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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

InternetFebruary 24, 2022

Wellington businesses are weighing up whether to act against the protest

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

As tensions build and police take more action to constrain the Wellington protest, local businesses asked to assist find themselves facing a potential backlash. Dylan Reeve investigates for IRL

In the early hours of Monday morning, police turned up in force on the streets around parliament. They were there to place heavy concrete blocks, forming a physical barrier around the two-week-old protest, intended to prevent further expansion into the streets.

For the companies called upon by the cops to haul the concrete monoliths to downtown Wellington, it wasn’t like any normal job. Feedback after completing the job hasn’t been typical, either – one of the companies saw their Google review rating sink like a stone as their total ratings more than doubled thanks to 1-star responses from protest supporters.

Reached by phone, the owner of one of these companies, who asked not to be named, was circumspect. “Look, basically a job’s a job,” he told The Spinoff, after confirming the company had received a lot of negative feedback. “And positive,” he clarified, “a lot of people out there [are] supportive, too.”

Protesters and their opponents have been waging Google review wars. (Image: Dylan Reeve)

With a crowd of thousands at parliament (and even more supporting from home), it only takes a small handful to make an impact on a small business. “At least a good 80% of them, yeah they were standing on the line, but they moved back when they were told to,” the business owner said of the majority who weren’t causing problems. “It’s just a select few, really.”

But even a small group has the potential to have an outsized impact, with some tow truck operators, spoken to by The Spinoff last week, reporting they had experienced threats and harassment at the mere suggestion vehicles would be towed. “We have been inundated with death threats and threats on our business,” one tow company operator told The Spinoff. “They’ve said they will destroy our business, they will hurt our families, that they will make sure we pay.” It was enough for most operators to decide not to get involved.

However, opponents of the protests have also leveraged online platforms in order to support businesses they’ve seen targeted by protesters. By Tuesday morning, the online ratings of the targeted companies had more than recovered, with hundreds of anti-protest visitors dropping 5-star reviews. 

White supremacist Phil Arps sought the identities of assisting contractors on Telegram. (Image: Dylan Reeve)

When police did manage to tow a few vehicles during their Monday morning operation, the truck they used looked to be fresh off the showroom floor with no company branding. It didn’t even display a number plate or registration and mileage labels. A video tweeted by Stuff’s Henry Cooke on Monday afternoon demonstrated why companies might try to obscure their identity, when it showed a protester shouting “500,000 people know where you live” at a tow truck operator as he attempted to remove a vehicle for police.

The potential backlash against “collaborating” businesses isn’t confined to New Zealand, either, with the local protest having attracted a lot of support from like-minded protesters overseas. Two of the towing operators spoken to by The Spinoff described receiving calls from overseas callers, including one Canadian named Dave who told them a list of businesses acting against the New Zealand “convoy” was being shared widely in global convoy groups.

Details about assisting companies have circulated on Twitter. (Image: Dylan Reeve)

While most of this backlash is probably best categorised as a nuisance, there always remains the spectre of real harm. In the hours after police and their trucking allies had left the scene, notorious white supremacist Phil Arps, recently arrested for making death threats, was seeking their identities on Telegram, posting: “Who did the govt/police contract to do such with the blocks? Add them to the Nuremberg list!”

Elsewhere online, details of the company and photos of their staff were circulated by accounts connected to the protest. While there were no explicit threats on display, the invitation to directly approach the companies was clear, leaving the specifics up to those inclined to take action.

A similar invitation was photographed on parliament grounds, with a handwritten sign displaying details of two companies seen assisting police. The details were provided simply “for your info”, according to the sign.

Companies not used to finding themselves the focus of public anger are now having to consider the potential impact of taking any job seen to be assisting police or government action against the protest, in the knowledge that details of their involvement will be shared far and wide. With the spectre of 1-star ratings and a day of nuisance phone calls – and maybe much worse – it’s not surprising that some companies are going to be turning down jobs.

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