There had been chatter on the radio that morning about an anti-vaccination mandate protest convoy arriving in town, but I expected it would be over by afternoon and the streets would be clear again. I was wrong.
I found a way through the congestion and carried on, assuming the protesters were just letting off steam and would soon go back whence they had come, wherever that was.
Wrong again. They had other ideas. Three weeks later they were still there, having taken up residence in what they called Camp Freedom.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only New Zealander to be taken aback by the scale and resolve of the protest or the depth of the protesters’ grievances. I think the entire country, police and government included, was caught off-guard.
Yet it’s clear from independent film maker Gaylene Barnes’ documentary River of Freedom that the anti-vax protest had been gathering unstoppable momentum long before it rolled into Wellington. For me the most striking scenes in the film were not the ones showing the violent, fiery climax to the occupation at Parliament. Dramatic though those were, we had seen them before. No, I was most struck by scenes we hadn’t seen; namely, the ones that showed enthusiastic crowds lining the protest routes all the way from Cape Reinga and Bluff to the capital.
Even out in the countryside, boisterous supporters – too numerous by far to be dismissed as a mere rent-a-mob display – turned out in force to wave placards and cheer as the convoy rolled past. Motorway overbridges were shown jammed with well-wishers, even in foul weather.
Clearly, something unprecedented was happening out in heartland New Zealand, but where were the mainstream media? Precious little of this was reported in the press or shown on the TV news. To all intents and purposes, the rolling protest was rendered invisible. It was as if the media had conspired to ignore it (yes, I’m using that c-word), or at the very least to play it down as the work of an inconsequential fringe element and not to be taken seriously.
Small wonder, then, that when protest vehicles choked the streets around Parliament, the public wondered where the hell they had sprung from. And smaller wonder still that the protesters concluded very early in the piece that the media were out to marginalise them. There has rarely been a more graphic demonstration of the gulf between the provincial heartland, where the protest had its roots, and the effete metropolitan elites as represented by the mainstream media.
Two things were happening here – or in terms of media attention, not happening.
The so-called Freedom Convoy appeared to be cleverly orchestrated and co-ordinated, although River of Freedom doesn’t explain who initiated and drove it. (The conspiracy fantasists at the Disinformation Project and their equally excitable cheerleaders at Stuff and RNZ would say it was all the work of malevolvent far-Right agitators, which becomes even more preposterous after a viewing of the film. That being said, a bit more transparency might have helped offset the more lurid accusations.)
Social media platforms were used to spread the word, but very little of the rumbling discontent over vaccination mandates seeped into the wider public consciousness via mainstream channels, and that which did was characterised as loony, dangerous, or both.
The regrettable result has been a hardening and a deepening of the divide between “establishment” New Zealand – the New Zealand of the main political parties, the bureaucracy, big business, academia and (crucially) the information gatekeepers of the MSM – and another, very different New Zealand inhabited by people whose multiple grievances and frustrations found an outlet in opposition to the authoritarian mandate.
I wrote at the time: “A fascinating political and sociological fault line has opened up – one that defies the normal understanding of New Zealand’s political dynamics. People at the bottom of the heap, as political scientist Bryce Edwards describes them – many of them working-class and provincial, with no formal organisational structure – have risen up in defiance of the all-powerful political class, the urban elites who are accustomed to calling the shots and controlling political discourse.” I think that analysis still holds true.
Bleakly depressing though the prospect may be, Winston Peters (or "Sir" Winston, as he's referred to in the film’s credits) is now poised to harness some of the rage and discontent that was left to fester unresolved after police broke up the Camp Freedom protest. Several political parties sprang up in the aftermath of the protests, among them Matt King’s Democracy NZ and Liz Gunn’s NZ Loyal, but only Peters and New Zealand First have the organisational infrastructure, the boots on the ground, the experience and the opportunistic cunning to exploit the opening.
Peters thus stands to collect an electoral dividend from being the only mainstream politician willing to meet the Camp Freedom protesters and hear their stories. As River of Freedom reminds us, National and ACT MPs opposed aspects of Labour’s lockdown regime in parliamentary debate but couldn’t or wouldn’t risk tainting themselves by going out and talking to the campers. They may have been New Zealand citizens with the same rights and entitlements as any others, but politically speaking the protesters were regarded as untouchables. In the film, their resentment at being treated by the politicians as pariahs is matched only by their animosity toward the journalists who shunned them.
My first attempt at seeing River of Freedom several weeks ago was unsuccessful; for the first time in my life, I was turned away because a movie was sold out. After spending the past two weeks out of the country I thought I’d missed out altogether, but I finally caught up with it yesterday at the Screening Room in Masterton. I see from Graeme Tuckett’s review for Stuff that the film attracted full houses in Wellington too.
Tuckett’s review, incidentally, was commendably fair, considering his own employers had produced the ludicrously overwrought and shamefully unbalanced Fire and Fury. River of Freedom (the title was inspired by disgraced former cabinet minister Michael Wood’s reference to the protest as a “river of filth”) is unbalanced too, as you’d expect of a film made from a standpoint that’s openly sympathetic to the protesters, but it doesn’t indulge in hysterical conspiracy theories and it largely leaves viewers to form their own conclusions. Perhaps its greatest fault (and one that Tuckett pointed out) is that it avoids any mention of the aggressive and hostile conduct that gave the protest a bad name.
To me, one of the film’s most compelling voices is that of Alistair Boyce, owner of the Backbencher Pub opposite Parliament. Camp Freedom was right outside his doors, placing Boyce involuntarily in the thick of the action. His business inevitably suffered and he saw some of the protesters at their worst, yet Boyce – who described himself as pro-vaccination but anti-mandate – was sympathetic to their cause. If only the politicians had taken the trouble to listen to them, he reckoned, the occupation could have been over in five days.
I recommend River of Freedom to anyone who can find a movie theatre where it’s still screening. It’s too long, at two hours 34 minutes, but it’s well made (the cameras luxuriate in some exquisite landscape shots as they follow the convoy through the country) and there are even flashes of humour, as in the scene where a worker arrives at the protest camp to empty the portaloos and pleads with the cameraman: “Don’t take a picture of me – my mother thinks I’m a professor”. But most importantly, people should see River of Freedom simply because it’s an essential counterpoint to the distortions of Fire and Fury.