Essay: the war on gangs is over - we lost

Ata mārie!

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Gangs are back in the news after public shootings in Whanganui, Hamilton and Whakatāne. Is this a return to the bad old days, or is something else going on? Māui street editor Morgan Godfery writes about what causes gang violence, and how to solve it. 

Every gang pad is more or less the same. The same portraits hang from the back wall. The former pres in red or blue, the brothers taken too soon, and the chapter’s group shot. The same smell smothers the room. Double Brown, Lion Red, Waikato. It sticks under tables, settles in walls, and coats the floorboards. The cashed-up chapters sometimes run a bar in the back corner, licensed or not, and a stage show at the front, from bands to boxing. The modest chapters do the same, only in an old sheep shed rather than an urban warehouse. The same portraits still guard the back wall. The smell is unmistakable. This is the pad, a simple club room.    

But in the popular imagination this is the command room in the so-called war on gangs. The pad is where gangs organise, identifying dealers to tax and writing a roster for moving their gear from ship to sale. Every year or so the police invite media to an early morning raid, busting open the pad gates and confiscating vehicles, cash, and more. The Hells Angel’s Mt Eden chapter in 2010, the Red Devil’s Nelson chapter in 2011, and the Kawerau Mongrel Mob this year. The script is more or less the same from raid to raid. The officer in charge of the operation declares victory, listing assets seized and arrests made.

The community can take comfort knowing dealers and their drugs are off the streets.  

This is all well and good, only methamphetamine use continues to climb in poor communities. Soft drugs like marijuana are in short supply. In the 20th century a joint was a young person’s introduction to drugs. In the 21st century it’s more likely a pipe. In 2009 former Prime Minister John Key promised a “war on P,” warning gangs that “this government is coming after your business and we will use every tool we have to destroy it. We will be ruthless in our pursuit of you and the evil drug you push.” A fine sentiment, but it remained just that. In 2016 Police Commissioner Mike Bush told media the methamphetamine trade was out of control.

If this is war, gangs are winning. The Gang Intelligence Centre, the police agency responsible for monitoring and researching gangs, estimates there are 1500 more members and prospects today than the same time in 2016.  That’s a 25 percent increase. Gang expert Dr. Jarrod Gilbert calls it a “resurgence”. The Economist, the British magazine, noted gangs were recruiting bigger numbers than the army. National MP Mark Mitchell told his party conference in July gang members seem more “visible.” Some gangs are “starting to flex their muscles.” It’s only a matter of time before someone submits a Bill to ban gang patches.

It’s tempting to link the jump in gang members and prospects with the booming methamphetamine trade. There’s money to make. Yet at the same time violent crime involving gang members is dropping dramatically, as much as -20 percent in Northland, an old gang stronghold.  This is hard to square. So violent crime involving gang members is dropping, even as gang numbers are on the up? Cynics argue gang members are more concerned with pushing drugs than petty fights over colours and turf. But some gang members tell a different story. The Hastings Mob is banning methamphetamine use and dealing. The Tribal Huks, the sandwich gang in Ngāruawāhia, reckon they’re responsible for driving methamphetamine dealers out of town.

Maybe this is public relations. Or maybe something else is happening? In truth, local gangs like the Mob and the Huks have a diminishing stake in the methamphetamine trade. Some ban its use and distribution, but most simply tax the dealers they know of. Only a few local gangs control importing and distribution. As Gilbert notes, overseas gangs control methamphetamine importing, not the Mob or the Huks.  The locals in charge of distributing are usually more sophisticated than some fifth form dropout prospecting in Northland. Rather than busting down the pad gates it makes more sense to direct police resources to the border.

If this is war, did we properly identify the enemy?

Not really. In New Zealand “gang” is usually a shorthand for the country’s old street gangs. Think of the Mob, the Black Power, and the like. Very few people hear gang and think of the cross-border Comancheros, the Aussie bikies busted importing millions of dollars’ worth of methamphetamine through Auckland Airport.  Even fewer think of the Bandidos, the American bikies caught doing the same, this time using the international mailing system.  The enemy in this war, in other words, is only ‘some gangs’. That makes for a flat soundbite. “The Gangs” sounds better, even if it’s a factual stretch.   

For Māori – the people who make up a majority of this country’s street gangs - this isn’t news. The gang members and prospects we know are more likely users than dealers.  Very few members are living large off drug profits. Instead the typical member is out of work or working an insecure job, living in a cold, damp home, and their children are more likely to drop out of school than their peers. The pad tells a similar story too, the portraits on the wall suggesting few gang members make it past 60. This is what gang life is like on the ground, and it’s scarcely recognisable from the headlines. 

There’s no glamour or glory to be had.

And many gang members and prospects want out. But the problem with a war on drugs, and an ensuing war on gangs, is the weaker side adopts a siege mentality, closing itself off from the outside world. People under siege reject outsiders and outside standards. They turn the world upside down and inside out. Crime? Survival. Education? Indoctrination. Politicians like, say, Michael Laws (or even Mark Mitchell) make the work of people at the flaxroots that much harder. The typical gang members distrusts an outsider. Reading the headlines, or listening to politicians, can you blame them?   

Of course not. People who are told they’re making a “lifestyle choice” aren’t going to listen when you lecture them. No one in their right mind chooses joblessness, poor housing and a lower expectancy than the rest of the country. In fact, few members and prospects ever get the choice in the first place. In 2010 the Children’s Commissioner found children of gang parents describe their choices with a sense of fatalism.  “Throughout our lives all we could depend on was each other,” one young person wrote. What choice is there but to do as your parents did? When the government declares war, whether actual or rhetorical, gangs offer security.

This is where gangs thrive. In an absence, from a family absence to a state absence. What distinguishes so-called gang towns like Kawerau and Flaxmere from prosperous towns like Greytown and Kerikeri is the former lost their state-supported industries and the latter retained them. In the 1960s Kawerau’s Tasman Mill was responsible for 20% of New Zealand’s exports, putting two thousand men and women to work making newsprint and tissue for the world markets. Today the mill employs only 200 people. Gangs are in stand-in for work.  

One might go further than that. Gangs are a stand-in for the state. ‘The pad’ is both a club and a sleepout. In Kawerau the pad acts as both, a sort of corrupted Marae. Members without a home can crash at the pad until a Housing New Zealand home is available. It’s an indictment on successive governments. In the 1980s there were no more than a dozen Mob members in Kawerau. Today, almost three decades after the Labour and National government’s neoliberal reforms, there are well over 100. Those members do everything from funding the junior rugby league team to mowing old people’s lawns.

Gangs can act as a surrogate welfare state too.

It’s obvious enough, but worth restating for emphasis: this is why the country’s street gangs are exclusively working class. In 1959 Levett and Green found that the country’s emerging gangs were drawing their members almost entirely from high school dropouts and the unskilled.  Fast forward to 2018 and that finding is more or less the same. In November 2005 there were 53 youth gangs operating in Auckland’s rough suburbs - Māngere, Ōtāhuhu and Papatoetoe – and none in its posh ones.  Research by the World Bank suggests crime and economic inequality are linked.

In other words, gangs aren’t necessarily a ‘criminal’ problem. They’re an economic one. It’s not that gang members are innately – i.e. born – violent. Violence is a response to circumstances. Neither is it that gang members and prospects are merely people with “addictive personalities.” Instead gangs thrive in certain economic and social conditions: homelessness; joblessness; precarity and so on. If the government puts as much energy into housing gang families in Kiwibuild and state homes as it does into locking them up, if it finds a way to put gang parents to work, and to keep their children in school, the number of new members and prospects will plummet.

When it happens we’ll wonder why it took so long.


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