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New rules on gangs have patchy logic

The latest change to roll out from the political arena is a proposal to ban all gang patches in public spaces, a move described by Police Commissioner Andrew Coster as “ambitious”.

As usual with political promises, there is a target – a hazy goal projected for the future – but when it comes to enforcement and resources committed to reaching that target, it’s more ambiguous than ambitious.

“Sometimes our staff will get in and do the enforcement at the time,” Coster told media.

“Other times, we will come back at a time of our choosing with a search warrant or whatever’s required to send a clear message to those who might breach this law.”

Labour police spokesperson Ginny Anderson fired shots at this tactic, and said that it would be a major challenge for frontline police to consistently enforce this role across New Zealand.

Noting a significant increase in gang numbers and gang violence over the past six years, police minister Mark Mitchell told media that he would not be lectured by “the Labour Party of academics”.

“All these people who are coming out as gang apologists and saying that we just have to accept that gangs will not adhere to the law, I totally reject that.”

Reducing any criticism of this new legislation to a “Labour Party of academics” or “gang apologist” is a cop-out at best, and ignorant avoidance at worst.

The move links with the National’s electoral campaign pledge to ban facial tattoos but fails to interrogate the reasons why gang-related activity and crime have ballooned recently.

Aside from the logistical nightmare of what constitutes unlawful insignia and what happens if it rains and the make-up washes off, how much Thin Lizzy will it take to undo years of poverty of systematic injustice?

Dane Giraud’s opinion piece in the Post from December names the proposal a cosmetic approach to crime.

He details a childhood immersed in gang activity in South Auckland and reflects on the reasons why life within a gang’s safety net was appealing, including the feeling of being locked out of mainstream society.

He reflects that instead of “pancake-deep approaches” to gang-related issues, the focus should be directed at addressing why life in a gang is preferable for some than paving a way in mainstream society.

A report last year from the Gang Harm Insights Centre detailed the rise of gang member numbers, stating that the police’s National Gang List [NGL] had risen by 10 per cent since 2022.

It also said that throughout their lifetime, almost half of NGL members have been the victims of family harm.

“Gangs often provide a sense of family, brotherhood, status, and belonging and acceptance that were not fulfilled elsewhere.”

Those who speak from experience, either being in gangs themselves or knowing others who are, speak of the deeper systems at play which intertwine crime, poverty and racism in a messy pool of injustice and unhappiness.

In a literal and figurative sense, banning patches and insignia is a surface-level fix and like Giraud said, a cosmetic approach.

For deeper, systematic change, a more holistic approach – accounting for the social factors driving gang activity – is pivotal if any actions are to have long-term, meaningful change.

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Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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