Nine protesters have been arrested during fraught scenes outside a Wellington defence forum.
As bus loads of delegates attempted to enter Westpac Stadium for the forum on Tuesday, a few hundred protesters blockaded the stadium entrances.
Among those detained and dragged away by police was a disabled man with a walking cane, who said he was protesting against prison operator Cisco’s involvement in the forum, dubbed a “weapons expo”.
Ti Lamusse, from People Against Prisons Aotearoa, said the police treatment of the man was “massively over the top”.
“It was brutal. He was telling them he was disabled. He was in pain – he was in agony.”
As each bus load arrived, police blocked off the out-of-city lanes of Waterloo and Aotea Quay but, at one point, scuffling protesters and police broke into the still-open city-bound lanes and into traffic.
About 300 people blocked every entrance into the stadium in an attempt to stop the scheduled Defence, Industry & National Security Forum, which protesters have dubbed a “weapons expo”.
Shortly after 11am, police managed to get some attendees inside, despite some protesters lying down in the middle of Aotea Quay.
When one bus load of delegates arrived, protesters surrounded it. The bus mounted the pavement while police formed a human shield to create a walkway in. Subsequent bus loads followed suit, each time resulting in tense clashes between police and protesters.
Wellington City Council put in detours around Aotea and Waterloo quays.
Earlier, the protesters said they had all but halted the expo, despite police intervention.
Protesters surrounded the stadium from about 6am, and blocked an entrance to the stadium with a sign saying “expelliarmus”.
Some hung many metres from pillars surrounding entrances to the stadium, blocking them with ties that, if cut, would have meant they fell to the ground.
Wellington police operations manager Inspector Neil Banks said that, by 10.45am, five people had been arrested for obstructing a roadway.
By 5.30pm, 15 people had been arrested for minor offences, with six released without charge. Of the other nine, eight were accused of obstructing a public roadway, and one of disorderly behaviour.
“Police must balance the lawful right to protest against the public’s right to go about their daily business without being disrupted by protest action,” Banks said.
“We are disappointed that a number of protesters behaved in a way that created safety issues, disrupted traffic, and caused delays that inconvenienced the wider public.”
He said police were aware of allegations made about police conduct and reminded “anyone with concerns that there are several avenues available to them if they wish to make a complaint”.
The previous NZDIA expo in Wellington, in 2015, was marred by the mass arrest of protesters – most on trespassing charges, which were dropped earlier this year after a lengthy court battle with police.
Protest organiser Jessie Dennis said the arrests were “outrageous”, and she expected all of the charges would be dropped.
“These people are human rights defenders, and we should thank them for their work in making the world a safer and more peaceful place … we will be supporting them through any court process whatever the outcome.
“The heavy-handed and violent actions of the police in protecting and attempting to escort delegates inside was shameful.”
CONTROVERSIAL FROM THE START
Last month, and after pressure from activists, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester agreed the controversial arms industry forum should not return to any Wellington City Council sites.
Lester said the expo, the main sponsor of which was nuclear weapons and arms giant Lockheed Martin, was “not an appropriate event for a civic venue”. The council wanted to steer clear of any associated conflict.
The event could go ahead at Westpac Stadium, because it is not under the council’s control.
Instead, the stadium is managed by the Wellington Regional Stadium Trust – a charitable trust jointly settled by the city council and Greater Wellington Regional Council.
NZDIA deputy chairman Andrew Ford said labelling the forum a “weapons expo” was “stretching the truth” and the event was mainly about bringing together suppliers of services and products to support the defence and national security sectors, not weapons.
Most people would support New Zealand’s defence forces being properly equipped to defend themselves and fulfil their peacekeeping duties, he said.