Wellington COVID-19 convoy protest, February 2022. Image Credit: Shutterstock / inProgressImaging

After 23 days of occupying of the grounds of New Zealand Parliament with protests, a semi-permanent encampment, and increasing acts of violence, the “anti-mandate” occupation in Wellington ended with a riot.

The spectacle—live-streamed across all New Zealand’s news media throughout its duration—captured the nation’s attention. Placards demanded politicians and media be executed, others referred to the Nuremberg trials. Human waste was thrown at police. Upon developing COVID-19-like illness, some protestors donned tinfoil hats to protect against symptoms they attributed to radiation weapons. Police pulled a naked protestor by her hair before arresting her. Shocking many, occupiers tactically used children in their protest, including as “shields” from police. On March 2, as police moved in on remaining protestors, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern labelled the protests “foreign,” “imported,” and “not New Zealand.”

Ardern’s words might have comforted those New Zealanders taken aback by the protest, but it fails to seriously engage with the complexity of the occupation, which intermingled transnational far-right tactics with homegrown white supremacy, wellness misinformation, and indigenous disenfranchisement. The protest, and Ardern’s response, has wide implications for parsing both local and transnational politics.

The occupiers’ ostensible demand was ending New Zealand’s COVID-19 mandates, which require vaccinations for certain public-facing professions and entry to various venues. At the time of the protests, 94 percent of New Zealanders over the age of 12 had received two COVID-19 vaccinations. Throughout the pandemic, public support has generally stayed high for public health measures which enabled the nation to maintain one of the lowest death rates in the world.

As has been the case elsewhere, it seems “anti-mandate” was a tactical framing, more palatable to would-be supporters of the movement than “anti-vax” and easier to connect to “freedom.” The protest had no identifiable leader, and many of the occupiers seemed primarily motivated by other sentiments. Causes included opposition to vaccines in general; water policy reform; anti-1080, anti-climate change policies, anti-Māori rights; and extremist conspiracy views demanding the government’s dissolution.

Protestors constructed a “Freedom Village” on Parliament grounds with showers, toilets, vegetable gardens, and private security guards. In Facebook livestreams, children lined up for candy floss, free food, and hot drinks. Tents were set up to provide haircuts, yoga, cellphone charging stations, and a rest area for women and children. Numbers ranged from the low hundreds to a few thousand during weekends. Many occupiers described themselves as “peaceful,” though motivations for attending and protest tactics varied.

Actors on all sides were aware of their online audience. Parliamentary Speaker Trevor Mallard tried to force the protestors away with sprinklers and blasting a list of the 25 “most hated” songs. When storms turned the capital’s lawns to sludge, occupiers donned plastic ponchos and danced the Macarena in increasingly unsanitary conditions. Some commentators applauded the “festival-like atmosphere”; others questioned the wisdom of Mallard’s approach.

As the occupation continued, media asked Police Commissioner Andrew Coster if he was being “too soft” on the activists. Coster’s response emphasized his “policing by consent” ethos and desire to avoid using police force “unacceptable to most New Zealanders.” The government’s response contrasted with the violence of police tactics during other nation-defining protests—notably the occupation of Bastion Point in 1977–78 to prevent the Crown confiscating Māori land, and the opposition to the Springbok rugby team tour in 1981 in solidarity with South Africans living under apartheid. Both were primarily anti-racist movements.

Coster identified these earlier encounters as “low points of policing” leading to “a long-term loss in trust and confidence in police because the violence was so confronting.” Yet police violence in New Zealand is not something from decades past. Among other damning indicators of persistent racial injustice, Māori are seven times more likely than Pākehā (white people) to be on the receiving end of police force. The level of police restraint toward these majority-Pākehā anti-vaccine activists did not, therefore, go unnoticed.

But it didn’t last. After 23 days, Coster judged that the occupation had shifted towards a potentially more volatile stage. Some families left and newer arrivals seemed more intent on a riot. Protestors stoked a fire that burned through tents and a playground. Some threw projectiles: bricks, chairs, paint, petrol. One protester attempted to drive a car into police, and at least ten children were not evacuated from Parliament grounds by their parents as a final, violent confrontation erupted.

More than 600 police assembled to shut the encampment down. Some wore riot gear, using firehoses, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against the occupiers, though most did not carry or use batons. Footage by both media and protestors captured incidents of police punching protestors. Several police and protestors required hospitalization, though there were no major casualties.

As police closed in on remaining occupiers, Prime Minister Ardern addressed the nation. Repeating comments made in weeks earlier, she again characterized the protest as “imported.” “All the way through there’s been an element to this occupation that has not felt like New Zealand,” Ardern emphasized. “And that’s because it’s not. There has been foreign influence in what we’ve seen.”

Indeed, the occupation’s political iconography did originate elsewhere. American Confederate flags, QAnon, MAGA, and Trump signs, and Nazi swastikas could be seen in the protestors’ placards and graffiti. The occupiers also claimed solidarity with Canadian truckers. It is unclear who funded the occupiers. At least one alternative media outlet covering the protest, Counterspin Media, runs on Steve Bannon’s platform, GTV. Even the invocation of “freedom” seemed unfamiliar in the New Zealand context.

The Prime Minister’s rhetoric often aims at this kind of national value-setting. From the pandemic’s early days, her mantra at daily press conferences urged New Zealanders to “be kind,” and she referred to the nation as a “team of five million.”

Not surprisingly, the occupiers’ violent signage and speeches targeted Ardern with vitriolic and often misogynist commentary. While critics have highlighted the limitations of Ardern’s political kindness, she has won plaudits at home and internationally for her leadership. Her assertion of an idealized national character—one based on notional shared values—puts Ardern alongside rhetoricians like Obama or Biden deploying “That is Not Who We Are” invocations.

But there is a problem with rhetoric seeking to locate the higher soul of a nation: it appeals to those already included in the political fold but does not speak to those who believe they are marginalized. It sidesteps root causes rather than addressing them. Ardern’s response to the 2019 Christchurch massacre where 51 Muslims were murdered in an act of terrorist violence had similar shortcomings: ‘They [the victims] are us,” she said. “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand.”

As Māori academic Tom Roa observed, statements like “This was the darkest day in New Zealand history” ignored the terrorist-level violence throughout colonization. In categorizing the Christchurch massacre as the violence of an “outsider,” Ardern missed an opportunity to reckon with homegrown racist violence intrinsic to New Zealand—the legacy of brutal colonial settlement and ongoing structural injustice. One of the damning conclusions of the Royal Commission Report on the massacre found New Zealand’s intelligence agency had concentrated its resources on Islamist terrorist activity and had “only a limited understanding of right-wing extremism.” Writing on the third anniversary of the attack, Muslim community leader Anjum Rahman emphasized that not enough has changed. Online hate and widespread disinformation increased and “our social fabric seems so fragile and easily torn.”

While the rhetoric of shared values might do little to solve polarization, the protests themselves were a mosaic of incongruity. Alongside American Confederate flags, Trump signs, and swastikas, Tino Rangatiratanga (Māori sovereignty) flags waved. “Wellness influencers” and “concerned mums” included the group that took court action to try block the rollout of vaccines to 5 to 11-year-olds. Protestors chanted “peace and love” alongside banners of white supremacy. Can “peaceful” protest ever coexist with violence? The occupation’s dissonant elements may have had strategic purposes. Anti-vax sentiment, mixed with pro-social causes and historical distrust, allows for obfuscation of violent extremist views—for both participants and observers. And like New Zealand itself, the protest had a complicated relationship with fascism and white supremacy.

As in other colonized nations, New Zealand’s indigenous and minority communities have historical precedent for distrusting medical and government authorities, which manifests today in unequal health outcomes. This distrust has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists: Māori Party Member of Parliament Rawiri Waititi lamented Māori being “used as pawns for an alt-right agenda.” The known organizers of the movement, meanwhile, were not the ones on the frontline against police. Instead, it was predominantly Māori made visible, including to the livestream-watching public.

Similarly, the “wellness movement” championed by some protestors can also trace its origins to distrust of the medical establishment. Progressive counterculture movements in the 1960s sought to provide healthcare for those with unmet needs, emphasizing bodily autonomy and subjective experiences. Yet there has been significant slippage through misinformation and conspirituality—exacerbated by online personalities relying on continual content creation and engagement to maintain visibility. Today, the unifying theme between “wellness” advocates and fascist ideology is the quest for purity—whether bodily, godly, or societally.

None of this is new, but it is now mediated through instantaneous, globalized networks. Ardern’s “foreign” and “imported” framing denies the global flow of mis- and dis-information. Clear delineations between online and offline inadequately capture our internet-fueled lives where the global is superimposed onto the local.

And the influence of these global movements are not just flowing into a small antipodean nation. Historian James Robins has argued that New Zealand’s bloody colonial history “provides a unique gateway to fascism,” inspiring those who see the violence and oppression against Māori not as “a shameful past that must be atoned for, but a model for a desired future genocide.” The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) report found that the Christchurch attack remains key for international extremists, a bleak indicator of the terrorist having achieved some of his stated aims.

The occupiers, too, imagined a New Zealand identity. Another of the flags flown was New Zealand’s official flag: upside down. Some called themselves “New Zealand Patriots.” For these, and other alt-right extremists globally, patriotic (white) nationalism is the “natural” political form. But their ideologies are drawn from a global right who have harnessed people’s alienation—“the discontents of globalization,” as Fiona Dove of the Transnational Institute has observed.

Democracies around the world are confronting the intractably wicked problem of global disinformation. There’s no suggestion that Ardern is unaware of this path to radicalization, though when pressed by media following the occupation, she was unwilling to specify the extent to which tech companies should be responsible for the information shared on their platforms. Previously, in response to the massacre, she joined with Emmanuel Macron to initiate the “Christchurch Call“ aiming to prompt tech companies to take on the work of combatting online extremism. But little seems to have come from that.

In Wellington, almost everyone was relieved to see the most recent crisis end, but its origins are increasingly contested. Indeed, the nature of the protest means the nation can’t simply brush off the protest as a fringe event. What happens now to the thousands of people who were engaged in the occupation, or who found themselves sympathizing with it as they watched live-streamed broadcasts? While there were, perhaps miraculously, no casualties from this occupation, the stakes seem extraordinarily high for New Zealand to move on from this without addressing some of the deeper causal factors, both local and global.

Instead of the colonial accounts that serve as white supremacist talking points, nations and their peoples are owed the complexity that our histories demand. Could a leader like Ardern instead use her communication skills to guide a harder, less flattering conversation about New Zealand’s histories of disenfranchisement and violence? Or address some of New Zealand’s inequalities, including the post-COVID-19 K-shaped economic recovery? While economic disadvantage wasn’t determinative of the occupation’s demographics, many of the hardships of COVID-19 measures have been disproportionately borne by the least well off. Globally, such economic exclusion has proved fertile terrain for alt-right extremist views.

Lydia Nobbs is a Politics PhD student at The New School for Social Research.