The History of Gangs in New Zealand

1942 words | 6 page(s)

The issue of gangs and gang violence in New Zealand, in keeping with similar activities in other nations, is hardly new; just as the roots of gangs are typically traced in the United States to the 1950s and a post-World War II discontent emerging in youth, so too did the 1950s serve to present to New Zealand society the phenomenon of the gang. Other similarities may be identified, as in the direct influence of Western gangs such as the Hell’s Angels as adding elements of cohesion and identity to the disaffected young people of New Zealand. At the same time, New Zealand gang life and activity reflect distinct qualities unique to the nation, and particularly with regard to Maori culture. As there was in the New Zealand of the mid-20th century the same form of exodus of the population from rural to urban environments as was occurring elsewhere, the distinctions of the New Zealand population itself have gone to ethnic and cultural characteristics actually defining – and encouraging – gang formation and solidarity. It appears that, culturally displaced, Maori youth carried the sense of disenfranchisement over into the creations of gangs, by way of attaining power and presence. By the 1970s, in fact, the gang problem was essentially synonymous with the “Maori problem.” What cannot be disputed is that gang behaviours and criminality are a significant issue in New Zealand life today; in a population of approximately four million, it is estimated that 67,000 are involved in gangs to some degree (Kesby 2012). As the following will examine, there is a clear trajectory between today’s New Zealand gang issues and the social, cultural, and political factors that were initially the influences for the earliest gang activity in the nation.

Not unexpectedly, there is evidence of gang-like activity in New Zealand dating from the late 19th century. More exactly, and in keeping with delinquency problems arising in other nations, police and media reports routinely described roving bands of aggressive youths. Stories of bands of adolesecent terrorizing residential neighborhoods became frequent items, with escalating degrees of antisocial behavior evident as well. By the 1890s it was documented that these groups had leaders and specific characteristics and/or rituals identifying them as gangs, as in secret languages and initiation rites for new members. Within a few decades, the police were reporting that vandalism, knife fights, theft, and violent territorial disputes were occurring in the Grey Lynn, Newton, and Ponsonby neighborhoods of Auckland. Beyond the documentation, however, nothing was known because no actual focus was placed on gang activity as a social issue until the 1950s (Gilbert 2013). In very little, time, what would emerge was a Maori-based gang culture.

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Two gangs in fact were identified by the mid-1960s: Black Power and the Mongrel Mob, with the latter choosing its name from a magistrate’s describing of the members as a “pack of mongrels.” The actual gang structure was identified as deriving from specific initiation rites, ranging from the drinking of urine to the committing of a crime, which enabled the newcomer to be “patched,” or wear the insignia of the gang (Kinnear 2009: 109). A momentum was in place, as the Storm Troopers and other predominantly Maori gangs competed in the urban arenas for presence and authority on the streets. The issue would be nationally recognized by the 1970s, and study would increasingly investigate cultural and environmental factors going to what appeared to be a New Zealand epidemic. It was of course noted that New Zealand gangs echoed the behaviours and traits of Western gangs, and the Hell’s Angels were indisputably a model for the gang organizations. That gang became in fact a template for New Zealand, and the youths modeled their structures upon it. Similarly, the gang evolution could be clearly traced to socio-economic conditions in New Zealand, which prompt gang activity elsewhere; essentially, young people from marginalized and economically deprived communities are far more likely to seek out gang membership (Mulholland, McIntosh 2011). As will be explored shortly, the Maori/Polynesian culture(s), increasingly distanced from the urbanization occurring throughout New Zealand at the time, virtually created an ideal template for the organized resistance gang formation at least partially represents.

More pragmatically, there is no refuting that Maori-based gang activity was a significant concern by the 1970s. It is established that in 1962 a group of Pakeha boys began identifying themselves as the Mongrels, and by 1966 Maoris dominated the growing ranks. Throughout the 1970s, Mongrel Mob patches were uniform, as the gang began more strictly adhering to dress and behavioural distinctions; the Mob is synonymous with “Dog culture,” members frequently bark, and display face tattoos, red bandanas, and patches representing bulldogs wearing German World War II helmets. The Mongrels had and have as well a common salute, the raised thumb and forefinger, and the impact of the gang is evidenced by a chapter having been formed in the Auckland Maximum Security Prison by the late 1970s. Within the same decade, Black Power evolved from the Black Bull gang, also of largely Maori origin and altering its identity due to influence of the Black power movement in the U.S. Initially based in Wellington, Black Power has evolved to represent quasi-political interests, and even has a woman’s chapter (Lewandowski, Streich 2012: 164). Common to both gangs in the 1970s, nonetheless, was the violence associated with street gangs, organizational development notwithstanding. Extreme assault, theft, rape, and other crimes are typically mandated, just as the gangs were notorious for violent confrontations between themselves, in assertions of power and territory (Kesby 2012). Gang warfare has become as threatening to the culture as the gang violence perpetrated on ordinary citizens. There have been shifts within these realities, but the inescapable fact remains that, by the 1970s, New Zealand faced an enormous problem in terms of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power as dangerous, and growing, threats to the society at large.

Causal Elements and Address
In investigating the specific realities of the development of the Maori gang culture, insofar as relatively exact causes may be isolated, there is the dominant factor of an essential displacement or marginalization as associated with Maori culture in New Zealand itself. To some extent, the gang culture represented – and represents today – racial, class, and political divides within New Zealand. Even as the Mongrels and Black Power were solidifying their presences in the 1970s, it was observed that they were: “unified groups challenging traditional and European customs and norms” (Kinnear 2009: 109). The nation was, as noted, moving into a more urbanized and industrialized culture, and the Maori people were largely viewed as inherently rural, or as “islanders” lacking the innate qualities desirable in the new, civilized arenas of Wellington and Auckland. In short, it is certainly arguable that the gang activity was far more than youthful disaffection and rebellion manifested;; it was as well a response to racist oppression and disenfranchisement. An interesting duality, in fact, is evident when the New Zealand Maori population of the 20th century is examined. On one level, the vast majority of Maoris expressed content with the equality and opportunities afforded them in the nation, and New Zealand perceived itself as something of a model of racial stability. Maoris consistently affirmed that discrimination was not an issue for them, leading the Department of Justice to categorize the Maoris as “generally docile.” On another, however, it is established that immense inequalities did in fact exist for Maoris; a 1965 study revealed that over 85 percent of Maori children left school with virtually nor formal qualifications for employment and only minimal education (Hagedorn 2007: 121). These contrary elements combine to present the reality seen later, in that forms of institutionalized racism were so embedded, even the Maoris were largely unaware of the discrepancies and degrees of marginalization.

Making matters worse were reports asserting, and blatantly indicating racist perceptions, that the Maori were inherently unable and/or disinclined to enter into the mainstream New Zealand culture. Howsoever the thinking held sway, the evidence indicates pragmatic consequences, in that over a third of New Zealand’s unemployed population in the 1960s was Maori (Hagedorn 2007: 121). The timing is clearly relevant, as the children of these disadvantaged environments would grow to be the adolescents embracing and creating the gang culture of the 1970s. As noted, then, the origins and impact of the Mongrel Mob, Black Power, and other Maori gangs were by no means solely based on youthful rebellion, but on what may be termed unrest over denied civil rights. Such a view in no way excuses the brutality of gang behaviour, but it does provide an insight into the intrinsic motivations going to such extremes. This has as well been increasingly attended to, in terms of expanding forms of address and dealing with gangs in ways apart from law enforcement. By the 1980s, the New Zealand government was increasingly concerned with the potential political aspects of the Maori gang culture. Maori leaders of the Labour Party began to openly speak of the gangs as an expression of various crises being faced by Island people and Maoris, which in turn offered opportunities for “mainstreaming” the gangs and redirecting violence to more rationale gang agendas (Hagedorn 2007: 132). At the same time, and importantly, Black Power has consistently sought to develop a presence of political meaning, and depart as much as possible from the street violence defining the gang. A Maori political party, the Manu Motuhake, was in fact launched in 1980 by a relation of Black Power leader Rei Harris, and the gang’s 37 chapters were called upon for support and votes. The effort failed (Hagedorn 2007: 132), but it is significant that this gang, enormous and with a history of violence echoing the Mongrel Mob, continues to engage in other means of affirming identity and expanding members’ opportunities beyond the narrow confines of crime and gang affiliation.

As is plain, gang activity in New Zealand is no minor issue. The nation’s prisons are filled with gang members, who even establish chapters within them which promote the violent agendas and cohesion of them. In part, this is only a variation of an international problem, as disaffected adolescents of many nations are drawn to gang solidarity when their home environments are lacking. Moreover, the issue is not new; young people of multiple societies seem to have uniformly embraced the open rebellion afforded by belonging to a gang, which permits both the opportunity to defy the maintream culture and attain a needed sense of belonging. Members of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power reflect this reality: “Many teenagers found the kinship and protection they missed at home in the tattooed, leather-clad arms of the gangs” (Kesby 2012). At the same time, there is a profoundly ethnic component to New Zealand’s gangs. So predominantly of Maori populations, it is inescapable that these young people reflect the social disenfranchisement marking the Maori population. The gangs then exist as violent expressions of the marginalization of the Maori people in the evolving and increasingly urbanized nation. Within this understanding, however, lies opportunities for change, and it is to be hoped that New Zealand, in addressing inequalities within its social and cultural systems, will then lessen the motivations of Maori youth in the nation to join with savage, criminal gangs.

  • Gilbert, J. (2013) Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand, Auckland, Auckland University Press.
  • Hagedorn, J. (2007) Gangs in the Global City: Alternatives to Traditional Criminology, Champaign, University of Illinois Press.
  • Kesby, R. (2012) “New Zealand gangs: The Mongrel Mob and other urban outlaws,” BBC News, 12 Sept.
  • Kinnear, K. L. (2009) Gangs: A Reference Handbook, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO.
  • Lewandowski, J. D., & Streich, J. W. (2012) Urban Social Capital: Civil Society and City Life, Surrey, UK, Ashgate Publishing.
  • Mulholland, M., & McIntosh, T. (2011) Maori and Social Issues, Wellington, Huia

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