WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Some countries may send a riot to disperse the intruder coronavirus demonstrators. In New Zealand, authorities turned on the sprinklers and Barry Manilow.
The first steps to try to flush out hundreds of protesters who have been stationed on Parliament’s grassy grounds since Tuesday had little effect.
Protesters, who have expressed opposition to coronavirus vaccine mandates, responded to the soaking from the sprinklers by digging trenches and installing temporary drainage pipes to divert the water.
When a downpour hit last weekend, their numbers only grew. Protesters brought in bales of straw, which they scattered on the increasingly soaked ground at the parliament. Some shouted, others danced and a group performed a native Maori haka.
In the evening, Parliament Speaker Trevor Mallard had come up with a new plan to make protesters uncomfortable: using a sound system to blow out vaccine messages, decades-old Barry Manilow songs and the 1990s earworm hit “Macarena” on a repeat loop.
Protesters responded by playing their own tunes, including the Twister Sisters’ “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
The protest began when a convoy of trucks and cars drove to parliament from across the country, inspired by protests in Canada. Initially, there were more than 1,000 protesters, but that number dropped as the week went on before growing again on Saturday.
Police have taken a more hands-free approach since Thursday, arresting 122 people and charging many of them with intrusion or obstruction. The police who have been wearing protection, but have not used riots or weapons, had tried slowly to move towards the protesters.
But it resulted in a series of physical confrontations. A video of two female officers briefly pulling a naked woman by the hair in the middle of a fight went viral.
In response to questions from The Associated Press, New Zealand police said they did not remove the woman’s clothes, as some people had claimed online, and that she had been naked for “some time” before her arrest. Police also said the photos and videos did not provide the full context of the protest activity or the situation the police were facing.
Still, the quarrels seemed to prompt a strategic reconsideration of the police, who seemed to be more than happy to wait as the week went on. But on Friday, Mallard, the speaker of parliament, had seen enough and asked staff to turn on the sprinklers overnight.
“I ordered them on,” he confirmed to the AP.
“No one who’s here is legal here, and if they get wet from below as well as from above, they’ll probably be a little less comfortable and more likely to go home,” Mallard said, according to the news organization Things and Cases.
“Some people have suggested that we add the vaccine to the water, but I do not think it works that way,” he joked.
Mallard told the media that he was also responsible for the sound system.
Some of the protesters’ vehicles have remained parked in the middle of the streets around the parliament, forcing some streets to close. The National Library and many cafes and bars in the area have closed their doors as the protest unfolds. Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Friday night, removing hundreds of protesters by truck.
Among the protesters’ complaints is the demand in New Zealand that certain workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, including teachers, doctors, nurses, police and military personnel. Many protesters are also against mask mandates – such as those in shops and among children over the age of 8 in classrooms – and are fighting for the ideal of more “freedom”.
Parliament’s grounds have often been the site of peaceful protests, although mass camps are unusual. Typically, at least some politicians will come out to listen to the protesters’ concerns, but politicians who met again in parliament after a summer break were rarely united by not acknowledging the protesters.
New Zealand was spared the worst of the pandemic after it closed its borders and implemented strict lockdowns, limiting the spread of the virus. The nation has only reported 53 virus deaths among its population of 5 million.
But some have grown tired of the restrictions. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week that the country would end its quarantine requirements for incoming travelers in stages as it reopened its borders. With about 77% of New Zealanders vaccinated, Ardern has also promised she will not impose more lockdowns.
An outbreak of the omicron variant has grown, and New Zealand reported a record-high 454 new societal cases on Saturday. But none of the 27 people hospitalized from the outbreak needed to lie in intensive care.