Covid 19 protest in Wellington: Top police officer reveals plan to take down occupation was not drawn up until day after morning successes

On March 3, 2022, PM Jacinda Ardern said yesterday’s violence on the grounds of Parliament was a sight she had not expected to see and that the area today looked like a “dump of ‘garbage”.

The country’s top cop revealed that police had no intention of crossing the anti-warrant protest camp on the grounds of Parliament yesterday.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said the decision to continue was made mid-day after a successful morning operation.

“It was clear the crowd had a very high level of determination to stay there and we had to take the opportunity – as long as we had the numbers – to continue and finish that job,” Coster said.

“We had no choice but to do what we did yesterday to restore the site.”

He said they tried to work with protest leaders to defuse the situation.

Fires and rioting broke out yesterday afternoon on day 23 of the protest when hundreds of officers moved in to clear the site.

Eighty-seven people have been arrested, and Coster said other charges should be dealt with.

Seven police officers were also injured.

Fortunately, none of the injuries were life-threatening and the officers were in good spirits, Coster said.

“Given the violence we saw yesterday, we are very lucky there is nothing more serious.”

Volatile scenes erupted as police worked to clear the occupation in Parliament yesterday.  Photo/Mike Scott
Volatile scenes erupted as police worked to clear the occupation in Parliament yesterday. Photo/Mike Scott

While the protest and response to it are being reviewed, Coster said he stood by his decision-making and how they handled the situation.

“Our tactics are in line with international best practice, I can tell you that,” Coster said.

He said he was proud of the teamwork, restraint and commitment shown by the police yesterday.

“I’m glad we came to this. I never wanted it to end like this, but we did what we had to do.”

Telling him the news of some protesters returning, he acknowledged that there is and will remain a heavy police presence in and around the Parliament grounds and said adamantly that no repeat protests would be permitted.

“We will not tolerate a resumption of protest in Parliament.”

How Parliament’s protest was erased

Volatile scenes erupted in Parliament as police and protesters clashed and the protest’s occupation site was obliterated.

The violence escalated mid-afternoon as police made an early morning raid on nearby streets before dismantling an encampment that appeared to be unmovable.

The occupation ended after 23 days with a major cleanup looming after what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called the desecration of New Zealand’s parliament.

Protesters and occupiers arrived for different reasons and reacted in different ways as police seized a strategic junction and then advanced on the camp yesterday.

Throughout much of the occupation, many protesters called for an end to Covid-19 vaccination mandates, although other grievances were voiced.

At 3:30 p.m. yesterday, a stream of people left the camp.

A woman standing by a makeshift door that protesters had fashioned onto steep steps outside the Beehive said she no longer knew what she was doing.

Nearby, another woman stood beside a wooden table, turned on its side, with a crown on top.

The table had been used to store chalk that people used to draw on a long high wall.

But the art created by some protesters and visitors, much of which celebrated peace and love, was quickly overshadowed by the smoke from burning tents and trees.

The woman at the table said she was leaving, as she couldn’t afford to break her bones.

The police operation began yesterday to clear protesters from Houses of Parliament in Wellington.  Photo/Mike Scott
The police operation began yesterday to clear protesters from Houses of Parliament in Wellington. Photo/Mike Scott

North of the steps, riot police met resistance as some protesters threw chairs and pieces of wood.

Explosions were heard sporadically as flammable materials in the tents ignited.

A man in the protest camp raised his hands in despair, shaking his head as he walked away from the violence.

“Get out, everything is on fire,” shouted another protester.

But another implored people nearby to give her a lighter so she could set fire to a tent.

As a playground in the gardens burned, a man in the crowd blamed authorities for the chaos and referred to actions in the first week of the occupation.

“Because you annoyed everyone at night and hit them with your sprays.”

Further into the gardens, some protesters were angry, tearing down structures and throwing materials at police.

The projectiles included wooden planks, fire extinguishers and metal poles. At 3:30 p.m., some in the crowd threw rocks and bottles at the police.

More riot police were deployed near the Hive. On the other side of the garden, the police occasionally retreated in the hail of projectiles, but their next advance always seemed to take more ground.

On the forecourt wall, people stood, virtually all with their phones turned off as a plume of smoke rose in the middle of the campsite.

Some protesters demanded milk and poured it on their faces after being sprayed with pepper spray.

At 4:20 p.m., a small group of young adults near Beehive’s main entrance were agitated, crafting weapons and throwing bottles at police.

A young man tried to throw what looked like a plastic bottle at police, but his aim was no good and he drifted sideways and then hit an elderly woman in the head.

Outrage and confusion erupted among protesters and it appears only one policeman crossed the line, running towards the crowd, appearing to inspire his colleagues to do the same.

This prompted a group of protesters to flee to the steps.

“Who has gasoline? asked a teenager at the top of the Beehive steps.

Further on, a demonstrator shouted: “Burn down the faculty of law, it’s wood!”

Lawn sprinklers, which House Speaker Trevor Mallard infamously turned on during the first week of the occupation, have been turned back on, this time to help quell the fires.

Police cleared the gardens, which were littered with rubbish, flattened tents and debris, but outbursts of violence continued to erupt on the outskirts.

A police officer was taken on a stretcher to paramedics waiting outside the Hive.

Minutes later, another officer with a head injury emerged, bloodied.

On the other side of the CBD, police armed with gas canisters exited a truck on Courtenay Place.

Closer to Parliament and shortly before 6 p.m., police appeared to fire rubber bullets and the rioters retreated.

Protesters linked arms on Molesworth Street during a police action against them on the 23rd day of the Covid-19 convoy protest at Parliament.  Photo/Mark Mitchell.
Protesters linked arms on Molesworth Street during a police action against them on the 23rd day of the Covid-19 convoy protest at Parliament. Photo/Mark Mitchell.

Eighty-seven people were arrested by early evening for offenses including trespassing, willful damage and possession of restricted weapons.

Up to 50 vehicles were towed away and about 30 others left, police said in a statement.

Police blocked the road and footpath between the Cenotaph and Lambton Quay.

Rioters ripped bricks from the paving to throw at police and a car reportedly tried to run into police on Bunny St.

“No guys no,” one protester pleaded, trying but failing to stop people tearing up the bricks. “That’s not why we came here.”

Wellington Live’s Facebook page said a dark colored station wagon rammed into police.

“It’s just too much, Wellington,” a correspondent told the page.

Police turned a fire hose on some protesters near Parliament, and rioters threw a rock and smashed glass doors at Victoria University’s Pipitea campus.

By 6.15pm, protesters were spread out on Featherston Rd as rush hour traffic continued. But the crowd seemed to have dispersed considerably.

Police then proceeded to Victoria University Law School, tearing down the tents.

As night fell, police urged people to stay away from CBD areas near the train station, Pipitea campus and the north end of Lambton Quay.

A group of volunteers called The Big Clean-Up offered to clean up trash and other waste to make the area safe.

National Party MP Mark Mitchell, a former police officer, said cops showed restraint and intent yesterday.

“In reality, in terms of what they’re up against and what the whole country has seen what they’re up against, the outcome is as good as we could have hoped for.”

Earlier, police took control of key intersections as an exhausted and seemingly deflated group of protesters lost ground.

In a clinical series of moves unprecedented in the occupation, police circled the perimeter of the protest.

At 6:30 a.m., it appeared at least 125 police were on Mulgrave Street, before crossing the Aitken Street line where concrete barriers were placed.

Emotional, sometimes desperate, scenes emerged near the Court of Appeals after some protesters were pepper sprayed yesterday morning.

By 6:47 a.m., police had taken control of the National Library, opposite the Court of Appeal and diagonally across from the Parliament Gardens.

The police movement has separated several protest groups from each other.

A spokesperson for the protest, Leighton Baker, said the Human Rights Commission had been invited to attend the protest.

“It has been a peaceful protest from day one and we will continue to do so,” he said in a morning Facebook Live interview.

At the barrier near the Cenotaph, a man in a high-visibility orange vest shouted into a road cone to amplify his voice, saying police were using excessive force.

“This is not right. This is disgraceful behavior on the part of our New Zealand Police.”

A man on a stroller gave him a thumbs up and a woman yelled “bullshit”.

– Reporting by: John Weekes, Michael Neilson, Nick James

Michael A. Bynum