There are calls for more to be done to protect those subject to abuse from anti-vaxxers.
Police will be keeping Josephine Bartley’s home under regular surveillance over the coming weeks, following threats made against her outside a Covid vaccination site.
On Sunday, the Auckland councillor for the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki ward visited staff at the Pasefika Family Health Group centre in Panmure, where the front window had been smashed in a vandalism attack the night before.
As she walked to her car, three men got out of theirs, approached her, called her “scum” and threatened to vandalise her sign-written car.
Bartley reported the incident to police as well as telling fellow councillors Cathy Casey and Fa’anana Efeso Collins, who have both been subject to abuse at different times.
“Efeso talked to Luke Mealamu [who runs a security firm] and organised for security to watch my house,” Bartley said. “And after I called the police, they escalated this to the point where they will be sending a patrol past my place on a regular basis, because they believe given my public profile and that the anti-vaxxer behaviour is getting worse, apparently I could be a target.”
She’s also been told to no longer use her car, which displays her name and photo, and not to attend any events alone. Bartley says ever since she went public with her support for the vaccine mobilisation efforts, she’s been receiving a torrent of vitriol. But it wasn’t until the abuse was made in person that it really hit home.
“Up until now it’s all been online. I’ve been getting emails like ‘you’re a disgrace to your race’, and ‘you’re a devil’. But even compared to when I’ve broken up brawls in the middle of Glen Innes, I’ve never felt so unsafe as with this incident,” she said.
“This guy didn’t see me as a person, it felt like he could do anything at any moment.”
Collins has also been receiving a lot of abuse via email and Twitter, and to his council cellphone. This latest incident brought back ugly memories from when he was the subject of a bomb threat.
“She called me that evening and told me they had made rather personal threats to her,” he said. “Straight away I remembered how I felt when people had made personal threats against me and my family.”
Along with hastily arranging security for Bartley, Collins also asked the council’s governance director Phil Wilson to look into whether more could be done to keep councillors safe in these tense times. “I think we’ve got to completely review the safety of elected members,” the Manukau ward councillor said.
“There’s a growing sense of animosity from people just feeling frustrated and wanting to return to normal life, and I get that, but what if that animosity materialises in a further way? I think some councillors need genuine security protection otherwise this could come to a head and someone could do something stupid.”
Given all elected members have their cellphones listed on the council website, he wonders if local body politicians are just too easy to reach compared with their parliamentary counterparts.
“I get racist texts all the time and for a lot of us, if it’s a number we don’t know, we won’t pick it up.So I wonder if we should be putting up the landlines of our office rather than our mobile just because of the aggressive attention we’re getting. “
In a written statement, Phil Wilson said Auckland Council is “extremely disappointed” that some councillors have experienced abuse, but that it was also “an unfortunate consequence of public life”.
“Our councillors have the full support of the council to ensure they feel safe and protected. This includes us working with our security team and our governance support team to provide advice, escalate safety issues, liaise with police or respond to constituents.”
He also noted that it was important for councillors and local board members to be easily available to the public, and while removing phone numbers “may be an option to consider”, council would want to “work with each member individually to confirm whether this was the right thing to do”.
Bartley says the real concern should be for the workers and volunteers at all the vaccination centres who are facing criticism on a regular basis.
“I’m just taking today off but I’ll get back on the tools tomorrow. But let’s not forget the healthcare providers, community groups and volunteers running these vaccination events, because this sort of stuff is scary for them, but they just keep going, so they are the real heroes.”
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