and difficult line to walk in a society that prefers not to rule by force.
The effect of the protests are definitively more widespread than the protests themselves. The owner of the Backbencher Pub was interviewed on National Radio yesterday. He has closed his pub because of the vitriol directed at himself and his staff for trying to enforce red traffic light rules, which they need to do if they are to stay open. This owner said he is sympathetic to some of the calls from the protestors; he feels like the government is overstepping the mark in the degree of restrictions on the populace. He is one of many. There are plenty of New Zealanders who are happy we kept COVID at bay with closed borders but who are wondering about the scale of restrictions in the face of Omicron. The protest is going to make such people more dissatisfied and restless.
It gets worse, too. The Backbencher Pub owner is frustrated by the protestors making him close, and by the government restrictions, and by the protestors not getting shut down by government, while he has to behave according to the rules to stay open. He is now a lot more annoyed that he was before the protests took place, although the same restrictions are in force. I also doubt a slight reduction in restrictions will reduce his current frustration much, because he will still be annoyed that the protestors ‘got away’ with their bad behaviour.
We are gradually ramping up levels of tension in a society that is also stressed by inflation making it harder for people to acquire what they need on a daily basis. A society that has been stressed by the global pandemic for 2 years (likely less than the rest of the world, but relativity to other people’s frustration is not important in this context). A society disrupted massively from where it sat 2 years ago. A society that remains scared by the prospect of the coming Omicron wave as it is still uncertain about how illness, hospitalisation and death will play out.
In such a climate, it seems like the best course of action is to be deliberately measured in what we say, on-line and in person. It might be best to understate what we would like to state. Writing this I think about black pots and glasshouses. I am not the wallflower who sits around being quiet when I think there are important issues to be raised and that other people are tiptoeing around the daisies. However, I can try…