New Zealanders were shocked to see a protest on the grounds of Parliament turn violent when police broke up the 23-day occupation. More than two weeks later, three people who say they are in Wellington taking a stand against vaccination mandates, talk about their time at the protest which they say was hijacked by ‘thugs’ in the end.
Brendan Shefford, Real Estate Licensee, Christchurch
The two days he spent at the demonstration on the lawn of Parliament were the best of his life, says Brendan Shefford.
The Christchurch estate agency license holder flew to Wellington with his wife, daughter and son – aged 11 and 13 – for the second weekend of the event.
They stayed in a hotel and toured the protest site for two days, talking with other protesters and hearing their stories.
He didn’t understand why some people thought the children shouldn’t be there.
“It wasn’t a place I took the kids to and as soon as I got there I thought, ‘shit, we shouldn’t have the kids…we felt safe the whole time. “
Her children were “quite moved” by the experience of hearing other people’s stories and became distraught when they watched media coverage of the protest the night after their visit.
“They were like, ‘Mom and dad, it wasn’t even like that there’.”
The family’s first sight upon arriving at the protest area was a man sweeping a path, Shefford said.
“It’s two days after listening to the news and various websites saying ‘they shit on the grass and live in misery’.
“It was actually one of the neatest setups I’ve seen.”
Footage online showed people being challenged to wear masks, but he did not witness this, or any abuse, Shefford said.
Instead, he saw neighbors opening houses for showers and laundry.
Brendan Shefford, pictured during his time with the New Zealand Army, which included a period of service in Afghanistan. Photo / Provided
With eight years in the army, including a stint in Afghanistan, he had received many vaccines, but did not want to say if he had been vaccinated against Covid-19.
His beef was with vaccine warrants. “It’s wrong that people lose their jobs because of a personal decision.”
Vaccination was the government’s “only answer to everything”, Shefford said.
“They should have said at the start, ‘If you’re fat, you need to go running and lose weight and you need to get fit… [so] if you catch this disease, you have a better chance”.
Reducing alcohol and improving diet should also have been encouraged.
“The government had a unique opportunity to address this to the people, but they chose not to.”
People from across the country came to parliament last month to share their views on the vaccination mandates and a number of other concerns and grievances. Photo/Mike Scott
He felt for the police commissioner, as Andrew Coster had said he wanted a non-violent end, and he thought the police had done a good job on the final morning.
But the violent final hours of the protest were the fault of the police, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and “thugs” who showed up who he said were unrelated to the original protest – because they wore masks, which the protesters did not.
Asked how he could be sure no protesters were involved when some had previously shared violent rhetoric towards politicians and journalists, Shefford agreed he couldn’t.
But he thought those who had acted violently on the last day were opportunists.
“How many people showed up at the end because they were like, ‘Oh, this is an opportunity to talk to the police?'”
Anahera Worthington, midwife, Taranaki
The end of the protest was traumatic, says Anahera Worthington.
But the 23 days leading up to it were also “potentially the richest days” of her life, midwife Taranaki said.
Worthington, who is also known by the first name Angela, has not been vaccinated and has not worked since Covid-19 vaccination mandates were introduced for health workers last year.
She camped in a tent in Parliament for all days of the occupation, with her adult daughter and mother also there, and feels traumatized by her end.
“The psychological tactics employed by the police, especially over the last 10 days, were quite nerve-wracking. Being kept awake at night, not knowing what was going on.”
Anahera Worthington, centre, pictured with daughter Willow Worthington, left, and mother Helen Rogers, was on hand for most of the 23-day protest at Parliament. Photo / Provided
As the situation worsened on the last afternoon, she started helping people to leave.
The last person she helped was an 84-year-old woman who “looks like my grandmother”.
“I asked her why she was there, and she said she didn’t believe the government should be forcing people to make choices about their bodies.”
Those final moments were awful, Worthington said.
“Police were starting to descend and throw tear gas at groups of people, including children and the elderly.
“It’s not New Zealand. The fact that I had to help an elderly woman away from there is disgusting and shocking, and that’s what no one really got to see that day.”
Police did not use tear gas during the operation to clear blocked roads and restore order in areas around Parliament affected by protest activity, a police spokeswoman told the Herald.
Pepper spray was used by officers when necessary to avoid injury to themselves or others in the area, the spokeswoman said.
Public safety was the police’s number one priority throughout the protest, including on the final day, when officers faced violent resistance, she said.
“Throughout the day, we urged those who did not wish to be caught up in the operation to return home, and our staff would help people leave the protest area safely.”
Meanwhile, Worthington said she wouldn’t say why she wasn’t vaccinated.
But she was against mandates because they went against the autonomy of the body, a key part of midwifery ethics, she said.
“I went to Wellington because I’m sick of not feeling heard.”
She was also “on the absurd rules of it all [Covid-19 response].”
A negative rapid antigen test allowed him to fly, but not to work.
And, last week, health workers positive for Covid-19 were informed that they could return to work, under certain conditions.
“It’s that minute, [then] it’s not next,” the mother-of-four said.
“There are communities that once loved each other and now hate each other.”
The minority of people at the protest who were not peaceful reflected the fact that it was a snapshot of society, including those who had suffered ‘tremendous generational trauma’ and been denied opportunity .
“The difference was that in our little lives behind fences on our own properties, we ignored all of that, and in that village – yes, there were moments of outrage, anger and strange spats – and those people had the ability for others to come around them, and often defuse and talk and kiss.
“I have seen more mental health improvement in 23 days in this village than I have seen in a career as a midwife.”
Police and protesters pictured during the operation to remove protesters from Parliament after a 23 day occupation. The violent scenes of the day shocked more than one. Photo/Mike Scott
She thinks the people coming to the end “incited most of this violence against the police,” Worthington said.
Jacinda Ardern also shared some of the blame for not speaking with protesters – and it was a ‘loophole’ for the Prime Minister to cite threats of violence for his decision.
“The media and the Prime Minister have chosen to focus on what is probably 1% of the population there, and ignore the 99%.”
Rob Morrison, Health Sector Project and Program Manager, Wellington
Protesting on the grounds of Parliament was a way to stand with family and friends negatively affected by the vaccination orders and passes, said Rob Morrison, a man from Wellington.
He also believed there had been “no dialogue” about alternatives to the Pfizer vaccination, the impact of mandates and passes on the public, and “why reasonable people make the decision not to get vaccinate”.
“I believe the harm created by the warrants outweighs the harm created by Covid,” Morrison said, citing High Court Judge Francis Cooke’s ruling last month to order frontline police and the defense personnel to be vaccinated or lose their jobs was not a “reasonably justified” violation of the Bill of Rights.
The shift from “angst and frustration” during the first two days of the protest to a “more peaceful and inclusive tone” was welcome, said anti-warrant protester Rob Morrison. Photo/George Heard
Morrison would not say if he had been vaccinated against Covid-19.
As he lived in Wellington, he visited the protest site every other day, looking for jobs to do to support those who were there permanently.
He often took his children, aged 13 and 16, to the site, so they could see for themselves what was going on.
After the initial “angst and frustration” shown during the first two days of the protest, the change to a more peaceful and inclusive tone was welcome, Morrison said.
“Given the pain, segregation and exclusion that protesters have endured over the past six to eight months, it was amazing to see them put on such a beautiful, joyful, inclusive and peaceful event – at the exception of the end, when the police decided to get involved.”
02 March 2022. Scenes of violence erupted outside Parliament as police moved in to clear up the occupation that has plagued the capital for more than three weeks. Video / NZ Herald
He was “quite disappointed” that the protest ended without meaningful dialogue between those representing the protesters and those in parliament.
“It showed a lack of empathy from our politicians. They showed that they are out of touch with their people.
“I’m also disappointed that the peaceful protest was hijacked by people who wanted to fight.”
The rioters did not represent the majority of protesters, Morrison said.
“I think it’s important to separate the actions of the protesters from the actions of the rioters. [And] the police approach definitely antagonized the rioters.”
– by Cherie Howie, NZ Herald