COVID-19 'freedom' protesters confronted after trying to overthrow Northland iwi checkpoints, flying United Tribes flag upside-down

A group of largely Pākehā 'freedom' protesters were confronted after flying the He Whakaputanga (United Tribes) flag upside-down and threatening to overthrow iwi-led COVID-19 checkpoints in Northland over the weekend.

The protest - organised by former Social Credit candidate Brad Flutey and supported by disinformation group Counterspin - was over the use of COVID-19 checkpoints separating the Far North from the rest of the Tai Tokerau region.

"The police and Hone [Harawira, Te Tai Tokerau Border Control founder] are to cede to We The People, if we vastly outnumber those who turn up to promote the continuation of the border," a social media post promoting the protest read.

The reality was the protest did not attract vast numbers of people - with about 50 at the northern end of the Kāeo Bridge and roughly the same number further south - and was shut down reasonably quickly after those operating the checkpoints voiced their opposition.

Police even later likened the demonstration to a "big storm in a teacup".

But there was enough time for local iwi to voice their disapproval, not just at the protesters' goal of shutting down the checkpoints but by their use of the He Whakaputanga flag, which was upside-down.

A video of the clash at the northern end of Kāeo Bridge shows a member of Te Tai Tokerau Border Control calling them out for attempting to cross through the checkpoint with the flag.

"If you're flying that flag you should know, kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face), ki te hapu, before you enter. I do not come to your whanga tapu without you knowing, or come into your moana without you knowing."

Later in the footage, a woman can be heard telling a woman holding the He Whakaputanga flag to turn it the right way, calling her refusal to do so "disrespectful".

Te Tai Tokerau Border Control communications and logistics manager Nyze Manuel (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa) told Newshub another He Whakaputanga flag was worn around someone's backside at the other checkpoint.

She says it's something they really took issue with.

"I'm not being racist or anything because I have Pākehā blood in me, but when there's 10 Māori and 50 other Pākehā holding our kara (flag) upside-down, from the place of the birth of He Whakaputanga, I think they really, really, really need to check themselves," she said.

"Who wears a kara around their backside? It's an insult, it's disrespectful. And then we get one coming out flying the flag upside-down like we're in distress? You're not. How rude is that? Unbelievable.

"My message is very clear to them: if we want your help, we'll ask. We're fine, thank you. Nga ko hi te kainga (go home)."

Manuel says after threatening to overthrow the checkpoints, the protesters were met by kaumātua, had a korero, and were then told to pick up their rubbish and go home, which they agreed to do with minimal fuss.

The incident came as COVID-19 case numbers continue to grow in Northland, a region lagging behind the average on vaccination rates.

Manuel said there is division in the community over the response to COVID-19 but believes it has largely been caused by misinformation. She says she has seen adults and children receive the vaccine and have no impact, so isn't worried by its impacts.

"I think that's what people need to understand: this is health, not personal," she said of restrictions prompted by the virus.

"I'm all about having choice, but remember every choice that we make, whether it's to vaccinate or not, we own it…

"If people choose not to take their health and look after it how another individual does, that's their choice. But consequences come of it as well."