Freedom and responsibility

This will be the enduring memory of the freedom protests at Parliament. PHOTO: MIKE SCOTT
This will be the enduring memory of the freedom protests at Parliament. PHOTO: MIKE SCOTT
It began with rancour and unsatisfied anger and ended with rioting and unacceptable aggression.

After 23 long days, the occupation of Parliament’s grounds is over, but the recriminations and reverberations will continue for much longer.

The end, for all it seemed inevitable, was nonetheless shocking, as police moved in to forcibly evict Parliament’s unwanted tenants.

The protesters had well and truly made their point, no matter how unclear the points that some of them were making might have been.

Given the illegal nature of the mass gathering, let alone the subsequent freedom camping and obstruction of traffic, the patience of Wellingtonians and the police was exhausted by the time Wednesday’s clearance came around.

The police had little choice but to move the protesters on: after 23 days it was abundantly clear that many of them had no intention whatsoever of leaving.

It also became clear as Wednesday unfolded that many of the protesters were at Parliament purely in anticipation of a fight and that they were quite prepared to engage in one.

The peace and love ethos espoused by many protesters was replaced as the afternoon wore on by paving stones flying through the air and the lighting of fires on the forecourt.

While this may well not have been the intent of the Freedom Convoy which started this whole thing off, it will certainly be the abiding memory.

Predictably, the cellphone toting social media warriors in the protest brigade were quick to condemn "police brutality", but given the intense provocation police faced they, generally, acted with remarkable restraint.

Given gas bottles were being tossed on to fires with explosive consequences and that footpaths were being torn up to provide malcontents with potentially lethal missiles, police can only be praised for dispersing the crowd seemingly with minimal harm to their foes and with just minor injuries to themselves.

Such online nonsense, coming hard on the heels of the wilful disinformation and malicious misinformation peddled during the occupation, raises the vexed question of how to find an antidote for such poison without toxic results for the precious right to freedom of expression.

The Christchurch Call, issued in very different circumstances, might offer a way forward, but there is a long way to go before those at the polar opposites of this incident can find any mutual way forward.

It is to be hoped that the result of all this is not a tightening of access to Parliament and its grounds.

Generations of Wellington office workers have treasured being able to enjoy lunch on Parliament’s lawns, and current Speaker Trevor Mallard has tried to enhance the place of the "people’s House" by adding a playground to the forecourt — sadly, itself a victim of the fires set by protesters.

Equally as vital is the right of New Zealanders — as many thousands, including many current MPs have done — to be able to stand outside Parliament and express their views about the laws being made within the House of Representatives.

While those who rioted on Wednesday can only be condemned, the protest as a whole did raise issues about freedom and responsibility which will reverberate with politicians in particular and the populace as a whole in the months to come.

It is to be hoped that in considering those questions that some good can come out of this whole sorry episode.