Sit-ins and occupations happen when a group occupies a place to highlight a grievance. A sit-in usually lasts 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, 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 railway’s tracks, stopping trains. After 10 days, the police arrested nine women, including Sonja Davies, later a 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 violently removed by police just before midnight. During the same year feminists helped end the tradition of men-only public bars by conducting sit-ins (or ‘pub liberations’) at city hotels.
In February 1978 Eva Rickard led a sit-in at the Raglan golf course. The land had been taken from her sub-tribe, Tainui Awhiro, for a military airfield during the Second World War – and was then 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 business’s 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 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 (protest march about Māori land loss), Māori revived the strategy of occupying disputed lands.
In January 1977 protesters occupied former Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei land that the government had compulsorily purchased at Bastion Point, Auckland. The protesters wanted the land given back to the tribe. 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 tribe.
Pākehā sometimes used occupations as a protest tool as well. 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 Māori land loss and wanted to restore the mana (guardianship) 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 private land it was unable to be considered. After police issued trespass notices to the protesters, they briefly occupied a plot of land next door.
Taking their cue from overseas 'Occupy' movements in mid-2011, New Zealand supporters set up their own camps in public spaces in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin. The movement arose in the United States and was seemingly a protest against the perceived greed and immorality of corporate capitalism. However, its spokespeople said it had no set protest goals. By the end of 2011 the movement appeared to be waning.