It feels like it was inevitable that some of the conspiracy theorists, or "freedom fighters" as they call themselves, would end up protesting our latest level 4 lockdown. I’m not surprised that their shared delusion that lockdown is just a ploy by the government to permanently remove our freedoms would cause them to risk the health of all of us. But it has been disappointing to see a few hundred people around the country gathering to protest at a time when we’ve all been told to stay at home to limit the spread of a deadly disease.
The first protests happened at midday on Wednesday, barely 12 hours into lockdown. People were protesting outside the TVNZ building in Auckland, as well as in Tauranga and Christchurch. At the Auckland protest, Newsroom reports (opens new window) that one protester was holding a sign which said "Down with this sort of thing", Although the article doesn’t mention it, this sign is from a scene (opens new window) in the classic TV show Father Ted, and it makes me wonder if maybe at least one attendee at the protest was just there to poke fun.
So, without further ado, let’s start this evening’s newsletter by looking at what happened this week with our conspiracy theorist friends, and then look into some of the more interesting fallout from these events.
The not totally surprising result of these protests is that the police have been arresting protestors. However, they’ve not tried to arrest everyone, or to pick up just those who are the loudest or the most aggressive. Instead they have been carting away key members of the conspiracy/fringe movement.
As I’ve watched this happening, I’ve imagined myself marking off squares on a conspiracy bingo card. I have to assume that the police have been well briefed. They appear to know full well that many of those they’ve arrested are part of the New Zealand conspiracy version of the "Dirty Dozen (opens new window)", and that their arrests are likely to reduce the likelihood of future protests being organised.
The Auckland protest on Wednesday was arranged by Billy TK (ex co-leader of the Advance NZ political party) and Vinny Eastwood, (who was until recently a prolific YouTube video creator). I say "was", because due to the sheer amount of nonsense Vinny posts to YouTube he’s recently had all of the content deleted on all of his YouTube channels (he had several backups, in case he was moderated, but it’s all gone now). Whereas Billy tends to stick to talking about the evils of the UN, Vinny seems to have no discernment when interviewing people and promoting their views, and has talked with anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, lizard people believers, UFO cranks, germ theory deniers and much, much more.
(As I’ve mentioned before, we had Vinny speak at one of our conferences a few years ago. I always find it fascinating to give space for one of the people we usually battle to speak to us, and from the feedback we’ve received from conference attendees people tend to be very hot or cold on this one. Can anyone guess who our contentious guest might be for this year’s conference?)
Anyway, Billy TK was speaking at the protest on Wednesday when, about 45 minutes into the event, the police suddenly moved in and arrested him - and Billy was kind enough to live stream (opens new window) his arrest to Facebook. Billy’s arrest was closely followed by Vinny Eastwood’s. Whereas Billy went somewhat quietly, Vinny was much more vocal and audibly distressed when he was taken away - asking the crowd to protect him, and pleading that he has a wife and child at home.
Although nobody was arrested in Christchurch on Wednesday, Thursday was a different matter. Adam Nuttall and Kyle Chapman were both picked up while protesting on the Bridge of Remembrance. Adam is (yet another) video creator who promotes a variety of people’s weird and wacky views, whereas Kyle is an odious far-right character - I’ll let Wikipedia fill you in (opens new window) on the details.
Liz Lambert, who has been publicly coaching deluded people on how to make themselves exempt from paying rates or mortgage by claiming "Allodial Title" on a piece of land, was arrested on Saturday at another protest in Auckland - for this one the organisers tried to claim it was just a group of people exercising in public. Obviously the police were having none of it.
Notably missing were:
Damien De Ment, an American born man who makes videos online about how people should refuse to pay taxes because the government has no jurisdiction over them. Damien had been encouraging people online to protest. He was visited by the police (opens new window) on Saturday and, despite trying to tell the police that he was "not contracting with" them, was served with a letter of warning. After this, he chose not to turn up at the protest on Saturday, and was roundly criticised by his peers for his decision to "chicken out".
Lee Williams, a British born man who (ironically) makes videos about how immigration is ruining New Zealand, and how Agenda 2030 and He Puapua will take away our rights and give everything we own to Māori. Lee is currently back in the UK, having lost his job, his wife and his bank accounts after posting horribly racist videos to YouTube, and so was about as far away from the Christchurch protests as he could possibly be.
Carl Bromley, a right wing Christian preacher in Christchurch and friend of Lee Williams, who had planned to have his parishioners visit his house yesterday morning for a church service, ended up with four police officers outside of his house ensuring that nobody was stupid enough to actually turn up.
Kelvyn Alp, the presenter of the online conspiracy show Counterspin, was at the protest on Wednesday, but appeared to stay quiet and avoid arrest. Kelvyn has a weird history (opens new window) - having set up a paramilitary organisation in NZ called the Armed Intervention Force, he now runs his Sovereign Citizen obsessed online news bulletin, broadcasting to a small but loyal following.
Some of those arrested (e.g. Billy TK and Vinny Eastwood) have already been given bail, with conditions such as no access to the internet, no leaving their homes except to meet with their lawyers, and no fraternising with each other. For me, there’s a delicious irony - schadenfreude I guess - to seeing people who risked spreading a disease by ignoring the lockdown order being given their own extended lockdowns, complete with ankle bracelets and personalised police enforcement. Others, like Kyle and Adam, have apparently spent the weekend in jail - which may or may not have a sobering effect on them.
All in all, I think that these arrests are going to have a mixed outcome. For some, like Billy TK, who rely on the internet for their income, I can imagine them at least pausing to consider the consequences of their actions. For others, I think that they may see this kind of civil disobedience, and the punishment it carries, as a badge of honour and a way to martyr themselves. I presume that all of those that have been arrested will at least try to capitalise on their new-found infamy, even if they plead guilty and try to minimise any further damage to their lives from their reckless decisions.