Political editor Jo Moir watched as the Parliament protest broke out in violence and flames yesterday, and says the destructive end of one crisis will only pave the way for the next

Comment: During World War II the Parliament lawn was dug up so a bomb shelter could be built.

For the last three weeks that same lawn has been a place of shelter for protesters, but on Wednesday it quickly turned into a bombsite.

Protesters and police were left wounded, some carted out of the carnage by their colleagues and friends to get to medical help and safety.

After 23 days chanting peace and love, Parliament’s occupation came to a crushing end with anything but.

MPs from all parties stumbled out of the sanctuary of the House in the afternoon to find the lawn literally on fire.

Those who have spent decades in the building gasped and in complete disbelief said they’d never seen anything like it.

The black plumes of smoke from the multiple fires on the grounds engulfed the surrounding buildings and the balconies on both Parliament and the Beehive had ash falling and settling on them.

It was in the wee hours of the morning that this highly orchestrated operation began when hundreds of police from outside the district descended on the capital to join their colleagues and move in on the protesters.

Before first light, police, using riot gear, began forcibly moving protesters out of tents and herded those who had spread well beyond the immediate Parliament area into a more concentrated space.

There were some aggressive confrontations with the protesters, and some made the decision to get in their vehicles and move out as the police presence grew bigger and bigger.

Trucks and forklifts were brought in to physically lift and transport cars off the roads surrounding Parliament that have been gridlocked for weeks.

By then it was mid-morning and the initial aggression that had played out before 9am had subsided.

The strategy was simple – inch forward with numbers and brute strength and pull everything out along the way.

On walking through the protest, it was only the pressure point at the intersection of Molesworth and Hill Streets that had any real energy left as most of the occupiers wandered around working out their next steps.

Just before midday Police Commissioner Andrew Coster addressed the media saying the protest had reached a point where “the harm being done outweighs any legitimate protest’’.

In the past week Coster said police had noticed a changing mix in the make-up of the crowd, and concerns were growing that those with good intentions were now outnumbered by those willing to use violence.

Coster told Newsroom the operation that started before dawn broke was part of a large-scale operation that had been planned over a number of days.

Hundreds of staff in addition to those already in Wellington had been brought in and the operation would go as long as needed to restore order and calm.

These words and Coster’s plea for people to get out and go home fell on deaf ears down at Parliament as the crowd continued to loiter, waiting to see what would come next.

As MPs met in the House for Question Time things started to heat up outside and police kitted out with shields, helmets and goggles made their way out onto Molesworth Street and into Parliament grounds.

Police remove tents from the lawn as other officers continue to make ground both on the precinct and on the surrounding road. Photo: Marc Daalder

In unison police began a formation with shields whereby they slowly but surely stepped forward into the faces of the protesters while chanting “move, move, move’’.

In just 15 minutes police had moved those on Molesworth Street 100 metres down the road and those inside Parliament gates had made it onto the lawn and started pulling tents out.

The strategy was simple – inch forward with numbers and brute strength and pull everything out along the way.

But in little over half an hour the unbelievable would take place – protesters deliberately started lighting equipment on fire.

Some could later be heard yelling, “burn the place down, burn this f**ker to the ground’’.

Police scrambled to get hoses and fire extinguishers as the flames got bigger and multiplied as gas bottles in nearby tents exploded.

Out on Molesworth Street fireworks were being used and popping and cracking echoed across the lawn.

Then the Parliament playground was targeted with the children’s slide set alight and a nearby tree suddenly in the line of fire.

Firefighters and police reinforcements arrived to try to contain the spread while other officers carried on ripping down tents and adding to the mountain of airbeds, blankets, poles and camping equipment.

The black smoke only worsened, sending ash across the grounds.

With the initial fires mostly contained the push continued both on and off the grounds and police took on defence manoeuvres as protesters began throwing weapons at them.

Poles, traffic cones, pitchforks, sticks and pipes – anything they could get their hands on.

Inching closer to the end of the lawn, protesters set more tents on fire to keep the chaos going and distract some officers dealing with the blaze.

Throughout all this, MPs, staff and journalists watched on in horror as parts of Parliament’s precinct burned.

It took until about 4.30pm – roughly an hour and a half – before the lawn was cleared and protesters contained on Molesworth Street near the cenotaph.

But even then, the force and aggression continued, with protesters ripping up bricks from the footpath to hurl at police.

The stand-off continued and with the Parliament lawn cleared and security left to pile up the rubbish, or what was left of it, police concentrated on pushing the protesters out of the bottom of Molesworth Street.

Things flared up again – arrests were made, more weapons were thrown at police and the remaining protesters eventually pushed out into the street in what was by then peak hour traffic.

The stand-off between police and protesters as Wellingtonians finished work and headed out onto the street. Photo: Marc Daalder

Wellingtonians making their way home couldn’t believe what they were seeing as the corner of Lambton Quay and Bowen Street turned into a chaotic showdown between the hardcore protesters and riot police.

All train lines were halted and buses struggled to get through.

At 5.30pm the Prime Minister addressed media after watching the scenes unfold from her ninth-floor office.

She had nothing but anger and sadness for the protesters, followed closely by praise and thanks for those who put their bodies on the line during the operation to protect Parliament.

Jacinda Ardern spoke of how the country wouldn’t let what had happened on Wednesday define it and that what had played out felt alien to many because of the imported elements of the protest.

“This is not how we engage in protest.’’

Ardern has always struck a powerful tone in a crisis and she chose her words carefully to match the way many have felt in recent weeks.

For those watching livestreams or the 6pm news it felt more like watching anarchy in a foreign country than downtown Wellington.

On Wednesday anyone in earshot of Parliament or a livestream heard their language, their threats, their promises to burn the place to the ground and the screams of women and children as things came to a crashing destructive end.

It was only the truly hard core of protesters left by nightfall; the police had successfully pulled their small but strong army to bits.

In the days to come, school and university students will finally be able to return to the city, those who have been working from home will be able to return to their offices and Parliament’s lawn will once again be for all to enjoy.

But until the grass is reseeded, the playground is rebuilt, and the gardens are replanted there will be a constant reminder to all of what went down on Wednesday.

The protesters arrived saying they just wanted to be listened to.

On Wednesday, anyone in earshot of Parliament or a livestream heard their language, their threats, their promises to burn the place to the ground and the screams of women and children as things came to a crashing destructive end.

A police helicopter hovered in the sky from before the sun rose through until it had gone down again.

Officers in blue have become part of the staff in the Parliament corridors and journalists sprinting down hallways has become the norm whenever things have heated up outside.

All of that will be gone on Thursday, but Covid – the thing that brought such violent and extreme scenes to Parliament’s doorstep in the first place – won’t be.

Many of the protesters are sick from Omicron, and police and journalists who have spent weeks in the thick of it are now suffering from it too.

Another crisis is only just starting to rear its ugly head in New Zealand.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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