There’s an ugly side to Wanaka. It’s a deeply felt antipathy to ‘other’, sometimes quietly hissed as a passing comment; sometimes yelled in the car against foreign drivers; sometimes it’s a literal punch in the neck. It can remain quiet and hidden during the day, but lubricated by alcohol late at night, it exposes a grotesque underbelly of this district.
On March 23, there was an incident at Lalaland which demonstrates local racism in its full ugly truth. Bar manager Alex Earl reports that two Kiwi men (the father from Temuka, and son from Wanaka) entered the bar and immediately made a beeline for a Bangladeshi civil engineer who lives in Wanaka.
“They were berating him, making fun of him, and bullying him,” said Earl. “Then he ended up leaving but Gabby [staff member] saw the whole thing. I went over and brought them out the front to discuss what had happened when the dad unloaded about immigrants on me… ‘these [expletive] immigrants are taking our jobs, benefits, we’re working our arses and they commit all the crimes’ [he said].”
“I replied that ‘I’ll take that as a sign of your character and as we don’t allow that in this bar you have to leave’. Then they yelled at me and said I was the [expletive] dumbest person in the world with rocks for brains.”
“Then they clicked I was from the USA and the dad threatened, ‘I can [expletive] throw you over the balcony right now’. He tried to push his way back into the bar so I said I would call the Police. As I got my phone, he grabbed it out of my hand and threw it into the carpark. The son grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against the wall, then the dad elbowed me in the neck too.”
After the altercation, the father and son left but not before finding Earl’s phone in the carpark and smashing it. They have been charged with wilful damage, common assault, and speaks threateningly with a court date set for April 8. Their gun licenses have also reportedly been revoked.
The Lalaland incident is at the more confronting end of racism but it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what foreign workers in Wanaka face every day.
“We are told to go [expletive] back to where we came from so often that we don’t even notice it anymore. It’s just part of our everyday,” said Earl.
Fear of ‘other’, and intolerance for anyone from out of town, whether they be from the USA, Asia or Auckland, gets a stiff reaction from some locals whose retort sticks to the well worn insults of ‘go [expletive] off back to where you came from’, ‘how long have you been here?’ and ‘speak English’. Earl has worked as a bar manager in Australia, Malaysia and Hungary and never seen belligerent racism like he has in Wanaka.
Tai Forrester, a Maori DJ from Stewart Island who has lived in Wanaka for a while, says the irony of white locals telling foreigners to go back to where they came from, is not lost on him. “They have false authority,” he said.
Part of the insidious nature of this issue is that it is normal.
“We’re told, ‘you work in the bar industry, so you should expect it’,” says Earl.
Other bar managers and staff who spoke to the Wanaka Sun also said that this type of abuse is “everyday”, “all the time” and “very normal”. All of them referenced Wanaka as a “very white town” which was not just an observation of population demographics, but a euphemism for the attitudes they witness every night. None of them wanted their names or photos used because they feared “getting bashed at 3am by drunk people wanting revenge”.
The Equality Institute says that white supremacy isn’t just skinheads and thugs with swastikas and guns; it’s a quiet belief that starts as polite indifference, then moves through minimisation, continues with veiled racism and ‘jokes’ before becoming outright discrimination and violence.
The father and son duo are now banned from all bars in Wanaka due to a cooperative approach amongst bar managers who have shared a Facebook group since 2016 and alert each other about insalubrious behaviour. Racist and abusive behaviour will not be tolerated and transgressors will find themselves increasingly locked out of every bar and restaurant in town.
But will it be tolerated by police? Earl says violent episodes at the bar can take police one and a half hours to respond to, and when they do, they often blame the bar manager for allowing it to escalate. Police even urged Lalaland not to pursue the father-son duo because it will most likely get thrown out by the judge. But New Zealand is watching, and in a post-Christchurch environment any judge that doesn’t crack down on racism will be seriously questioned. The Wanaka Sun asked Police to comment on the advice given but was told that because the case is before the court, they cannot comment further.