A Garden In The City

7 min readMar 28, 2023
Photo by op23 on Unsplash

The Albert Park Band Rotunda was constructed in 1901. If it looks in good nick, it’s because it had a paint-job in 2018. It’s beautiful, a lovely octagonal shape with curved wooden seats inside and pathways leading towards it from across Albert Park. It’s not the centre of Albert Park, that’s the fountain slightly to the north-west. The lawns are lush, the trees shady and perfect for lying under on a hot day. In the centre of the city there is a garden.

Prior to that, it was Albert Barracks, between 1845 and 1870. Before that, there was a papakainga, a Māori village, called Rangipuke. There’s a lot of history in that garden, and I think a Māori village becoming a colonal barracks and then an English-style park is quite a nice synecdoche for Aotearoa for the moment.

I wouldn’t ever think of choosing the Rotunda for a controversial rally. There’s far too many obvious things wrong with it as a location, especially if you’re a right-wing speaker who has recently come spectacularly unstuck across the Tasman Sea. The spaces are wide, open and clear. The Rotunda itself has a tarmac area around it, but the park stretches off and off.

It’s strange, looking at Kellie-Jane Keen-Minshull’s last three tour dates, that her NZ organisers chose Albert Park. Because of all of those events, the one with the least direct trouble to Mrs Minshull and her supporters, was the one in Melbourne. Nice wide streets, hard to block. The parliament, a very secure building, behind you. A police line keeping those dreadful people away, those nice young men in their black outfits waving with very stiff arms.

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

After that, it went downhill. In Hobart there were no clear barriers between Mrs. Minshull, her handful of supporters, and the counter-protest. Even with the Parliament behind her, she was eventually surrounded and drowned out. In Canberra, even worse, no building behind her. That’s how Senator Thorpe was able to walk up behind her, telling her she wasn’t welcome before security and the police threw her to the floor.

I’d look at that, and then look at Albert Park Rotunda. An open-sided structure, that can be approached from any direction. Designed that way, in fact. Designed to be surrounded by people enjoying the music emanating from within. Designed for a crowd to converge upon. In the heart of the city. Even the barracks and the papakainga had the sense to throw some walls or palisades up around that location. It was defensible, but only if you actually make some effort to defend it.

I suppose there’s an argument that they tried. A handful of security guards. Stewards, including some helpful people from Voices For Freedom, put up the metal barriers around the edges of the lawn in a big circle. Enclosing the Rotunda. Surrounding it, in fact. No way out.

By the time Mrs Minshull arrived, there were an estimated 2,000 counter-protesters in Albert Park. At what point does the sheer weight of numbers tip the balance, so that she was in fact there to counter a trans-rights protest in progress? One to consider. Within the thin ring of barriers were the handful of security guards, the volunteer stewards, and charitably a 100 or so people who’d come to hear her speak.

Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash

At what point do you think, “Huh, I think the numbers are dangerously out of whack here?” as an organiser, or a steward or the head of the hired private security. Because if the counter-protest were a howling mob, intent on violence and doing absolutely anything to get Mrs Minshull — then that could have happened at literally any moment from her exiting her vehicle and being flanked by security guards through the crowd who’d come to drown her out. But that’s not what happened.

Instead she makes her way through the barriers, the crowd booing and honking horns, a brass band playing. Security get her up the steps, to the wire mesh screen with her backdrop on it. But there’s something they don’t know. On the Rotunda is Eli Rubashkyn, and she has been there for some time. Sitting quietly, engaged in polite conversation with people who have come to support the advocacy of the removal of her rights. A plastic bottle of tomato juice in her bag. Once Mrs Minshull is up the steps, security briefly relax. Phew lads, we got her to the platform and nothing bad happened.

Enter Eli. She calmly walks, not “runs towards”, and pours, not “throws” the majority of the bottle over Mrs Minshull, security intervenes, one of them gets the rest of the bottle. Eli is bundled to the ground, beaten and even bitten. She experiences more violence in those moments than Mrs Minshull has in her entire tour. It is the first unexpected thing to occur, unless the organisers genuinely didn’t think they were going to be massively outnumbered.

Photo by Rirri on Unsplash

And yet she has time to take live-streaming footage of the crowd, a pursed look on her face. After Eli’s bold act of civil disobediance, she is not immediately overwhelmed by “the mob”. In fact there are a few minutes between the juicing, and what is to come next. The crowd are awaiting her speech, ready to raise the volume to ear-splitting levels.

There are not enough stewards to stick to the barrier line, there are not enough security guards to ensure it stays up. They are all facing outwards, getting closer to Mrs Minshull now. The barriers are unhooked from each other, and laid flat on the ground. The crowd surges forward, noisily but not violently.

It is at this point, I think, that everyone in Mrs Minshull’s group realises that the Albert Park Rotunda is a really bad place to hold their speaking engagement. Because within a minute or two, they are surrounded. Not just the tarmac surrounding it, but the open sides of the Rotunda itself invite counter-protesters in. There is noise, there is music, there is vox populi.

There is no way out. The way is shut. The police have allowed the largely peaceful protest leeway, allowed the exchange of free speech. I believe that they were called by organisers, or attendees, once they realised they had held their event in the perfect location to get utterly surrounded and overwhelmed. But they still had to find a way out.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The solution is on many videos and is very Aotearoa New Zealand. Forming a rolling maul, their precious blonde ball tucked into the centre, the heavyset security push their way through the crowd, which steps forward.

Someone squirts a bottle of water over the huddle, in the crowd small incidents break out as supporters of Mrs Minshill attempt to support her escape, or settle the score they imagine is stacked so highly against them. Within a minute or two, they are out of the main body of counter-protesters, the police usher her to a police car.

She departs, unhurt, except for her pride. The crowd have sung, yelled, screamed and blown whistles. Eli has delivered some fruit juice. Someone has squirted water on her. Her organisers created a dangerous crowd situation and had to hustle her out of there. But she was unhurt as she left.

The counter-protest mostly remains at the Rotunda. They celebrate by making speeches about the experiences of the trans community, in solidarity with them. Music plays and the noise level drops to the sound of people satisfied with a job well done.

For the portrayal of what occurred in Albert Park this weekend as violent or chaotic, even “a riot” by known good faith organisation The Free Speech Union — there are certainly some questions that should be answered.

Auckland Council granted the organisers a permit. It would be fascinating to see what their plan was, and what their crowd and counter-protest crowd estimate was. Clearly whoever planned this did not expect such a huge community rejection of their speakers ideas and presence.

Equally to the organisers, what on earth were you thinking? Did you not look at Melbourne, Hobart and Canberra and consider what would happen if a five hundred, or a thousand, people showed up to counter-protest you? More interestingly, why not Aotea Square? Mrs Minshull announced her Auckland tour date on January 9th. The organisers started the facebook event on February 22nd.

Photo by AR on Unsplash

Vision NZ announced their Aotea Square protest just thirteen days before March 25th. It is a traditional site for protests, rallies and is set up to be a lot safer than an Edwardian Rotunda. Did they get the jump on you or something? It doesn’t matter now.

The event organisers had two and a half months to prepare, could see what had happened in Australia, and somehow on a sunny Saturday afternoon they constructed a near-perfect transphobe trap in a garden in the city.




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