A look at the role of gangs in contemporary Aotearoa.
Street after street of nearly identical, poorly maintained houses owned by social housing agencies (some iwi run) and low-decile schools where important subjects are either sidelined or poorly taught. Alcoholism, problem gambling, drug abuse, and domestic violence are commonplace. Suspicion, hostility, and a mixture of ethnic, religious, and nationalistic hatreds stir below the surface, just waiting to explode in violence. This is not the product of an over-active imagination influenced by mainstream media. It’s the reality of what I see every time I go to visit family in Porirua. It’s what I was born and raised in. It’s what I spent various parts of my adult life living in.
Above all else, nothing indicates you’ve entered a poor neighbourhood faster than seeing a patched gang member. Gangs are deeply entrenched in low-income neighbourhoods. They are sometimes seen as respectable members of the community by those who live there. This is because they occasionally do socially useful things like making sandwiches for disadvantaged children and providing places for them to hang out. (“Understanding how NZ gangs work, Stuff, June 10th, 2021.) According to Ross Kemp’s Gangs New Zealand has the world’s highest number of gang members per capita. In 2019 it was estimated there were approximately 6500 patched gang members. There’s no doubt their public relations gimmicks have been useful in recruiting members.
The spokesperson for the Mongrel Mob Kingdom Louise Hutchison (June 13th, 2021, Te Karere) recently claimed the gangs are victims of colonisation, racism, and white patriarchy. They are a substitute family and community for young people who have escaped from abusive households. This would sound reasonable if it wasn’t for the fact most of those violent and abusive households the gang members came from are dominated by gang members. Ms. Hitchison deludes herself by claiming that recent police operations against the MMK gang are tantamount to persecution. That would be worth listening to if it was true. The recent Operation Trojan that was headed by the FBI in the United States and involved the New Zealand Police revealed that violent crimes including murders were planned over encrypted phones. Drugs, firearms, and $3.7 million worth of assets that were the proceeds of crime were seized. Thirty-five people were arrested and nine hundred charges were laid. (Newshub, 18/6/21.) I am no cheerleader for the police, but its hard to dismiss this kind of harmful anti-social activity as a case of unjustified persecution!
Apologists tend to ignore the reality that the majority of gang victims are Maori and Pasifika beneficiaries and working-class people. Another interesting aspect is that among those who back (or make excuses for) gangs are wealthy individuals like former Reserve Bank boss and Right-Wing National Party/ACT leader Don Brash and Green MPs like Elizabeth Kerekere. (“Green MP defends successful hui with Mongrel Mob Kingdom, Stuff, May 4th, 2021. ) While these establishment apologists for the gangs can hang around the corridors of business, academia, and Parliament, fooling themselves about what the gangs are, they would do well to remember what it’s like for people at the bottom of society. For example, it was reported in an April 27th, 2021, Stuff article, that tenants feel threatened by gangs and drug addicts in the Christchurch OCHT social housing area in the Central Business District after two fatal stabbings in 2021. One of them was in social housing there and the other was in social housing in Riccarton.
Another of many instances of gang violence was the Tribal Huk boss Jamie Pink and ten of his members beating his gang’s Sergeant in Arms in the main street of Ngaruawahia in broad daylight. People just stood around and did nothing, no doubt too intimidated to do anything. Tribal Huk had attempted respectability by claiming to have rid Ngaruawahia of P and serving sandwiches to local school children (See my previous article on this: Rebels Without A Source https://www.anarkismo.net/article/29735?search_text=pink+panther) . Yet this covered up the fact the gang was still a bunch of thugs who were willing to turn on anyone, including their own members if they got in Pink’s bad books. This was alluded to by the judge who oversaw the trial of Pink. (“Sandwich gang boss Jamie Pink jailed for axe attack in Ngaruawahia”, Stuff, 7/12/20)
I have never had a personal negative experience with gang members. However, growing up around them means I have no naive notions about how bad these people are. I’ve met too many women who’ve been used as punching bags by gang members to fall for the PR.
So how might Anarchists address the issue of gangs? We need to find out why people gravitate to gangs and address those issues.
There is still a lot of racism in New Zealand. A recent article claimed that 93% of Maori people had experienced racism. (“Most Maori experience racism every day – new survey” – RNZ, March 22nd, 2021.) Clearly, anti-Maori racism is a fact of life in many areas. I saw plenty of that when I lived in Hawkes Bay and visited Northland for an extended period.
The impact of colonisation is not easy to quantify. However, only a clueless person cannot see that the separation of Maori from their (mostly rural-based) marae as the result of the rural to urban drift between the 1940s and 1970s has had a very negative impact on both their culture and language during the modern post-colonial period. (https://www.eastonbh.ac.nz/2012/08/the-maori-urban-migration/) Land seizures after the wars of the mid-19th Century and the use of the Public Works Act to take Maori land had already had important impacts prior to this.
Alan Duff is a Maori writer who has covered some of the social problems contemporary Maori have encountered. The author of Once Were Warriors grew up in one of Rotorua’s roughest neighbourhoods where domestic and gang violence shaped his childhood. His voice is significant because it is one we rarely hear from: a Maori brought up in a violent, low-income social housing neighbourhood whose achievements did not come from sporting prowess, family connections, academia or working for the government. He has catalogued the experiences of working-class Maori and has offered a solution. Duff’s answer is found in his “Time to Break Silence on Maori Violence” article. That is, for Maori to look up to business leaders like Jason Witehira:
” Jason Witehira, New World supermarket owner, Ngapuhi, gets Outstanding Maori Business Person of the Year. He’s also the chair of the New World group, the boy who left school at 15 and grew up in Rotorua, my hometown.”
In my opinion, it is foolish to think that Maori embracing business ethics will change anything much. There are Maori business leaders out there already and a lot of iwi are increasingly being run along corporate lines. They have done little to curb poverty, crime, or the other problems that blight Maoridom.
Duff shoots himself in the foot by suggesting Maori look to supermarket owners for inspiration. Supermarkets aren’t noted as safe places to work, especially these days, as was reported in the Newshub article “Kiwi retail workers speak out about abuse in wake of Dunedin Countdown stabbing attack” (May 11th, 2021). Since the Covid-19 pandemic retail staff have had to put up with abuse, violence, and… doesn’t this sound pretty much like what Maori in impoverished areas already put up with? To be blunt, holding up supermarket owners as people whom Maori should look up to isn’t much better than encouraging them to look up to gang leaders. Indeed, the business world has more in common with gangs than is often appreciated. Like the average business, the gangs are extremely hierarchical and exploitative. They prey on (and exploit) the most vulnerable groups in society, especially working-class Maori and Pacific Islanders. (For more information about gang structures read “How gangs work”, NZ Herald, 24 June 2019.)
Anarchism is opposed to all misogynistic hierarchical organisations that prey on working-class people regardless of the ethnicity of those working-class people. The next time anyone advocates support for the gangs they might want to look at who is praising them (i.e. Maori and pakeha middle class) and who their victims are (i.e. working class and low income Maori and Pacific Islanders).
A letter published in the June 15th, 2021, Rotorua Daily Post outlines the basic reason why Anarchism is opposed to gangs:
“Anarchism is a political theory based on principles of non-hierarchical and voluntarily democratic social, political, and economic association.
“The [Mongrel] Mob’s anti-social, heavily hierarchical, anti-democratic structure and actions are anathema to Anarchism.”
So clearly, as Anarchists, we are completely opposed to gangs and their sympathisers. The current socio-economic system is the product of a colonial structure that disrupted established society in favour of industrial and agricultural capitalism. Gangs are a socially destructive response to genuine problems. They are part of the mess, not an answer to it. Any suggested solution that just wishes to change the ethnic composition of the elite running capitalism, won’t work either.
On a macro scale, our task is to help replace the dominant system with one where economic ownership and political control is in the hands of the community as a whole. A healthy approach that insists on the informed and active participation of all those who have something to offer, is one where there would be no oxygen for parasitic gangs to thrive. Principles of mutual aid, flaxworks political democracy, economic democracy, opposition to misogyny, collective ownership of resources, and the intertwining of these with traditional Maori practices compatible with those principles, is worth developing. On a micro-scale, this will require a lot of face-to-face interactions, whakawhanautanga and bloody hard work…but it’s worth it compared to the existing alternative!