Monday, April 8, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“PATCHED – THE HISTORY OF GANGS IN NEW ZEALAND” by Jarrod Gilbert (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)

            Some weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Jarrod Gilbert interviewed on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show. He was discussing the fact that research for Patched (which was developed from his PhD thesis in sociology) involved his spending long periods living with, and being accepted by, gangs. As he says in his introduction to this book:

Perhaps the most important part of my research was the eight years I spent in the field hanging around with various gangs doing ethnographic, or participant observation, research. Gaining access to gangs was a long and fraught process, and much of my time in the field was challenging both physically and ethically. During these years, my life and my research merged. Week in, week out, I immersed myself in the scene. The consequences of these undertakings were not always desirable: a knife to the throat; involvement in a large gang brawl; battling the fatigue that comes from partying days at a time; and a couple of fights where I was soundly beaten are among those events I can comfortably repeat here.” (pg. x)

What I found engaging in Gilbert’s interview on the Kim Hill was his ethical ambiguity about much that he witnessed. For example, after first saying “Oh God, my Mum’s listening to this!”, he mentioned witnessing group sexual activity in gangs. This may be part of what he cannot “comfortably repeat” in his introduction.

While enjoying the interview, I did wonder if Gilbert would suffer the fate of so many journalists who have been “embedded” with armed forces during conflicts – that is, I wondered if he would so identify with his hosts that (like those military journalists) he would end up simply reproducing their viewpoint and perspective. Late in his introduction, he does note that he has had to keep confidentiality, which means he has been, as he puts it, ethically “stretched” and has had to suppress, or remove individual names from, material that could be used in criminal prosecutions.

I needn’t have worried. Patched does indeed convey much of the perspective of gang-members; but the author keeps his own perspective as a sociologist, is fully aware of the criminal activities in which gangs are or have been involved, is sensitive to the perspectives of the wider community and does not assume that all negative reactions to gangs are mere alarmism. Also the book is very solidly researched from sources additional to direct interaction with gangs, as the extensive bibliography makes clear. Interviewing and observing gang members were only part of Gilbert’s research, and Patched is in no way a memoir. Indeed, it is only occasionally that Gilbert refers directly to events he personally witnessed.

There are some themes that run through this text, even though it is a varied history of nearly sixty years of New Zealand subcultures. One is the clear impact of socio-economic conditions on the growth or decline of gangs. Most chapters in this book contain a brief account of what was happening to the national economy and to political parties at any given time. Another theme is the constant feeding of gangs off images and models provided to them by (largely American) popular culture, from 1950s bikers aspiring to be Marlon Brando in The Wild One, to South Auckland youth aspiring to be LA Crips or Bloods after seeing movies like Colors, to current “boy racers” ODing on The Fast and the Furious. Not that the media images provide the impetus to form gangs – only the form that that impetus takes.

  As Gilbert tells it (Chapter One), the 1950s in New Zealand were essentially a prelude to later gang culture. The first rock ‘n’ roll era “gangs” were milk-bar cowboy groups of mainly working-class Pakeha kids, mainly from new state-housing areas, who did not last as gangs because the 1950s were an era of high employment and economic security. Hence there was no inducement for young men to stay in gangs when they could easily find a pay-packet. Membership of gangs was transient.

However, gang culture changed (Chapter Two) in the 1960s, although on the whole the economy was still healthy. In what Gilbert sees as the first ‘pivot point’ in gang history, gangs (following the lead of the early Hell’s Angels in Auckland) become patched, and gang activity became a more visible public concern, as in the Hastings Blossom Festival riots of 1960 and 1969. Gangs were beginning to be identifiable and continuous. Clubs transformed into gangs with rules and a hierarchy. Gangs had more time to “defend” territory and mana as the economy declined and members made gang activity their major occupation rather than something that was engaged in only when paid work permitted. Gilbert readily accepts the argument that police harassment was one key factor in reinforcing group solidarity and hence transforming clubs into gangs.

At this point (Chapter Three) Gilbert differentiates between motorcycle gangs and the street gangs that began to emerge in the later 1960s. Also at this point, he has to address more fully the matter of ethnicity. Early cycle gangs were essentially colour-blind, as were the first street gangs. But the street gangs rapidly became largely Maori and Polynesian, especially with the number of kids alienated from both school and home environments during the rapid urbanisation of Maori and the equally rapid growth in immigration from the Pacific.

Gilbert lingers over the formation of the gang that was to last longest, the Mongrel Mob, whose style was to be extreme and perverse rejection of social norms:

 “Without the impediment of adult supervision, the young men were unknowingly forging enduring subcultural elements. The ‘law’ [described by one member] would eventually be termed ‘mongrelism’ by the gang The concept is somewhat difficult to define, but is basically any outrageous behaviour that distinguishes a Mongrel Mob member’s actions from those that are socially acceptable. This creed became embedded in the gang’s collective consciousness. Outlaw motorcycle clubs like the Hell’s Angels were also engaging in defiant anti-social activities, but the Mongrel Mob’s undertakings appear more extreme. Indeed the gang would later commit some of the most notorious crimes of physical and sexual violence in modern New Zealand history, and much of this behaviour is linked to the ideals fostered within the Mongrel Mob during this time.” (Pg.41)

(“Ideals” is a rather odd word in this context.)

After the Mongrel Mob was formed, Black Power arose partly from Maori and Polynesian groups who were intimidated by the Mongrel Mob. At first Black Power had some social conscience, but these two gangs soon became chief rivals for dominance.

            Ironically though (Chapter Four), the first serious “gang war” was in Christchurch in 1974-75, far from the North Island heartlands of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob. It was between the mainly Pakeha Epitaph Riders and the Devil’s Henchmen. It is at this point that Gilbert analyses seriously the mystique of the patch and of territoriality. He also notes that less mature and well-established gangs try to use the press to build up their reputations and profile with boastful stories to journalists. More experienced gangs, better aware of public scrutiny and the perils of self-incriminating material, tend to observe a silence-to-the-press rule.

It was in the 1970s that there occurred what Gilbert sees as the second ‘pivot’ in gang history. With the murder, in Auckland, of a Highway 61 member by a member of the Hell’s Angels, some Hell’s Angels served prison sentences and began associating with hardened drug-dealing criminals. The connection between gangs and crime-for-profit began in earnest.

            As Gilbert sees it (Chapter Five), despite much alarmist talk in the press and in parliament, there were by the late 1970s and early 1980s some real and constructive official attempts to deal with gangs in a positive, rather than a punitive, way. Surprisingly, some of these were initiated by, and had the blessing of, the conservative prime minister Robert Muldoon.

During the 1980s, the government initiated New Zealand’s most significant social policy drive targeting gangs. In an increasingly difficult labour market, the policy aimed to put gangs to work in an effort to alleviate the growing problem of gang violence. Up until August 1986, this social policy agenda was heralded as a success. But then, in the space of a few months, three major events, including the Ambury Park rape, and a radically changing political climate created a ‘perfect storm’ of controversy in which the social policy initiative met with a swift demise.” (Pg.107)

As neo-liberalism (“Rogernomics”) took hold in the political scene, there was a strong backlash against payment for gangs in work schemes. Suddenly both government and opposition were falling over themselves to frame tougher laws against gangs, and to rein in subsidised work. Partly this backlash was driven by media reports of ostentatious displays of wealth by gang leaders including Abe Wharewaka, chief of Black Power in South Auckland. When he gets to the 1986 Ambury Park serial rape of one woman by the Mongrel Mob, Gilbert gives full details after first telling us about the gang practice of ‘blocking’  - that is, gang members having serial sexual intercourse with one woman, which he witnessed when embedded with gangs. This is also the point at which he addresses most fully the tendency of gangs to be male clubs, which regard women mainly as sex-objects or chattels. Only late in this book does he note that women in gangs have gained more respect now that gang leaders have aged and have daughters of their own.

Some elements of the scene changed considerably in the 1990s (Chapter Six). There was the brief emergence of skinheads and white supremacists – they were seen off mainly by threats from Black Power and the Mongrel Mob rather than by police action. An increased Asian presence meant the beginnings of triads and their connections with the Mongrel Mob. However 1990s Asian youth gangs did not achieve durability and their membership remained transient. There was also the big question of gangs’ relationship with hard drugs. By now, as Gilbert notes, patched gangs are “institutionalised”:

The fact that New Zealand’s patched gangs became, and remain, so highly regulated is perhaps, at first appearance, counterintuitive. As ‘antisocial’ groups, typically made up of rebellious men, one might expect gangs to be anarchistic. In fact the reverse is true; because of the non-conformist nature of gang members, the ever–present threat of police action, and risks posed by opposition groups, gangs are particularly reliant on stringent rules to function effectively.” (Pg.156)

Among these rules, many gangs reject the use by members of heroin and other hard drugs. (On the gang scene it was well known that heroin use largely destroyed the Auckland gang the Grim Reapers.) Gangs also see loyalty to the gang as fundamental, though the outside world is fair game for crime. Gilbert broaches the question of how much charitable activities by gangs are simply a form of PR. He defines gangs as “grey” organizations, at once both within and outside the law in the sense that they tend to be accepted by their immediate community.

The downturn of the economy in the later 1990s (Chapter Seven) meant there were more full-time and otherwise unemployed members of gangs. And, despite the caveats on drug use by gang members, there was also a major rise in gangs’ involvement in drug trade. The marijuana trade expanded, tinnie houses proliferated, then methamphetamine P became common. We are told of gangs “taxing” people associated with them, of extortion and of the intimidation of witnesses, which led in 1997 to a law allowing witness anonymity.

In Chapter Eight, Gilbert discusses the way the media and MPs from both sides of the house set in motion a series of laws concerning the proceeds of crime and their attempts to deal with the fortification of gang headquarters, which assumed that all gangs were operating sophisticated criminal networks. Gilbert makes up the term “blue vision”, meaning the tendency of police to use only that data that seems to confirm their preconceived notions, in this case the notion that organised gangs were responsible for most crime in New Zealand.

Finally in Chapter Nine, surveying the current scene, Gilbert notes the ironical decline in motorcycle “clubs” in recent years, as rebellious young petrol-heads aspire to be “boy racers” instead. And there is that ongoing problem of hard drugs to be dealt with. Gilbert moves into personal mode:

In one outlaw club with which I had significant dealings throughout my research, the effect of P was dramatic. The substantial financial cost involved in using the drug habitually forced members into debt – both to the club and outsiders. Although certain members were dealing, the trade only supported its use; and before long it failed to do even that. One member could not afford the payments on his motorcycle and it was repossessed; two others sold their bikes to fund their habit. Another member suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for several months. All four were expelled from the gang, but the drug remained tolerated because key members among the dwindling group were unwilling to give it up…..” (Pg.247)

He goes on to note that similar problems have hit the street gangs. After initially profiting from the P trade, Black Power and the Mongrel Mob now have chapters banning the marketing and use of the drug among members. Gilbert’s account of gangs and drugs is remarkably benign. He does report that whole chapters of some gangs have been busted for drug-dealing, but he insists that drug-dealing tends to be the business of individuals within a gang rather than of the gang as a whole (pp.271-272)

There is now the rise of LA-style street gangs, wearing bandannas and acting out music video imagery (Killer Beez etc.). They are often seen as rivals to the ageing patched gangs. Gilbert fades out his history on the failed efforts of Michael Laws and others to have gang patches banned in Wanganui. He says of such efforts that

 “Uninformed by research, based on unsupported assumptions, and driven by populist politics, public policies around such gangs remain mired in sensationalist claims that fail to address their existence as complex social institutions that will survive and evolve in the face of attack.” (Pg.283)

You will note I have done little more in this notice that summarise the contents of Gilbert’s book, with the minimum of critical comment.

Only a few additional remarks need be made.

Patched began as a thesis, so it has some of the characteristics of a thesis – each chapter ends with a neat paragraph, which serves as a sort of “abstract” of the chapter.  The final chapter is a “Conclusion” which, like the final chapter of a thesis, recapitulates the themes of the book, tying the fortunes of gangs and their flourishing to socio-economic factors and noting matters of class, gender, ethnicity and public perception of gangs, as well as cycles of official and media attention.

Concerning the public perception of gangs, Gilbert does sometimes buy into that modish term “moral panic”, especially (see pg.217) when he is describing Mike Moore’s attempts to drum up tougher laws against gang association and harassment in the mid-1990s. However, when dealing with earlier mainstream reactions to gangs, he does not assume that all mainstream attempts to address gang problems were inept.

In the 1974-75 Christchurch “gang war”, he does suggest that police surveillance prevented more serious conflict. In Chapter Six, chronicling the police Operations Shovel and Damon (in Timaru and Foxton in 1990s) he notes the effectiveness of short-term police surveillance and crackdown on gangs which had been associated with specific crimes, and sees the operations as good and justified policing. In Chapter Four, he gives an oddly positive account of Robert Muldoon’s much-publicised conference with Black Power and Muldoon’s conversion to social policy and a work-scheme approach to gangs. Also, after giving his account of the Moerewa riot in 1979, Gilbert politely dissents from the view of Jane Kelsey and others that the government response to this event was “moral panic”. In Gilbert’s view, even if police were thenceforth issued with new-type riot equipment, the incident was significant “not because it sparked a moral panic and knee-jerk suppressive laws, but because it led to the concerted development of social policy to combat the problems surrounding gangs.” (pp.100-101)

            The whole topic of gangs is obviously fraught with emotion. What I am saying here is that Gilbert, despite his understanding of the origins and dynamics of gangs, and despite some evasions, is not presenting an apologia or whitewash job on gangs.

Patched is a solid and balanced book.

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