Sit-ins and occupations happen when a group occupies a place to highlight a grievance. A sit-in usually lasts for a day or so, but an occupation can extend for weeks or even years.
One of the most famous sit-ins was carried out by a group of Nelson women in September 1955. Angered by the government’s decision to close the local railway line, the women occupied a goods shed at Kiwi station (near Glenhope) to stop its demolition. As news of the protest spread more people began a sit-in on the tracks, stopping trains. After 10 days, the police arrested nine women, including Sonja Davies, later a prominent trade unionist and MP. The women were convicted and fined. The railway was still closed.
Red zone sit-in
On 4 July 2011 Christchurch businessman Andrew Everist staged a sit-in at the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) premises in the art gallery. He had been told his shop – damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes, and located in the restricted central-city ‘red zone’ – was to be demolished that day. Everist wanted access to his premises to rescue stock and belongings. Wearing a high-visibility vest and hard hat, he said he would not budge until the matter was resolved. His last-ditch protest led CERA to delay the demolition.
Sit-ins became popular during the counter-culture era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When US Vice-President Spiro Agnew visited New Zealand in 1970, anti-Vietnam War protesters staged a noisy sit-in outside his Auckland hotel until they were violently removed by police just before midnight. In the same year feminists helped end the tradition of men-only public bars by conducting sit-ins (‘pub liberations’) at city hotels.
In February 1978, Tuaiwa (Eva) Rickard (Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Toa, Tainui, Taranaki) led a sit-in at the Raglan golf course. The land had been taken from her sub-tribe, Tainui Āwhiro, for a military airfield during the Second World War – and was later turned into a golf course. She wanted it returned to its original owners. Rickard and others were arrested and removed, but the land was given back to the hapū in 1987.
Sit-ins remained an activist tool in the 2000s. In December 2009, protesters held a sit-in at Wellington’s stock exchange to highlight New Zealand businesses’ responsibility for climate change. The event featured ‘radical cheerleaders’ and a samba band. In February 2011, animal-rights protesters sat on top of silos at a Pukekohe battery-hen farm to protest against the caged birds’ living conditions. After 14 hours they came down and were arrested by police.
Occupations have been strongly associated with Māori grievances. In the 19th century Māori sometimes occupied land they disputed had been sold, or that had been sold from under their feet by rival claimants. Some occupations, such as that by Ngāti Kauwhata at Pukekura in the late 1870s and 1880s, lasted many years. Following the 1975 hīkoi, Māori revived the strategy of occupying disputed lands.
Takaparawhā (Bastion Point)
In January 1977 protesters occupied former Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei land that the government had compulsorily purchased at Takaparawhā (Bastion Point), Auckland. The protesters wanted the land given back to the iwi. In May 1978, after 507 days, the police arrested 222 protesters and evicted the rest. Following a Waitangi Tribunal report in 1987, much of the land was returned to the iwi.
In 1978 several protesters camped in the canopies of tōtara trees in Pureora Forest, stopping forest workers from felling them. Their action was widely supported and led to the suspension of native-forest logging at Pureora and elsewhere.
Whanganui Māori began a 79-day occupation of Moutoa Gardens in the centre of Whanganui in February 1995. The group was protesting against Māori land loss and wanted to restore the mana of Whanganui Māori over the place, formerly an important site of Māori trade known as Pākaitore.
In October and November 2010, Ngāti Kahu protesters occupied land outside the Taipā sailing club in Northland. The group wanted the land returned to them as part of a treaty settlement process, but because it was privately owned land this was unable to be considered. After police issued trespass notices to the protesters, they briefly occupied an adjacent plot of land.
Taking their cue from overseas ‘Occupy’ movements in mid-2011, New Zealand supporters set up camps in public spaces in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin. The movement began in the United States as a protest against the perceived greed and immorality of corporate capitalism. However, its spokespeople said it had no set goals. By the end of 2011 the movement was waning.
Ihumātao is a place of great archaeological significance in South Auckland featuring very early Māori kāinga and gardens. Part of the area has been permanently protected as the Ōtuataua Stonefields historic reserve. In the 2010s, a large new housing project was planned for a block of land next to the reserve. A protest group called Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) organised an occupation of the land in order to stop the development. Although the occupation was small at some times, the numbers of protestors increased significantly in 2019, after the group were served with eviction notices. Some clashes occurred with police. King Tūheitia, the leader of the Kīngitanga movement, made a significant visit to the site to try and bring about a resolution. The occupation was finally ended in 2020 when the government agreed to purchase the land.
Occupation of Parliament grounds, 2022
The occupation of Parliament grounds in Wellington in February–March 2022 brought together a disparate group of protesters. Its immediate cause was the restrictions introduced by the government to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people at the occupation were protesting the government’s policies surrounding ‘mandates’ – the requirement for many employees to be vaccinated against the disease, and for people to wear masks in some circumstances. Other protesters were influenced by concerns about governmental control over people’s lives, and about the safety of the vaccine. Some used the occupation to support other causes, including white nationalism. The organisers of the protest were also a disparate group, making policing and managing the protest difficult.
Despite rules against camping on Parliament grounds, tents were erected soon after protesters arrived in convoys of vehicles from around the country. Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard attempted to dissuade the occupiers by setting off water sprinklers and playing loud music. It is likely these actions only inflamed the situation. The number of protesters swelled to around 3,000, making sanitation difficult and raising concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the crowd. The protesters also used up to 800 illegally parked vehicles to block off streets around Parliament, disrupting many important services in the central city. Police at first took a relatively hands-off approach, but finally moved in to clear Parliament grounds on 2 March. Amid violent scenes, protesters set alight their campsite, trees, and a children’s playground, and threw street pavers and other objects at police. Around 250 people were arrested during the three weeks of the occupation.