Protesters point finger after split

STREET DISSENT:  Former Occupy Wellington protester Jonathan Elliot at the group's  site near Civic Square. He says  the movement has  been hijacked by self-styled "facilitator'' Benjamin Easton
STREET DISSENT: Former Occupy Wellington protester Jonathan Elliot at the group's site near Civic Square. He says the movement has been hijacked by self-styled "facilitator'' Benjamin Easton

Occupy Wellington protesters split from the main camp amid claims about women's safety, threats of "violence against police" and concerns that the movement had been hijacked by rogue elements.

Former demonstrators who left the Civic Square camp say the remaining protesters are mostly homeless "streeties", illegal overstayers and "reformed crims" looking for free food and somewhere to sleep.

The ructions emerged yesterday as Auckland District Court ordered Auckland occupiers to leave Aotea Square within 48 hours. The decision is likely to give Wellington City Council the power to evict the Wellington protesters, who vowed yesterday to fight removal attempts with "passive resistance".

Council officials are reviewing the decision with interest but are yet to take action or seek a trespass order.

Former Occupy Wellington demonstrator Jonathan Elliot claimed the movement had been hijacked by self-styled "facilitator" Benjamin Easton, who he said had promoted using force if police stormed the campsite.

"If police came to arrest him [he said] he would be fighting against them, pushing them off walls, setting up barricades."

Mr Easton is a well-known Wellington activist and fathers' rights campaigner who led protests against the Manners Mall bus lanes and was nearly tasered by police when he demonstrated with a sledgehammer.

He told The Dominion Post he was sleeping on church steps before setting up camp in Civic Square.

Mr Elliot, 42, a Victoria University masters student and computer programmer, said Mr Easton's behaviour, plus a desire to set up an indoor community resource centre, appeared to spark the split last week. Those campaigners who left were mostly workers with families who believed in the Occupy cause. Those who remained were homeless people and "ex-mental health consumers", he said.

Several woman left the camp amid concerns for their safety because of people with a history of violence, Mr Elliot said.

"There was an ex-criminal. He was known to be violent against women. This man was permitted to camp and a number of women felt uncomfortable about this," he said.

Darcy Collier, who also left during the split, had similar concerns about Mr Easton and the way the camp was operated.

"I don't know if he was trying to advocate violence. But there was certainly hints of how he wanted to defend the ground of Civic Square, which was obviously absurd.

"To me he doesn't pose a threat. In his own mind, maybe he does."

Mr Collier confirmed several instances in which women's safety concerns at the camp were dealt with through a "safer spaces" team. "I've heard of cases where women have felt uncomfortable in the group but I couldn't elaborate. All that information is confidential."

Mr Easton said several occupiers had serious mental health issues which "bordered on criminal matters".

There were accusations one occupier had been threatening and another had acted "inappropriately" towards women at the camp. When he defended one of the men in the interests of natural justice, the spilt developed, Mr Easton said.

He dismissed suggestions he had advocated violence but said he would passively resist attempts to arrest the protesters if the council tried to force their eviction.

Mr Easton labelled the group that had split as "quite soft".

"There are people who aren't up to the hardness of life."

In Christchurch, Occupy protesters said they would reoccupy their South Hagley Park campsite area if they were kicked out.

The Occupy protests in other centres have largely fizzled out.

A handful of protesters packed up their tents and left Dunedin's Octagon on Tuesday after a 66-day occupation.

The protest in Invercargill lasted until almost the end of November before a decision was made to leave. A group lasted about a week in New Plymouth, while in Hamilton a sit-in ended after a few hours.

Do you have any information about this story? Contact our reporter.
lane.nichols@dompost.co.nz

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