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INVESTIGATIVE FEATURE PART I: Facts about gangs

In the first of a two-part series, features writer ANGELA YEOMAN separates the fact from the fiction surrounding New Zealand gangs.

“It was election year,” Pip Desmond wrote in her 2009 book Trust: A True Story of Women and Gangs, “and gangs became a law-and-order scapegoat.” New laws gave extra powers to cops. Commentators dubbed it ‘the year of the gangs’ because of the hysteria whipped up by police, politicians, and the media. Desmond was writing about 1979.

We’re now experiencing something similar 44 years later. But do we have the full picture?

The number of gang members is not large

There are 8875 known gang members across 33 gangs on the police’s National Gang List this year. The list may be flawed by under-reporting, but even if the numbers were 10,000, that would still only equate to less than one per cent of all adult males in the country.

About 1000 known gang members reside across the Wellington, Hutt, Kapiti, and Wairarapa regions, so we could assume that about 250 [give or take] live in Wairarapa.

Mike Kawana, a Rangitāne o Wairarapa kaumatua – whose leadership position on the marae means he has a bit to do with local gang members, some of whom are whānau – thinks that’s probably about right, although there’s been more in years gone by.

“Mongrel Mob and Black Power were strong in Wairarapa at one time,” he says. “Today, the Head Hunters, Nomads, and Killer Beez are more visible.”

Jane Stevens, one of the women whose story is recorded in Desmond’s book was interviewed recently by Times-Age. She moved to Greytown after she left the Wellington-based community of women known as the Aroha Trust who were associated with Black Power, the Mongrel Mob and, later, the Nomads. The women lived and worked together in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Nomads, having broken away from Black Power, were growing in prominence across the lower North Island at the time Stevens moved over the Remutaka hill. Even so, “both then and now, gangs are not the biggest problem in New Zealand [NZ]. They are used by politicians to scare people,” Stevens says.

“We’ve learnt that the origin of gangs in NZ is primarily from state-run children’s homes,” she adds. “In these places, abuse and violence were commonplace. It’s tragic that politicians demonise the very people they failed to keep safe as children.”

New Zealand does not differ from other countries with respect to gangs

Although it is difficult to find comparable data across countries, there is nothing to suggest NZ has a higher rate of gang membership than Australia, any European country, the UK, or the United States.

There is also nothing to suggest that increases in our gang numbers over the past 15 years are higher than the increases in other countries over that same period.

Economic downturns and exported problems have swelled gang numbers everywhere

The global financial crisis that began in 2008 kicked off a huge economic downturn across the globe, with many people losing their jobs. Our unemployment rate was nearly four per cent in 2007. By 2012, it had nearly doubled.

A government ‘Snapshot of NZ Gangs’ in 2022 noted that gang numbers began to increase from about 2010, doubling to today’s headcount over a similar period to the doubling in unemployment. Prior to that, gangs had been in decline. Reports from other countries indicate the same sorts of trends.

In 2011, the Rebels jumped the ditch from Australia and established in NZ. The Comancheros and the Mongols have since also become established here, “both heavily influenced by 501 deportees to NZ,” according to NZ gang expert Jarod Gilbert, author of 2013’s Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand. This is said to be the case despite the comparatively small number of 501 deportees.

Inhabiting the margins of society.

Men are most likely to become involved with a gang when they have complex histories of poverty, intergenerational family violence, trauma, neglect by church and state, mental health issues, and schooling that didn’t work for them. Or, in the case of 501s, when they are dumped in NZ without any support.

Of all known gang members, three-quarters are Māori. These are men who have been systematically failed by, disenfranchised from, and even abused by society. Drugs and alcohol can become a go-to way for them to numb their pain.

Herbert Asbury’s non-fiction book Gangs of New York notes that gangs were the only way for many destitute people to survive in the uncaring and politically corrupt society that was 19th century America. There are also similarities with how poor young men in Arab countries become loyal to terrorist cells – the only place they are cared for, fed, and given a purpose.

The Chief Science Advisor to our Prime Minister stated in a June 2023 report entitled Toward an understanding of Aotearoa New Zealand’s adult gang environment that “gang communities are described by some researchers as inhabiting the margins of society and have historically formed in resistance to the society that has rejected them. In this sense, gangs have a function, providing a sense of whānau and community for those who may have been rejected from other environments.”

Women and gangs

What about women and gangs? The young women Desmond wrote about had all escaped homes where they were required to grow up too soon and care for siblings. As girls aged between eight and 15, they had all lost an adult protector [usually a mother or grandmother]. Many were beaten regularly by an adult, often so horrifically that their entire bodies were bruised. Sometimes they couldn’t walk properly or even think straight at school.

All were sexually abused [repeatedly] by fathers, other family members, church elders, doctors, schoolteachers, community workers, foster parents – pretty much anyone they turned to who was supposed to cherish and nurture them.

They ran away from home. They were given to foster parents who mistreated them. They ran away. They were incarcerated in state institutions where they were locked up in isolation, abused, neglected, and raped. At an individual level, we know this from the women’s stories in Desmond’s book. At a systemic level, we know this from the early reports from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

Desmond’s young women strayed from home and into the world of gangs in the 1970s because neither home nor state institutions nor foster parents were safe. The streets held many attractions by comparison but were also dangerous and tiring and often left them starving.

“The gangs gave me food and shelter,” one woman said to Desmond. “Yes, the [gang] men were violent, but they also protected and looked after me. They became my whānau.”

“I was abused by so-called ‘respectable’ people in powerful roles who were meant to help me,” says Stevens.

“With the gangs, I knew where I stood and knew how to protect myself. I made lifelong friends during that time who have helped me survive and thrive over my life.”

Similar childhood experiences for men

Like the women, men in gangs have often experienced childhood abuse too. Many, according to a 2016 Ministry of Social Development report on gang members and their children, have themselves gone on to become abusers and predators towards women and their own children.

According to the government’s 2022 ‘Snapshot’, about a third of gang affiliates are now imprisoned at any one time.

The proportion in prison rose steadily from 2010, peaking between 2017 and 2020, before declining back to about a third again in 2022.

And we know from a 2016 Department of Corrections study that nearly all prisoners [91 per cent] have a lifetime diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder.

Handing it on

Some gangs have taken the place of whānau and iwi, and so some children and grandchildren are being raised in environments of mental ill-health, substance abuse, and physical and sexual abuse.

Law and order are important. But it is also critical for society to stop blaming people for something we have created and to help those who are the most vulnerable.

Let’s break the cycle of abuse.

– NZME

  • PART II of this feature about gangs will cover gangs and crime, and circuit breakers that provide alternatives to gang involvement.
  • Angela Yeoman is a features writer for the Wairarapa Times-Age, a social researcher, and an author. Visit praxeum.org.

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