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Parts of Invercargill burn during a feud between the Mongrel Mob and the Road Knights. The Mob carry out three brutal home invasions in Hawke’s Bay throughout June. And the trial of a dozen Mob members for the drive-by shooting of a Black Power member’s daughter in Wanganui continues. The mayors of Hastings, Wanganui and Invercargill have all said enough is enough, but Aotearoa’s gangs have been around for half a century and their numbers are growing. As more Victoria students move out of the gentrified and over-priced Kelburn and Te Aro areas, many of us will end up among the council flats and gang history of Newtown. These guys are our neighbours and our dealers; they’re often friendly guys, but we’ve all heard about the violence that runs through their lives, and anyone with a social conscience will want to ask, what can we do about this? Tristan Egarr investigates.
On the chill morning of 14 August 1981, local Mongrel Mob leader Lester Epps awoke outside his pad to the sight of the Eastern Suburbs Rugby League Club – with whom he’d scrapped at the Tramway Hotel (now The Adelaide) the night before – standing over him looking mean. Though he fled to the Basin Reserve, the League players caught and beat him to a pulp, eventually receiving 18-month prison terms for manslaughter. A couple of decades ago, young women walking through Newtown at night ran the risk of being abducted and put on the block. Although this may no longer be a common occurrence, the area still seethes with gang tension, and young men (who may or may not be gang prospects) are still known to lay in to students who pass through in the night. In 1996, two Samoan newspaper boys fought off members of the Satan’s Slaves, but not everyone is so lucky.
My earliest gang experiences date back to the summer of 2000-1, when I’d hang out in a grotty flat in Washington Valley (the closest Nelson comes to a ghetto). One of our drunken flat parties was interrupted by some little shit, whose older brother was in the Mob, trying to beat the shit out of my mates. A few weeks later he jumped us on a back road by the beach. However, most of my experiences with actual patched members have been sweet: around the same time as the above incident, when walking my dog in Anzac Park (across the road from the Lost Breed pad), a Lost Breeder came past with two great big Alsatians who chased my pup under a bench. Their owner got his dogs under control and apologised, but told me to remember there were often giant fuck-off dogs in the area. A couple of years later, I hitched a ride with four patched Maori dudes called Wiremu, Wiremu, Kingi and Rangi. When I sat down between the two in the back, they turned to me and said “Hey, you know we’re gonna kill you, right?” But after a brief awkward silence I said “Err… no you’re not,” and they started to giggle, then offered me some fried chicken.
My experiences support the common observation that it is the young guys, the prospects out to prove their toughness, who cause the most problem for outsiders. However, it would be naïve to conclude on the basis of a couple of anecdotes that patched gang members are not dangerous. For every positive gang story, there’s a negative. I met a girl in Christchurch who used to skate over to the local Mongrel Mob pad to buy acid; they called her ‘roller girl’ and she never had any trouble from them. But I met another girl in Wellington who was chased out of Hamilton by the Headhunters after refusing to sleep with one of their leaders. Perhaps it’s worth taking some time to examine just who these groups are, and where they’ve come from.
The Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club Auckland was formed in 1961, the gang’s first chapter outside California and now the oldest major gang network in the country. Over the next two decades a number of rival bikie gangs started up, including Highway 61, the Road Knights, the Headhunters, the Nomads and the Lost Breed. During the early years, these gangs were largely involved in boozing, biking, fucking and occasionally brawling. However in 1975 twelve Hell’s Angels (half the gang) were jailed for the manslaughter of a Highway 61 member. Confined in Paremoremo, the Hell’s Angels developed contacts among Aotearoa’s criminals, and according to Canterbury University criminologist Dr Greg Newbold, the Hell’s Angels emerged from this experience to form the nation’s major drug-trade network.
Since then, the bikie gangs have largely drifted under the radar. Many have come to redefine themselves as ‘motorcycle clubs’ and argue that their love of bikes, and not crime, is their reason for being. Many such clubs organise motorbike conventions and run legitimate bike shops. Bill Payne, author of Staunch: Inside New Zealand’s Gangs, argues that “bikies today have more in common with the Small Businessmen’s Association that they do with the outlaw spirit.” However, these groups still control much of the drug trade, and their lack of overt violence may be a ploy to protect their real criminal interests by avoiding police confrontation. Furthermore, the Hell’s Angels have maintained a membership of around twenty, as any new member must go through a lengthy recruitment period and be approved unanimously by the gang – but this has not entirely kept the gang away from violence. In the mid- 90s, the Hell’s Angels tried to work with Timaru’s Road Knights to establish a southern presence. This led to a brief war between the Road Knights and the Epitaph riders for control of Christchurch, which ended in the April 1996 shooting of an innocent bystander and the imprisonment of most Road Knights.
Ultimately, what defines the bikie gangs is the symbolic freedom and masculinity of their bikes. Thus the Mongrel Mob’s theft and arson of two Road Knights bikes in Invercargill recently was a deliberate attack on the heart of their rivals.
The ‘Ethnic’ Gangs
New Zealand’s two largest gangs, the Mongrel Mob and Black Power, are commonly referred to as ‘ethnic’ gangs – a term that does not include the Triads. The police website (http://www.police.govt. nz/service/cib/organised_crime.html) states “Identifying organised crime by ethnicity or activity remain useful aids for Police when dealing with the day-to-day activities of overt organised groups” and goes on to explain that membership of both gangs is “dominated by Pacific Island and Maori people” whereas the bikie gangs “can be of mixed race.” This is misleading, because while the Mongrel Mob is dominated by Polynesians and most bikie gangs are dominated by Pakeha, the Mongrel Mob was originally a Pakeha gang, formed in the mid-60s in Hastings by a group of fucked up young people, many of whom had been abused in state homes and institutions; when a local judge referred to them as a “pack of mongrels” the legend was born. In the documentary Ross Kemp on Gangs: New Zealand (which cannot be screened in this country, although you can still download it from the Pirate Bay – see review page 51), bald white Gary, a founding member, says because they “despised the system for the treatment we got as social welfare kids” they acted as offensively as possible: putting a German Stahlhelm on a British bulldog to undermine those who fought in the Second World War, chanting “Seig Heil!” and waving swastikas. As the mob have become dominated by Polynesians, they have grown into Aotearoa’s largest gang, with branches stretching from Invercargill to the far North. The mob became a substitute whanau for Maori and Pacific peoples who emigrated into the cities and felt disaffected with the dominant culture; both white and brown mobsters continue to tattoo their faces with a mongrel mixture of Nazi and Maori symbolism, an affront to both sides of bicultural Aotearoa.
Former mobster turned Christian Tuhoe ‘Bruno’ Isaac recounts in his book True Red how they would wear ‘reggies’ – multiple pairs of jeans sewn or glued together and never washed, despite being stained with liquor, sexual juices and excrement. Gary told Ross Kemp how he loved ripping a girl’s tampon out with his teeth 26 Issue 13 before violating her. Neither Isaac nor the mobsters interviewed by Kemp and Payne had any love for their Maori roots or for women, who were there to cook and be put on the block. In 1986, Isaac organised a massive Mongrel Mob convention in Ambury Park, Auckland to try to change their image, but younger members wouldn’t have a bar of it, and to prove this abducted and blocked a woman passing through the park. In June the next year, Mobster Sam Te Hei raped and murdered 16-year-old Colleen Burrows in Napier.
While the Mongrel Mob may be too devoted to throwing shit at society to ever organise nationally, the same cannot be said of Aotearoa’s second largest gang, Black Power. Black Power began in Wellington around 1970 as the Black Bulls, and were initially much like a smaller Mob. However the developing political consciousness of founder Rei Harris drew in Pakeha social worker Denis O’Reilly and the pacifist elderly ex-Burmese judge Bill Maung. This trio attempted to turn the gang into a political force, introducing a no-rape policy from 1978 (although the policy has often been ignored). O’Reilly became an ally of Robert Muldoon – one night, when Muldoon was PM, he was hanging out at a Black Power pad and one member flicked beer in his face. Muldoon sat through this insult for a few minutes before throwing his whisky at the flicker, and the entire room cracked up laughing. When the cops turned up, Muldoon told them to go away.
In return for the gang’s support, Muldoon introduced government funds for gangorganised work schemes, as an attempt to get the gang members into employment. By the late 80s Black Power had accumulated multi-million dollar assets, including two limousines, and other gangs picked up the scheme. However, when the Mongrel Mob used a governmentfunded work-skills vehicle in an armed holdup in January 1987, soon after the Ambury Park rape, the schemes were discontinued. This despite the fact that, as Denis O’Reilly told Salient, getting gang members into paid employment was the best way to reduce their offending, and the end of these work schemes saw a sharp rise in crime. Meanwhile, Black Power continued to out-organise the Mob; although the Mob outnumbered Black Power in Mt Eden in the late 80s, following an incident which left many Mob members in solitary confinement Black Power were able to ‘take over’ the prison so that when the Mobsters came out of solitary, they had to be kept in isolation from the rest of the jail.
Despite the end of Muldoon’s work schemes, O’Reilly has persevered in his attempts to reform gangs, often working with Mongrel Mob reformer Harry Tam, and blogging about his attempts to fight the drug trade by tackling addiction among gang members on Nga Kupu Aroha (http://www.nzedge.com/features/ar-denis.html). However, a 2002 shootout in Wairoa and incidents between the two gangs last year in Wanganui (leading to the drive-by shooting of two-year-old Jhia Te Tua by the Mongrel Mob) and Porirua (which members of Newtown Black Power allegedly “invaded” to avenge the death of a young Samoan beaten to death by the Mob in December) demonstrate that these attempts to reform our two largest gangs have failed. In 2005, current Black Power president Mark Pitman was quick to distance the gang from a prospect who was arrested for forcing a two-year-old to eat faeces dipped in tomato sauce. But as Greg Newbold told us, the attempts of older members to reform such large, loosely organised gangs may be doomed to failure, since the younger members are there for the very reason the now-regretful elders joined in the first place: sex, drugs and mayhem.
While patched gang members are involved in crime, many of their activities are hidden – organising large weapon and drug deals, attacking only other gang members and raping only women within the gang. It is the young guys, prospects for the larger gangs or members of a new breed of gangsta rap gangs such as the Killer Beez, Dope Money Sex, and the Motherfucking Ruthless Cunts, as well as similar girl gangs like the Straight Up Sisters. As Craig Marriner explained in Stonedogs, these gangs roam the streets at night in packs, looking for solitary easy targets; they’re also involved in pretty much all forms of petty crime, from shoplifting to tagging to handbag snatching. Many of these guys will graduate to become patched members of the Mob or Black Power, and Bill Payne argues that such prospects are the real weapon of the gangs, because they feel the need to attack outsiders in order to prove their worth. Tuhoe Isaac describes how Mob prospects would be made to drink piss and shit out of gumboots; others serve as their elders’ servants in jail.
Perhaps the most prominent Wellington youth gang is the Darksyders, loosely affiliated with Black Power, who engage in rap battles and fought a group of goths for control of Manners Mall earlier this year (see Salient Issue 6).
The fourth notable type of gang in Aotearoa are the skinheads. Skinhead gangs are especially strong in Christchurch and Timaru, but they tend to be small and short-lived, generally disintegrating once their members end up in Court for hate crimes and turn on one another. In 1987, Skinheads leader Glen McAllister was jailed for stabbing another Skinhead. I met a poet in Dunedin who used to work as a prostitute in Christchurch, and according to her tale Glen had looked after the street girls, using his followers to keep them safe. A breakaway group had wanted to exploit the girls for their own benefit, and Glen had solved the problem by stabbing their leader. When he was released two years later, he shot another man in Cathedral Square before taking his own life. This story perhaps shows that some skinheads are not as bad as others. Certainly, my closest contact with a skinhead gang came at a Nelson punk party in early 2005, when three turned up to be greeted with cries of “it’s the chemos!” They dared me to eat a lemon, and it was all a good time – but that doesn’t change the fact that they were still a pack of drunken racists.
Then in 1994 a new skinhead gang formed inside Paparua prison: the Fourth Reich. Three years later, Fourth Reich president Ivan Gugich skinned one of his men alive for narking, while two followers killed young Maori Hemi Hutley and threw him into the Buller river. Although one of the killers, Neihana Foster, was also part Maori, he told the Court that his father and his heart were white. This began a reign of terror on the West Coast, involving the murder of transgendered Janis Bamborough in 1999 and Korean tourist Jae Hyeon Kim in 2003. Bamborough’s killers weren’t caught until 2005 due to the complicit silence of the community, while Kim’s alleged killer Shannon Brent Flewellen was only arrested this year. Fortunately, the Fourth Reich were chased out of Nelson by the Lost Breed, but other skinheads continue to attack unsuspecting Asian pedestrians, often in full view of the public and security cameras.
The above histories are full of violence and despair. Consequently, many New Zealanders think that “banning” gangs is common sense. However, many others idolise them – hence the Mongrel Mob MySpace layout you can download from
www.layouts.fm, the clips on YouTube of Black Power photos set to heavy rap, and the way local anarchist groups imitate Mongrel Mob and Black Power bandanas and invite these guys to their rallies.
The Labour Party has recently introduced the Organised Crime (Penalties and Sentencing) Bill, amending the Crimes Act 1961 so that when an offender carries out a crime “partly or wholly because of his or her participation in an organised criminal group”, their membership of this group counts as an aggravating factor resulting in a tougher sentence. The National Party has said it will support this Bill, although doesn’t believe it goes far enough; they want to make it illegal for anyone to be a member of a criminal gang, whether or not they have personally been caught committing crime. Wanganui’s mayor Michael Laws wants to ban gang patches, while NZ First’s Ron Mark wants to expand the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 to cover gangs, given that they terrorise communities.
Many Kiwis support the idea of banning gangs, seeing it as common sense to outlaw groups who exist to commit crime. The problem is gangs do not exist for the sake of committing crime. Greg Newbold argues that gang members do not join gangs to commit crime, but so that they can experience a sense of brotherhood and belonging denied to them by their families and schools; they commit crime not for the sake of it, but because it strengthens the bonds of brotherhood. Lifetime Black Power member Denis O’Reilly told us the best way to address gang behaviour is to give young prospects something better to do, be it sports, a job or involvement in their marae, since “gang life isn’t all that attractive, really, it’s a default mechanism for those with nothing better to do.” Consequently, O’Reilly and Newbold state that “banning” gangs is both totally unenforceable, and an infringement upon our freedom of association.
Dr Michael Rowe, Director of Victoria University’s Institute of Criminology, agrees that “banning” gangs is unrealistic, and points out that since the Terrorism Suppression Act has not been an effective response to terrorism, it is hard to see how expanding such legislation will help combat gang behaviour. Rowe told us the Government’s plan to make gang membership an aggravating factor in sentencing may be a more reasonable thing to do: since hatred towards other groups is already an aggravating factor, it makes sense to make membership of one’s own group a similarly aggravating factor. However, he points out that this policy will probably not be effective since judges already effectively take gang membership into account when sentencing. Furthermore, Rowe suggests that although New Zealanders have an “understandable tendency to believe there should be a criminological solution to this problem”, since the roots of the problem are social, the solutions will probably be social as well.
Former prison officer Celia Lashlie has argued that the major gangs are dominated by Maori and Pacific Islanders because they have lost touch with their roots through urban drift, while being simultaneously marginalised by Pakeha society. Lashlie told Bill Payne that getting Maori gang members in touch with their whakapapa “gives them a sense of pride to know who they are and from whence they came; and because of that they’re not going to become renegades of society.” The Maori Party has also advocated this solution, although Greg Newbold believes it is “rubbish” and reflects the values of middle-class liberals rather than the practical realities of gang life.
One alterative solution introduced by Robert Muldoon but since discontinued, is the practice of setting up government-funded trusts to get gang members into work. Porirua City Council recently proposed spending $100,000 on a WINZ scheme to get gang members into work clearing gorse, only to have the scheme attacked by The Dominion Post. Similarly, Denis O’Reilly notes that ex-gang members and prisoners are often the best qualified to carry out social work among young gang members, since they actually know what they’re doing and command a certain amount of respect; however there is always political opposition to their involvement, and he is inevitably accused of recruiting.
Getting people from the gangs to help solve the most dire gang behaviours may be unpalatable, but it is the most effective practical response to the problem. O’Reilly argues that we must work with reforming gang leaders (he cites Mongrel Mob Notorious chapter leader Roy Dunne as a good contemporary example) to achieve the “least bad outcomes” for people who are drawn to the gangs. O’Reilly doesn’t pretend that gangs are a force for good, noting that trying to make a gang positive is like building a castle on sand: you have to shift the foundations to involve sports clubs and other groups. But if you simply try to attack the sand from the outside until it goes away, you may get caught up in a greater mess.
At the end of the day, there probably is no solution. Both criminologists I talked to, Michael Rowe and Greg Newbold, agreed that gangs have always been present in urban societies. The threat from criminal gangs is often worse where there is a massive divide between the rich and poor, since there is more to be gained by stealing. Wherever there are disaffected people, they will gang together against society, and simply passing laws to say “you can’t do that” will have little effect – after all, these gangs already disregard the laws we have. As many gangsters will tell you, the police are the “largest and most organised violent gang in the country.” Their criminal competitors are our neighbours and our dealers, and they are here to stay.