Over the weekend, I tapped out the following:
“In what’s going to be my most controversial take this month … I actually think that Police Commissioner Andrew Coster’s apparent strategy of “this’ll go down easier if we just let the whole thing implode of its own accord rather than go in swinging” might be entirely (if painfully – for Wellington) correct.”
At the time, it seemed a statement against the grain. Hashtags demanding Coster’s resignation were trending on Twitter. Wellingtonians (even the ones not on Twitter) seemed almost as aggrieved at the police for a lack of action against the protest as they were against the protest itself. The sentiments advanced by some of the commentariat in the Sunday (and Saturday) papers seemed to suggest they weren’t alone in this – except, of course, for the curious fact that various of those media mouthpieces seemed to be sotto-voce cheering on the protest specifically because it was causing optics difficulty for the Government and our Covid-19 public health response.
However, I had cautious cause for optimism on Coster’s behalf. Saturday had seen a rather dramatic occurrence – the revelation that some … unthinking protester had chosen to turn the nation’s Cenotaph into an impromptu ablution block for the protest campsite. This was received in pretty much all quarters about as well as one might expect – as if there is one thing pretty much every New Zealander not of some sort of Anarchist proclivity tends to agree upon, it’s the sacrosanct status of the ANZAC legacy.
I sensed, therefore, that this was likely a bit of a turning point in terms of the ‘momentum’ (in)surging into the mainstream of the protest narrative.
And also noted that it seemed plausible Coster’s strategy had been drawn from that of Napoleon – who famously remarked one should “never interrupt your opponent when he’s in the middle of making a mistake.”
Subsequent developments seem to have confirmed this – with news stories out about the same time discussing how a citizen-media team who’d gone to visit and film the protest in order to show them to be non-violent … had been assaulted and “beaten to a pulp”; whilst the next day brought an extended press release from the groups at the center of the Convoy effectively stating that they had little actual control over the protest (to the point that they couldn’t even ensure access for trucks to service the portaloos at the site), and that movements toward ‘negotiation’ were a “deflection”.
Monday continued this trend, with the ‘moral high ground’ almost certainly not being held by the side throwing its own excrement about the place.
However, while it’s certainly one thing to observe the ‘momentum’ of the movement seemingly fizzle in the harsh glare of public scrutiny of what they’re actually about and like (at least, on the ‘fringes’) – this isn’t quite the same thing as doing something meaningful about the escalating sprawl of tents, cars, and placards which have been steadily encircling further and further around both Parliament and Wellington’s key central city governmental locations. Particularly in light of the shuffling around of cars and other potential obstacles which had been taking place toward the end of last week by the protesters in order to entrench themselves further against anticipated towing action.
That, instead, was provided via the rollout of a series of concrete barricades pre-Dawn on Monday Morning.
Which we may surmise to be a rather interesting development for the ‘Non-Violent Enforcement’ approach. One of simply giving the protesters what they want.
“We’ve barricaded ourselves in!”
“Yes. You’re barricaded in.”
“HEY! YOU CAN’T JUST BARRICADE US IN LIKE THAT!”
“You barricaded yourselves in – we’re just agreeing with you.”
As it happens, this concords rather well with something I’d been thinking about a few days earlier – namely, what one does when one finds one’s self having to raise a siege in more conventional conflict terms.
I’ll spare you the extended military history discursions that conjured in my mind about this point and just skip straight to the answer I’d arrived at – you place the siege, itself, under siege.
Now at this point, we are going to sidestep for a moment into discussing just how this whole ‘Protest’ ethos appears to have come into being. Via a handy metaphor provisioned for us through the realms of physics. Which, yes, also helps to explain what’s going to happen next and why Coster’s strategy is likely to work.
My general typology for what’s been going on both politically and physically is … a gas. Now, gas differs from liquids and solids, insofar as it can be compressed into a smaller area – which raises pressure as the molecules go pinging bouncing off the walls faster.
A good example of this is probably to be found by looking at the National Party from time to time. After a number of ‘false starts’, they realized that attempting to carve meaningful votes off Labour by pushing for ‘business as usual’ to resume as swiftly as possible, or for that matter, by heading into conspiratorial territory … was not really a good starter. And so they instead shifted to a general attack strategy (as exemplified by Chris Bishop) of taking something the Government was going to do eventually, and complaining that it hadn’t been done faster or better in some fashion.
That’s that ‘splitting the difference’ and ‘co-occupying space’ approach.
The other avenue, however, is exemplified by former National MP Matt King, who’s effectively become a billboard for ‘the path not taken’ by going from overtly opposing in both social media post and deed, the personal distancing rules that were in place in 2020 while he was still a Member of Parliament … through to quitting National in order to return to Parliament in a decidedly other capacity a few days ago as a would-be leader of the Convoy movement, following a rather piquant interview with the NZ Herald about some of his more curious beliefs in related areas.
What was there already? Conflict.
What has the revelation one protest-leader (former NewCons leader Leighton Baker) was aware of and engaged with by the police about the barricades going in ahead of time contributed to? Conflict.
Internal conflict. Replacing that joyous sense that you’re all part of some big movement swimming in the same direction, with the sense that instead you’ve somehow found yourself in amidst three-to-three-dozen mistrustful camps that spend almost as much time sniping at each other as they do at the Government.
The concrete barricades are also good for another purpose.
The protest-groups’ press-release on Sunday indicated they were already having notable difficulty ensuring that vehicles were able to come and go to carry out essential things like servicing the portaloos. The rather radical solution of physically disposing of the human waste in question by flinging it at Her Majesty’s Constabulary evidently proving inadequate to the task of shoveling sufficient quotients for the hundreds of people on site.
Vehicles looking to get in to the Convoy’s occupation space are now no longer going to be able to come-and-go as convenient. The police control the access-points in. Those are their barricades. As an associate observed – that means they now have ‘Leverage’.
You know the one.
When confronted with a coke bottle that’s been shaken up, there are two ways of handling the problem.
Coster had resiled from the level of force required to twist the cap off all at once, quite understandably, because apart from the possible question as to whether he had sufficient resources in place to actually forcibly evict the occupation once it got past the first day or two … such a spectacle would almost certainly just have lead to a bigger problem elsewhere or elsewhen. The protesters themselves overtly pointed to the 120+ arrests on the Thursday (the 10th of February) as an effective ‘galvanizer’ of their own internal cohesion and a useful recruitment tool through footage of same going up online.
In other words – their ‘narrative’ had found its ogre, its antagonist … and continuing to play that role would be continuing to play into both their hands and that narrative position, strengthening same.
His preference, it would seem, when it became clear how well the previous approach was going (i.e. insufficient force being deployed to clear the protest, very sufficient force being deployed to look antagonistic in so doing) – was to go for the latter option. The gentle and delayed release of pressure through smaller cap-twists.
Except it ran into the obvious issue that pressure wasn’t actually being decreased. People continued to arrive at the protest, and as mentioned above, it would seem that a semi-deliberate strategy of moving to encircle Parliament and various important sites in the area had gotten well underway.
To return to our metaphor – it does little good to gently twist the cap of the coke-bottle part-way around if somebody is still shaking the coke bottle the whole time and somehow adding more coke into the mix as well.
They are not, in and of themselves, a full-scale solution. However they do facilitate a gradual de-escalation by hopefully helping to constrain the mean level of ‘new coke’ flowing in; whilst also creating internal conditions that will potentially encourage some people inside to start flowing back out at their own pace.
And whilst it’s very easy to cast a baton-equipped police officer as an ‘antagonist’ in one’s own preferred flavouring of post-modern morality play … it’s a lot harder to vent the same kind of animus toward an inanimate cement block.
At every stage of this pandemic, New Zealand has somehow managed to come out the ‘least-worst’ (indeed, in various cases, actually rather well – our life expectancy going up, for one example; unemployment hitting an absolute historic low, another) of much of the world with what we’ve attempted and accomplished.
It hasn’t been through luck (although yes, most certainly, that’s helped in places and in parts), but rather through the people making decisions making decent and well-informed ones. Eventually, in some cases, but eventually nonetheless.
Andrew Coster came to national prominence not for being appointed Police Commissioner – but rather, for being attacked by the Opposition as some sort of ‘Wokester’ and adhering to a doctrine (apparently known in the Anglosphere and practiced in various forms since the 1800s, not that you’d know it) known as ‘policing by consent’.
For the longest time, it had seemed that he was a man whose prevailing principles had seemed prospectively ill-fitting for the circumstances he had found himself in. Or maybe that’s just what the media-political spin sought to suggest.
Yet Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Man – it may just be that he and his approach might prove the unexpected exact right instrument for handling this current Covid Convoy quagmire.
He would appear to have already headed off the kinds of escalation which some overseas countries have experienced with their own local ‘Convoy’ occurrences (or other anti-Governmental pseudo-uprisings) – and for that, I think we should be grateful.
Will he be the man to preside over what brings about the Convoy’s further withering into wittering obscurity and eventual disapparation?