Sensible or Scaredy Cat?

Risk management is tricky business. To celebrate my mid-March birthday, Scott and I had planned to go to Hilma af Klint’s exhibit in Wellington, and finally visit Te Papa Museum. But when Omicron escaped New Zealand’s managed isolation facilities, we reconsidered our timing to minimize the chances that we might catch — or worse, spread — the virus.

First, we moved our trip forward to mid-February, figuring we’d beat the COVID peak, expected at the end of March. Then we decided to drive rather than fly. Driving would extend our trip by two whole days, but if we happen to catch Omicron while in Wellington, we’ll at least still be able to get back home to isolate in Thames. Finally, I booked us a hotel room with its own bathroom, kitchenette, and a three day cancellation policy. The shared bathroom and kitchen in the bed and breakfast we had booked suddenly feel like unnecessary risks.

We’ve been following the news about The-Convoy-and-associated protests, never imagining it would last this long, or get this tense. When I came across a map of the protestors’ activity I started to wonder: do we really want to visit Wellington at a time when the city is full of people who are not only gathering without masks, but actively harassing those who choose to wear them? As a person of color and an immigrant, do I really want to enter a zone rife with anti-Semitic sentiment? Where nooses hang? Where known white supremacists may be recruiting as others fearlessly share violent intentions?

A few years back, while applying for visas to live and work in New Zealand, my partner and I had to declare that we’ve never made public racist statements, or been members of a racist group. Now permanent residents, we enjoy most of the rights of New Zealand citizens, but there is still no guarantee we will be safe from their racist statements or actions.

My birthday happens to fall on March 15th. On that day three years ago, a white supremacist gunned down 51 innocent Muslim people in Christchurch as they gathered in their places of worship. Many New Zealanders were shocked that such a racially-motivated terrorist massacre could happen here, despite what many Muslims already knew — and had been trying to tell authorities — about anti-Muslim sentiment. If I’m scared about what this protest means for New Zealand’s future, I can’t help but wonder how the Muslim community feels about what’s happening in Wellington right now.

Every year, on the anniversary of the day my partner and I immigrated to New Zealand from San Francisco, people around the country light off truckloads of backyard fireworks. Every year I joke that all this fanfare is in honor of our immigration. The truth, of course, is more complicated.

In 1605, English Catholics had had enough of being persecuted under the Protestant leadership of Great Britain. A group of conspirators hatched a plan to assassinate King James I and his parliament, gathering 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament with the intention of blowing it all up. Their chosen date: November 5th.

As the date approached, however, some of the conspirators began to have second thoughts, particularly as they considered the innocent people that would inevitably get caught up in the blast. One sent an anonymous letter warning a friend to stay away from Parliament on November 5th. That warning eventually made it to the king, whose forces discovered the barrels of gunpowder under Parliament, along with Guy Fawkes, with only hours to spare before the attack. Guy Fawkes was convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Guy Fawkes Day is meant to be a reminder that traitorous plots will not be tolerated.

I’m not sure how many Kiwis are aware of this history, or see Guy Fawkes Day as anything other than an excuse to light off fireworks. If they are aware of the political backstory, do they see themselves as celebrating the government? Or do they align more closely with those who sought to bring the government down? Do they see any parallels between this event and what’s happening in Wellington right now?

On our first evening in New Zealand, the fifth of November, 2016, we attended a Guy Fawkes party at the home of some fellow Americans, friend’s of Scott’s. An older man who works with one of them brought, along with an enormous selection of fireworks, several MAGA hats. “As a joke,” he claimed, when we Americans failed to laugh along. Scott and I tried to stay awake for the fireworks but were exhausted from the flight, from jetlag, from the months of logistics related to securing visas and shipping our things across an ocean. We excused ourselves early, catching occasional flashes of light through the windows or our Uber as we crossed town.

Three days later, Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States. My new boss, a Māori man I couldn’t wait to move across an ocean to work with, offered me a hug when I came to work shellshocked the following morning. But before long he too was saying things like, “well, you got what you deserved, more than half of you voted for him.” I got tired of explaining how few people in the US actually vote, or the intricacies of the electoral system.

“Your timing was impeccable!” people kept saying of our move to New Zealand, as if I’d had any idea Trump stood a chance at being elected. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the rise of alt right sentiments in the US. What little I’d heard I wrote off as too absurd, too fringe to be of real concern.

Are Kiwis paying attention?

I view New Zealand’s history of peaceful protests with a sense of awe. I have deep respect for ngā rōpū tautohetohe, the Māori protest movements and hīkoi, protest marches. Since moving here we have attended marches for climate action, rights for all women, and Black Lives Matter. It has been disheartening to watch the pandemic-era protests get co-opted by people espousing a narrow sort of freedom and a false inclusivity, both of which disproportionately affect the very people who pioneered Aotearoa’s protest traditions.

Of course I’d prefer not to live in fear. I too want to get on with life. How lovely it would be to celebrate beauty, to learn more about Aotearoa’s history at Te Papa, to see the Hilma af Klint show before it closes at the end of March. 

So we wonder: how much longer will the protesters be occupying Wellington? How exactly do they define freedom? Freedom for whom? At what cost? How will they know when they’ve got it? How bad will things get between now and then?

We have no way of knowing, just as we have no way of knowing when the COVID curve will peak, whether or not we will catch it, or what will happen if (when?) we do. If we let the protesters change our plans, are we just giving them too much power? Should we just get on with our lives, regardless of risk? We have until midnight tonight to cancel our hotel booking without penalty. I still can’t make up my mind.

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