By Chris Trotter*
Andrew Coster's performance on Television New Zealand’s Q+A, broadcast on Sunday morning (20/2/22) was impressive. Many New Zealanders, increasingly frustrated by the Police’s apparent impotence in the face of what they acknowledge to be an unlawful protest, are calling for Coster to be sacked. In responding to Jack Tame’s questions, however, Coster offered the public some sobering (albeit rather cryptic) clues as to why he is not yet prepared to emulate the policing tactics currently on display in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.
Coster admits that with the help of batons and, probably, tear gas (hitherto unused in New Zealand crowd control) he and his officers could clear Parliament Grounds. What he asks us all to think about, should he accede to the growing public pressure to ‘get tough’ with the protesters, is: What happens next?
As Coster explained to Tame, the Police have a duty to do two things at once: Enforce the Law; and, Keep the Peace. In most circumstances there is no conflict between these two duties. In the case of the occupation of Parliament Grounds, however, enforcing the law may result in an extremely serious breach of the Peace.
Although he didn’t say so in as many words, Coster made it clear that what was likely to follow the violent clearance of Parliament Grounds was a prolonged and serious eruption of violence not just in Wellington, but across the nation.
Obviously, Police Commissioner Coster’s primary concern is for his front-line officers: the men and women who will bear the brunt of the protesters’ physical resistance.
The volatility of these folk was plainly in evidence on Thursday, 10 February, when the Police made a concerted effort to move the protest on. On more than one occasion, the Police line was driven back by individuals more than willing to mix it with the cops. That the line was not broken in an all-out assault is probably due to the fact that the officers were bareheaded, unarmed, and in their shirtsleeves. It was hard to conceptualise these vulnerable constables as implacable enforcers of state power.
Were Coster to deploy officers wearing riot gear – i.e. helmets, visors, gas-masks, and full body armour – armed with long-batons, tasers and pepper spray, with tear-gas and water-cannons in reserve, the protesters would see nothing but implacable enforcers of state power. Paradoxically, this would make his constables much easier to attack and injure. Certainly, the protest encampment contains plenty of potential weapons with which to fight back. Serious injuries (or worse) on both sides would be inevitable.
And that would only be the beginning.
Coster is well aware that, in Parliament Grounds, he and his officers are confronting a very different kind of protest movement. It’s intent is not only persuasive, but also coercive. The “Freedom Convoy” set out with the intention of forcing the democratically elected government of New Zealand to bow to its demands.
How else to explain the creation of a veritable laager of motor vehicles around the parliamentary complex? The hundreds of cars blocking the streets adjacent to Parliament are the protest encampment’s castle walls. While they remain, the logistics of removing the protesters non-violently are fiendishly difficult.
The protest organisers knew all this before they set out. Since then, they have certainly been made aware that the positioning of their followers’ vehicles is unlawful. Their point-blank refusal to move them offers ample confirmation of the protest’s coercive intent.
The organisers must also be aware that in the event of a concerted Police effort to clear the grounds, the barriers of parked cars will leave very few clear escape routes for the several hundred protesters camping there. Caught between the advancing Police lines and their own vehicles, the situation could very easily spiral out of control.
How aware of these potential dangers are the inhabitants of the protest camp? Hard to say. But, grasping the risks they are running shouldn’t demand too much hard thinking from the protesters. Unfortunately, many of them seem persuaded that the Police will not use force to remove them, and, even if they do, the protesters are confident they can “Hold the Line!”
But who are the organisers? It is among the most difficult problems confronting Coster and his senior commanders. In spite of all the evidence pointing to a lot of money and a lot of managerial expertise at work in and around the protest site, finding people with whom to negotiate a process of de-escalation is proving extremely difficult. Yes, there is Brian Tamaki’s Rights & Freedoms Coalition, and a slew of anti-vaccination and anti-mandate activists, but anyone looking for an organising committee, let alone a “leader”, will look in vain.
Then again, the Police may simply have been looking in the wrong place. The guiding intelligence behind this whole event may well be nowhere near Parliament Grounds. Indeed, it is even possible that the protest has been brought into existence for purposes unknown to all but a handful of hard-core participants.
Certainly, that is the impression Coster conveyed to Tame on Q+A. That he is holding-off on using more forceful methods to evict the protesters because those are precisely the tactics which faceless, online, string-pullers want him to employ. They want images of Police in riot-gear bloodying the heads of “ordinary Kiwi battlers” with their batons. They want to see people wincing under the sting of pepper-spray. They want to see tear-gas and water-cannons deployed for the first time in New Zealand history. They may even be hoping that in all the violence and chaos a protester – or a protester’s child – is killed.
Coster told Stuff’s Andrea Vance that he and his colleagues are only too aware of far-right elements embedded in the anti-vaccination mandates movement :
“I am hugely concerned about the mindset of some of the people, not just in that crowd, but generally behaviour that we see online at the moment ... Yes, we wanted to deal with that stuff.”
And rightly so! Because in a country already deeply polarised by the exigencies of combatting Covid-19, scenes of mayhem in Parliament Grounds will make it so much harder to drain the “sea of non-compliant Covid people” in which the fishes of far-right extremism are safely swimming.
Is it asking too much of the NZ Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau to tear their eyes away from Five Eyes scare stories about Russia and China for a moment, and give some professional support to a Police Intelligence operation that is clearly struggling? Surely, an ever-expanding crowd of angry people who hate politicians and journalists and now have very little to lose by besieging the nation’s parliament might just fall within the definition of “Threat to National Security”?
With a recent Horizon poll telling the angry online ranters that upwards of 30 percent of New Zealanders are in support of the protesters on Parliament Grounds, the widening gulf between enforcing the law and keeping the peace will tax the capabilities and the professionalism of Andrew Coster in ways not seen since Police Commissioner Bob Walton oversaw the policing of the Springbok Tour more than 40 years ago.
Maybe the Beehive could lend him a hand?