IT IS DIFFICULT to understand the Police tactics on display today (10/2/22) outside Parliament. What is the objective of the Police commanders? To clear the parliamentary precinct of protesters, remove their tents and Portaloos, tow away the cars and trucks blocking the streets of central Wellington? Or, are the tactics deployed more concerned with the “look” of the operation. Is the objective to show New Zealand how very different our modern Police Force is from the baton-wielding riot squads of forty years ago?
If it was the “look” they were after, then they certainly achieved their objective.
Police commanders in other jurisdictions, watching the live feeds from New Zealand on their computers, must have shaken their heads in disbelief. Constables in their shirtsleeves, unhelmeted, inadequately masked against a crowd of unvaccinated citizens, and deployed in numbers insufficient to enforce the law effectively, were being asked to confront a defiant crowd of several hundred.
The tactic, referred to by the Wellington District Commander, Corrie Parnell, as a “graduated response”, seemed to involve steadily pushing the protesters back, and herding them out of Parliament Grounds and into the street. This was to be done without the use of any of the crowd control equipment available to officers overseas. There were to be no shields, no pepper spray, no tasers, no batons, no tear gas, no rubber bullets. Arrests were permissible, but since it required at least two – usually four – police officers to subdue each protester, cuff them, and lead them away, it was soon apparent that the process was unlikely to reduce the size of the crowd quickly. Indeed, hours went by, and the number of protesters remained fairly constant.
This inability of the Police to make any serious impression on either the size, or the intentions, of the crowd, combined with the public’s awareness of the infection risk posed to the constables on the front line, very soon altered the “look” of the Police operation dramatically.
Far from being impressed by the restraint of the Police, those watching the live feeds began to feel angry and frustrated at the utter ineffectuality of the tactics being employed. The Police commanders seemed paralysed. Unable to withdraw, but unwilling to deploy either the numbers, or the crowd control measures, needed to bring the protest to a close. All that the public saw was a crowd of anti-vaxxers successfully defying a New Zealand Police Force that either could not, or would not, compel them to disperse. The message conveyed was not of a restrained, compassionate – but effective – Police Force. All the New Zealand public saw was a weak one.
A state may be defined as a set of institutions with a monopoly over the exercise of political control – a monopoly made possible by its exclusive access to the means of organised violence. No state can afford to allow its citizens to gain the impression that it lacks either the means, or the will, to deploy violence against those who defy it. Why? Because those who look to the state’s “body of armed men” for protection against disorganisedviolence will become alarmed. And those who would seize the authority of the state for their own purposes will become emboldened. That is why, like it or not, the state has no option but to defend itself vigorously whenever it is challenged.
Paradoxically, the vigour with which challenges to state authority are addressed in their earliest manifestations, the less chance there is that serious, perhaps deadly, force will be required to resolve them.
The Canadian model for the “Freedom Convoy” currently defying the New Zealand state is a case in point. By refusing to expel the truckers from downtown Ottawa immediately, using overwhelming police force, Justin Trudeau’s government only emboldened the protest organisers to escalate both their disruption and their demands – to the point where the entire economy of Canada is being constricted at its border-crossing choke-points, and the protest organisers are demanding the resignation of Trudeau and his government. It is difficult, now, to see Canada’s rapidly escalating crisis being resolved without the intervention of the Canadian armed forces. Tragically, Canadians are going to end up killing Canadians.
New Zealand prides itself on the fact that its political leaders are forbidden from interfering directly in matters of operational policing. All well and good, we do not want politicians issuing orders to the Police.
But, this does not mean that a government is required to remain indifferent to what most of the public would regard as a serious dereliction of duty on the part of senior Police commanders.
That the grounds of Parliament have been occupied by protesters who have obstructed public ways, harassed innocent passers-by, closed down places of business and administration, refused to obey lawful instructions, and have reacted violently to all attempts to move them on, is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. With the Police appearing to construe the “Right to Protest” as an open invitation for protesters to ignore the rights and freedoms of their fellow citizens, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet have a duty to make it crystal clear to Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster, that this ongoing affront: both to the symbol of our democracy; and to the rule of law itself; must be brought to an end – now.
Let’s see what “a state of enforcement action” looks like.