The group had converged on Wellington on Tuesday to show their opposition to vaccine mandates and masks.
New Zealand on Thursday began forcibly removing hundreds of people who have been camping outside its parliament building for the last three days to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other pandemic measures.
Inspired by the trucker demonstrations in Canada, protesters began blocking streets in Wellington with trucks, cars and motorbikes on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Thursday told the crowd to “move on”, saying the demonstration was “not reflective of where the rest of New Zealand is out right now.”
“All of us want to actually move on. We are working very hard to put ourselves in the best possible position to do that, ”Ardern told reporters after visiting a COVID-19 vaccination center in Auckland.
The police moved in after parliament speaker Trevor Mallard took the rare step of closing the grounds around the distinctive “Beehive” parliament building.
Some 100 officers were called in from elsewhere in the country as reinforcements.
Scuffles broke out as officers were punched and kicked amid cries of “this is not democracy”, “shame on you” and “drop the mandate”.
“We are protesting peacefully. Why should we leave? ” one protester said. “We are here with a clear message to end the mandates.”
Police used loudspeakers warning protesters to take down their tents or be arrested.
“While police recognize people’s right to protest, this needs to be conducted in a way that does not unfairly impact on the wider public,” said Superintendent Corrie Parnell, the Wellington district commander.
The protest began with more than 1,000 people from around the country converging on parliament in cars and trucks.
The number of protesters had dwindled to a couple of hundred by Thursday, but some of their vehicles remained parked in the middle of streets around parliament, forcing some streets to be closed. The National Library and many cafes and bars in the area decided to close their doors while the protest played out.
Among the protesters’ grievances is mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for certain workers, including teachers, doctors, nurses, police and military personnel, and rules requiring masks in places such as shops and forcing children to wear masks in schools.
Border closures and sometimes strict lockdowns have helped New Zealand escape the worst of the pandemic. The country has reported just 53 virus deaths among its population of 5 million.
Ardern last week announced plans to relax quarantine requirements for incoming travelers in stages as the country reopens its borders. With a large proportion of people now vaccinated, she has also promised not to impose more lockdowns.
Health officials have been reporting about 200 new virus cases each day as an outbreak of the Omicron variant grows.
Ardern said every New Zealander had the right to protest but that should not disrupt other people’s lives, adding the decision to remove protesters was an operational matter for police.
It was not immediately clear how many were arrested on Thursday but police in a statement issued late on Wednesday said three men were arrested on parliament grounds and have been charged with obstruction.