Destructive and violent public protests are relatively rare in New Zealand. There have only been two reported deaths during protest action – the first during the 1912 Waihī dispute, when Fred Evans was shot, and the second in 1999, when Christine Clarke was run over at a Lyttelton picket. Even so, some public protests have included wilful property damage or resulted in injuries to participants and police.
The protest of Hōne Heke
In 1844 Ngāpuhi rangatira Hōne Heke Pōkai showed his disillusion with colonisation by ordering the chopping down of the British flagpole at Kororāreka (Russell). Each time the pole was re-erected he had it chopped down again, a process that culminated in war between British troops and northern tribes in 1845.
1879 Orange ‘riot’
A ‘riot’ occurred in Timaru on Boxing Day in 1879, when 40 Irish Protestants (known as Orangemen) tried to join a march of friendly societies. A 150-strong group of Catholics blocked their way, crying, ‘Remove your colours’ (regalia celebrating an English victory over the Irish in 1690). The Orangemen refused, and fights broke out. After a tense standoff, the Protestants removed their colours.
Running the gauntlet
Many Wellingtonians supported the wharfies. When the special constables entered the city each morning, protesters abused them and threw stones and bottles. The specials adopted protective gear: folded towels around their necks and newspaper or other padding in their hats.
1913 waterfront dispute
In late October 1913, in protest at being locked out by their employers, Wellington wharf workers declared a strike and took control of the wharves. Prime Minister William Massey brought in special constables from rural districts to restore order. In a series of street clashes the two sides exchanged punches and beatings. On 5 November a large troop of mounted specials and regular police charged the strikers and retook the wharves.
The Auckland ‘riot’ was vividly captured in John Mulgan’s 1939 novel, Man alone: ‘Johnson saw a baton go up and an arm raised and the little man [Edwards] go down with a blow on the side of the head, and then at once men seemed to know where they were going. He was knocked aside … It was a wild business, like a dream in which no one seemed real any longer.’1
1932 depression protests
During 1932 unemployment protests turned violent. On 9 January in Dunedin, hungry unemployed workers rushed Wardell’s grocery store, but were prevented from looting by police. On 14 April thousands of Auckland protesters were unable to get into a town-hall meeting. As their leader, Jim Edwards, rose to speak to the crowd outside, he was struck down by a police baton. This created uproar: protesters ran down Queen Street smashing windows and looting shops. On 10 May 4,000 protesters in Wellington marched to Parliament. After an unsuccessful deputation to Prime Minister George Forbes, a small part of the crowd rushed along Lambton Quay, breaking shop windows. The next day protesters at a Cuba Street rally were charged and batoned by police. The protests saw many arrested and imprisoned. While Dunedin police acted with restraint, police actions in Auckland and Wellington inflamed events. Officially, protesters were blamed.
1981 Springbok tour
Rugby supporters eagerly anticipated the first Springbok tour to New Zealand since 1965. Opponents associated the Springboks with the racist South African apartheid regime and urged the government to stop the tour. It refused and the team arrived on 19 July. Anti-tour campaigners tried to halt the tour’s progress by blocking roads and invading rugby grounds. Running street battles and violent clashes between tour opponents and supporters became commonplace. Struggling to control events, the police batoned protesters, with bloody results.
In 2008 three peace protesters broke through security fences at the Government Communications Security Bureau at Waihopai and punctured one of two inflatable million-dollar satellite domes. They said they were saving lives in Iraq by disrupting satellite transmissions. The men were charged with burglary and wilful damage. They used the claim of right defence – that lives were more important than property. The jury agreed and the men walked free. Now no longer providing intelligence of any value, the domes at Waihopai were decommissioned and dismantled in 2022.
1984 Queen Street riot
During a power cut at a free rock concert in Aotea Square, Auckland, on 7 December 1984, a few of the 10,000-strong crowd began throwing bottles at police. There were several arrests and police asked for the concert to be stopped. In protest, some in the crowd rioted, smashing shop windows in Queen Street and upturning cars. The singer Dave Dobbyn was charged with, and later cleared of, inciting the riot.
COVID-19 Parliament grounds occupation
The level of violence at the end of the occupation of Parliament grounds was unlike most New Zealand protests.