Feature - As an older generation of gang members try to lead their families in a different direction, they face opposition from politicians and resistance from within their own ranks. Aaron Smale spoke to them about their aspirations and struggles.
Albie’s face lights up and he grins.
“When you really look at it, there’s a good battle to be fought here. And it doesn’t have to be with your fists. I always like a good battle. But you’ve got to pick them. This will be a good battle to fight, this one.”
If you didn’t know it, you’d think he was tooling up for a scrap of the physical violence type. He’s sitting on a rock, his leather vest plastered with Black Power insignia, as is his face. Milling about nearby are a bunch of senior Mongrel Mob members.
Albie Epere is no stranger to fights – he spent more than 20 years in and out of jail for getting into them – and nor are the couple of dozen other guys having a get-together.
But the marae near Featherston is hosting a different kind of rumble. Those who have had their share of scraps against each other over the years are going after something bigger than themselves or their respective patches. They’re fighting for the future of their kids and grandkids.
The hui has input from E Tu Whānau, an NGO that works to improve the lives of whānau, and has some government money behind it. Each hui it’s involved in has a different focus but the same themes keep surfacing – putting a stop to family violence, getting off drugs, education for their kids, getting and holding down a job.
One of those who had attended one of the recent joint hui was Black Power member Tiny Osborne. A similar hui a few years ago had led to a major shift in his thinking.
“I wasn’t scared because I’ve been front-lining them (the Mob) all my life. I was curious because it was something I’d never done. It was like alien to me. I went there on an invite on Friday, it caught my attention so I went back on the Saturday, I went back on the Sunday.
“In the short time I was with them I could see change, I could see goals that were met and those were the same goals and aspirations that I wanted for my whānau. A lot of it was just barriers that we didn’t know how to bust through, go over or around without doing it our way, which was foot first, boom, kick it in, instead of using our head first.
“My eldest sons at that time were in their early 20s and I started working with the Black’s leaders and the Mob. My oldest boy said to the missus, ‘I think the Mob have brainwashed the old man.’ I was talking a language that none of my kids knew. All they knew was Black Power, Black Power, Black Power. The Mob was the enemy… They really thought there was something wrong with me mentally.”
A desire to find a different way of doing things is often triggered by a crisis and recently there have been a few. While the headlines show the flare-ups and confrontations, senior gang members are working less obviously behind the scenes to try and tamp down the testosterone of their younger members, with police often asking for their help in mediating a truce.
What has come out of those situations is senior members asking for help. The first people they turn to are other gang members, because that’s who they trust.
After the death of a member of the Tribesmen near Te Kaha last year that was treated as a homicide, Barney Hunuhunu of the Opotiki Mongrel Mob called on other senior members to find a way to quell the escalating violence. After more incidents he sought the help of long-time Mob member Harry Tam, who has worked closely on government gang policy for many years. He was looking for a long-term solution. The gang’s original platform, he says, “was set up for the old brothers, the first brothers that started. That platform was…” (he pauses) “…everything but the right.
“That’s the platform we had. F**k you, f**k you, f**k everybody, f**k the world. Even f**k my family. But not the brothers. The brothers, I chose them before I chose my family. I’d leave with the brothers for days or weeks and leave my family there. That was the platform we had set ourselves. It was like a protocol thing.
“In those days you could get away with it because the lags weren’t so long. You’d go to jail and jail was like a holiday. Today it’s not, jail is jail today. It’s a place that I don’t want to send my kids. Or mokos.”
Hunuhunu was the first in his area to get interested in what the E Tu Whānau programme offered but he’s had a struggle to get others on board. With 17 chapters in Bay of Plenty, “you can imagine how hard it is to get through to the other chapters. They sort of don’t want this change. They’re all right how they are. I think over the last two years there’s been another two more chapters that have jumped on the journey with the E Tu Whānau. It’s a start, it’s slowly starting.
“The platform we’re looking at now is family first. Whereas family was second.
“Now it’s family first. Making sure they’re safe, making sure they’ve got food, lunches to go to school, making sure they go to school everyday. Just do more than what I did before. Being around home, being with the kids. Instead of going off with the boys, getting on the piss, coming home and rubbing the kids on the top of the head like
, ‘I love you’ and all that, and then bugger off with the boys again. So that was the change, to focus more on the family.
“Mongrel Mob is exactly what it means, being a bloody mongrel. We’ve been doing that for how long now. Trying to be the baddest of the baddest. That’s easy, that’s easy work. I think the hard work is trying to make a good name for your chapter, trying to make good brothers out of your chapter. That’s hard mahi. Going to jail was easy, a holiday. Staying out here, this is the real jail out here.”
No one’s denying that some gang members have done some very bad things that they themselves must take responsibility for. But it helps to understand gangs’ antisocial attitude if you know that many of their members went through state institutions as children between the 1960s and 1980s. Most of them say they learned violence and a hatred for authority in places like Epuni and Kohitere. They talk of lags, incarceration, solitary (sometimes for weeks and even months) and the bash as a normal part of life when they were 11, 12, 13. It also caused ruptures with their families, who weren’t particularly bad or violent, that led them to congregate with those with a similar experience.
This culture played out spectacularly over the 1970s and 80s and has lingered on around the fringes since.
Dion Waikato’s father and grandfather were shearers in Hawke’s Bay. He was already working in the woolsheds by the time he was 13 and had no interest in school. Because of his refusal to attend, Social Welfare put him in a foster home, and when he ran away from that, he was sent to Epuni – where he got an education of a different kind.
“At Epuni Boys I was 13 and there was 15-year-olds in there. They ran the place. Shit hit the fan for a little bit. I’d have a black eye, normal kids’ stuff, you know. Black eye, or scratches on the nose. I tried proving a point but I was never getting anywhere anyway. I was only a little kid compared to the big kids. I tolerated it. But every time I had to do something about it, I’d also get punished for it as well and end up in solitary.
“It was frightening. I’d never experienced anything like that before. It was the first time I’d been incarcerated. I used to either want to run away or do something. Self-harm. But I just stayed hard until one day I got over the bullying from the older boys. I had to stay there and do my lag there.”
You had to be something in there, Waikato says. If you were nothing, it was worse on you. So those six months at Epuni set his life on a course into the Mongrel Mob and prison.
“I had a loving family, I just used to go against their wishes. They wanted better things for me but I wanted to do what I had already set out to do. I had learnt a lot in Epuni so when I got home I already had tattoos of bulldogs by the time I was 14. I started prospecting when I was 15.
“I did about five years’ (jail) before I turned 20.”
The government has ignored the role of state welfare institutions in forming gangs, even though Judge Carolyn Henwood noted strong evidence that this was where they started. Everyone from MSD minister Anne Tolley to John Key and now Bill English has continually downplayed and minimised the effects of state abuse. Yet it is a common factor in the life experience of so many gang members, particularly those in Māori gangs.
The “exit” strategy
There’s a sharp disconnect between how the gangs see their lives and what they want, and the approach taken by the government. For a start, the government has never publicly acknowledged the role the state had in instilling violence in the individuals and families it now sees as so problematic.
Its gang policy – several years in the making – is essentially a hardening of well-worn, decades-old political rhetoric that has only fostered a booming prison population. And the escalating taxpayer bill that goes with it.
A Whole of Government Gang Strategy will be finalised next month, but internal documents from Te Puni Kokiri from around 2013 show the whole of government has not been involved in its development. TPK, which is supposed to be the department others talk to about anything involving Maori, wasn’t even consulted at first.
In an email to police in 2013, senior TPK policy analyst Julia Carr expressed frustration at the level of consultation on a draft Cabinet paper, “Whole of Government Approach to Reducing the Influence of Gangs”:
“Te Puni Kokiri does not consider seven hours adequate time to provide considered comment on the policy approach and work programme proposed... We therefore request that Te Puni Kokiri is listed as informed, not consulted.”
In a briefing to the Minister of Māori Affairs and Whānau Ora in September of that year the same sentiment is expressed:
“Te Puni Kokiri has not been involved in policy discussions that have led to the development of the strategic approach or the Cabinet paper and there has not been formal engagement with you as ministers.”
The paper trail reveals a problem with even basic definitions and ideas. The paper’s reference to “identifying young people and offering alternatives to gang lifestyle, access to pro-social activities, skills and job prospects, supporting gang members etc to exit gangs and desist from gang activity” is central to TPK’s critique. It’s also baffling and ridiculous to gang members themselves.
As a senior policy analyst says, “There is no single recognised definition of what constitutes a gang member or what constitutes gang crime, either in international gang research literature or in New Zealand.”
TPK also questions the blanket use of the term “gang activity” as if anything gangs do is inherently criminal: “If a group of whanau affiliated with a gang gather together to have their children immunised or their cardiovascular risk assessment done,” it asks, “is this gang behaviour? Is this something that we are trying to discourage?”
A similar question is asked in regard to a government-funded drug rehab programme developed by and for members of the Notorious chapter of the Mongrel Mob together with the Salvation Army, which has had good results: “Is this gang behaviour that we wish to stop?”
The overall argument of the policy analysts is that the government is talking about gangs in simplistic terms that make its very objectives suspect, and which will actually have the opposite effect to that intended and could even backfire.
“These groups predominantly exist in high deprivation communities. Viewing the issues through a ‘gang’ lens leads to an inevitable focus on the issues of association and criminality rather than the core issues of deprivation and its impacts and causes.”
The government appears to be fixated on “exit” from gangs, but for many members a gang is the only family they have known.
“It goes further than just the colours,” says Hawke’s Bay Black Power member Mane Adams. “It’s my whanau. Some of the brotherhood haven’t got real whanau, and this is it. What they’ve lived is what it is. The government needs to understand, no matter how much they want to push, they’ve seen it overseas the suppression stuff that they’re putting upon us, we’re still there. We ain’t going nowhere. We just have to adapt to the changes and we are. And we’re going to. We have to. Simple as that.”
Pushing for members to exit gangs may also overlook how leaving is regarded by members themselves. It is seen as an alienation, and in some cases a punishment. Recently a member of the Mongrel in a Bay of Plenty chapter was de-patched and thrown out of the gang after he was charged with sexual offences. The offences had started before he became a member and none of the other members knew about the offending until he appeared in court. The removal of his patch was a sign of his rejection. One Mob member reportedly said it was fortunate he was remanded in custody or some could have been tempted to mete out their own punishment.
Surveillance versus social investment
Despite these criticisms the government has sunk huge money into a Gang Intelligence Centre, a cross-department sharing of information. Not only will departments be required to share information, under new data-for-funding rules they will have to feed back information or funding will be cut.
This means identifying and flagging anyone with gang connections – not only gang members but also their families. It assumes that the dismantling of these families and associations is a legitimate goal for its own sake.
TPK has described this move as particularly dangerous.
In a 2013 letter the then Minister Responsible for Whānau Ora, Tariana Turia, warned Police Minister Anne Tolley that the trust and level of participation of many whanau could be eroded by information-sharing, and that trying to suppress gangs would only boost their membership and increase their influence.
A TPK briefing paper also questions the priorities of the gang strategy and raises the possibility that it will cause more harm than good. The international evidence, it says, “does not support suppression as a successful approach and the implications for affected whanau are likely to be significant.”
In emails and a letter to police in 2014, senior policy analyst Angie Wilkinson says that a strategy premised on treating symptoms rather than causes “is unlikely to achieve its desired outcomes”. The government, however, has shown little interest in addressing the causes.
In 2010, when Judith Collins (one of the main architects of the gang policy) addressed a police leadership conference as Police Minister, she said: “As minister, I have a policy of not engaging with gangs. I won’t even knowingly meet with anyone who I know to be a gang member.”
In a press release last year she outlined the main points of a “Gang Action Plan”, the first being “a programme to refocus existing social initiatives, and develop new programmes, to address the intergenerational nature of gang life”.
Meanwhile, the positive initiatives the gangs themselves are taking get minimal if any support. The Notorious chapter approached government agencies and iwi to ask for help for their members in getting off P. None were interested. In the end it approached the Salvation Army, which put together a rehab programme, as mentioned earlier.
Harry Tam has been around not only in gang circles but also in government ones. He’s been a member of the Mob for over 40 years and for about half of that time he has worked in policy, including a decade at TPK. He’s seen the repeated failure of governments of different stripes in addressing some of the root causes of the problems gang members face. He sees the senior gang members as being at the heart of any solutions but believes politicians need to drop the inflammatory soundbites and takes issues like education, poverty and housing seriously. He says those are the real drivers of crime, not gangs per se.
“The existence of indigenous gangs in New Zealand, there’s a long history of deprivation. Some will argue it goes back to colonisation, some will argue it was the assimilation process and policies. It’s probably all those things. One thing that has been fairly clear is that whole urban drift phenomenon of post-war has contributed significantly to people belonging to these groups.
“The gangs in this country, particularly the indigenous ethnic gangs, have evolved from young people that weren’t well educated. I would lay this squarely on the welfare homes and people being taken away from families.”
Tam says that generation had no one to guide them once they came out of the state institutions, but they are now in a position to offer some hard-earned experience to both their own associates and government agencies.
“Back in those days we didn’t know any better. There weren’t any older gang members. We were all young and maybe silly and stupid. It’s evolved where it is now where there are older members. We’ve got grannies and granddaddies and we do know better. The issue is, are we prepared to exercise that leadership to prevent our future generations falling into the same traps as a lot of the members from my generation?
“I feel that as an older-generation person who has been involved with these groups for 44 years that we have to step up and show better leadership so our kids don’t fall in that trap. So our kids don’t end up following in our footsteps and causing the harm to themselves and to others. I think what you’re seeing here is that there is a consensus amongst the older members that they want change. The question now is how are we going to make that change and can we do it on our own. I don’t think we can do it on our own but we can make a start. What we do need is a lot of help to make that change.”
While Tam says older gang members are taking their responsibilities as leaders seriously in trying to turn their families and younger members down a different track, he believes politicians would do well to try a different approach from the one that has failed so spectacularly for decades. If gangs are expected to change their thinking and behaviour, it might be time for politicians to do the same.
“These should be treated as long-term issues. I don’t think any particular party will ever have a solution as long as it’s thinking about these problems in isolation. It’s the same with our people – as long as we think of our problems in isolation, we don’t hold any answers.
“At the end of the day it takes two to tango. Unless we’re actually prepared to sit down at the table with each other and start thinking about long-term futures for our kids and our mokos, we’re going nowhere fast.”