Covid 19 Omicron protest: Police ramp up actions as tensions rise at Parliament occupation

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Tensions are rising at the anti-Covid-restrictions protest at Parliament with police actions ramping up and reports of infighting among groups present.

It comes after Tuesday saw some of the most violent scenes of the now 15-day occupation of the nation’s heart of democracy.

Three officers were hospitalised after an unknown substance was thrown on them and three people were arrested – including the driver of a car that deliberately drove towards police shortly after 6am.

After installing concrete barriers in eight locations on Monday to restrict access to the wider protest site, police returned in the early hours to shift some further in.

Police assistant commissioner Richard Chambers said officers had at the time equipped themselves with shields, with reports protesters planned to again throw faeces at them.

Following the attempted car-ramming and substance thrown at officers, Chambers said they were appalled by the “absolutely disgraceful” behaviour of protesters, and highlighted concerning suggestions of sexual assaults at the protest camp.

Chambers said while they were continuing to negotiate with protest leaders who were supportive of returning the protest to a lawful one, those leaders had lost control over the wider protest.

Chambers said they were working towards returning the occupation to a “peaceful, lawful protest”, with illegally-parked vehicles removed, within days.

“The sooner the better that is for everybody.”

The past two days have marked a stark contrast to the weekend, when surging numbers and even a concert on Saturday gave the occupation a family-friendly festival feeling and sense of momentum behind the cause.

Come Monday many protesters had departed, a lot simply because the weekend had ended and with plans to return, but others reported on social media leaving after the mood changed, with more infighting and disputes over the way forward.

Some protesters have criticised Leighton Baker, former New Conservative Party leader, who has been negotiating with police, accusing him of not giving enough notice about police actions and capitulating to their demands.

Others have speculated about people being planted by police to stir agitation – something Chambers vehemently denied.

Media also continue to be confronted when reporting from inside the protest camp on Parliament grounds, despite assurances from protest leaders this would not happen.

Police have evidently sought to take advantage of this lull in activity and rising divisions, and over the past two days have blocked off vehicle access to prevent people from returning and others from joining.

These actions have also hindered a range of services essential to maintaining the occupation, from trucks entering to service the portaloos to the delivery of food and water and rubbish collection, all adding to the tensions among protesters.

At about 5pm about 100 police returned, some donning riot gear, to those blockades, with a forklift driver removing the blocks from pallet crates they’d been sitting atop to make them even more difficult to shift.

Despite some initial anxiety among protesters speakers urged the crowd to remain calm with chants of “love and peace”, but the sheer police presence again increased tension among those gathered.

The high point of Tuesday appeared to be the arrival of New Zealand First leader and former deputy prime minister Winston Peters – one of only a few former politicians to have visited the occupation (Act leader David Seymour the only current MP who has met with protesters).

The 76-year-old Peters spoke at length with protesters while unmasked, earning mostly supportive chants, although at least one protester aggressively confronted him about his previous support for Covid restrictions, calling him a “traitor”.

Peters refused to speak to media at length, and although responding to questions from protesters, he criticised the Government for not having met with them.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the behaviour of protesters and attacks on police in Wellington as “disgraceful”.

“There are a group that are increasingly acting out in a violent way towards police officers who are only doing their job,” Ardern said.

All parties in Parliament have said they would not engage with those who were breaking the law in the occupation in Wellington at the moment, Ardern said.

To anyone who has said this is a peaceful protest, they could surely see now that in some quarters it was not, Ardern said.

“What is happening in Wellington is not New Zealand. To see that difference in view being expressed [at the protest] does not make us a divided society.”

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