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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review Jarrod Gilbert PATCHED: THE HISTORY OF GANGS IN NEW ZEALAND. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2013 (344 pages).

This book is written by Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a sociologist who lectures at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch:  This is a complex and comprehensive study of gangs in New Zealand since 1950. It is accessible to the average reader but is written in a flat, matter-of-fact tone.  Gilbert’s research was undertaken over a period of ten years, including eight years in the field hanging around with various gangs.  As Gilbert mentions in his Preface: “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 for days at a time; and a couple of fights where I was soundly beaten are among these events I can comfortably repeat here.” In the end, his research paid off. As a result of this book, he received a University of Canterbury Doctoral Scholarship and a C. Wright Mills Award for his sociology PhD.

PATCHED includes a wide range of voices, including gang members, police officers, politicians, community workers, media commentators and researchers.  Fifty-five interviews were conducted, including thirty-two with gang members and the remainder with police officers, politicians, lawyers and two women associated with gangs. Another strong feature of the book is Gilbert’s detailed analysis of social, economic and political contexts as a cause for gang activity.

The main thrust of PATCHED, however appears to be focussed on how governments of different persuasions responded to and enacted legislation to quell community fears of gang violence. Gilbert strongly states in his conclusion, “We need to understand the complexities of the issue that we are dealing with before we will have a reasonable chance of addressing it; and it is important to be cautious- indeed disdainful- of political figures proffering simple solutions to undeniably complex social phenomena.”

In his study, Gilbert identifies four pivot points in New Zealand history since 1950 which reconfigured the gang scene and which resulted in key law changes or fundamental shifts in public opinion.

(1) The formation of the Hell’s Angeles in Auckland in 1 July 1961. The wearing of gang patch and the adoption of a formal organisation and rules led to an explosion in outlaw gangs in New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s.

(2) The Moerewa Incident in August 1979. After a few altercations with Black Power, the Stormtroopers from Auckland travelled to the North Island town of Moerewa to confront their foe. Unable to find any Black Power members, the Stormtroopers attacked some policemen and savagely beat them.  This was the “most serious incident of gang violence that the country had experienced to date” and following two trials twenty-five men were convicted of various offences and received jail terms of between four months and eight years. Significantly, the event did not lead to more repressive legislation to suppress gang activities but rather the introduction of social policies, such as, work contracts to target the problems faced by gangs, including disadvantage and unemployment.

(3) The Mongrel Mob and the Ambury Park Rape 1986. The Mongrel Mob held a convention in 1986 and the Auckland Regional Authority granted the Mob part use of a farm called Ambury Park in South Auckland. A young woman wandered into the vicinity of the park and was dragged through a car window. When graphic details of her rape emerged there was a backlash against gangs “and sympathy toward government-funded work schemes evaporated.” As Gilbert writes in Chapter 5: ‘The Prime Minister and the Patch’, “The social policy agenda that had dominated political thinking since 1979 was effectively over” and “calls for a forceful approach towards gangs only became louder.”

(4) Legislating Against the ‘Gang Menace’ 1996-

In 1996, two unrelated gang conflicts occurred on the South Island. Although the gang violence wasn’t any more  severe as previous examples, the “wars” were seized upon by police and politicians to pass the most aggressive legislation against gangs to date. In Christchurch, a new chapter of the Road Knights was at war with the entrenched Epitaph Riders and in Invercargill, the Road Knights fought to prevent a new Black Power chapter muscling in. In April 1996 three Knights in a car fired on a group of Epitaph Riders in Christchurch. The  bullets missed the bikies and instead injured a young couple in a passing car. The Invercargill dispute also lead to a series of shootings prompting the authorities to take action.

The public nature of the attacks alarmed the general community and assured significant police and political attention. As a general election neared, politicians outdid each other to show how tough they were on crime and elevated the gang menace to a national issue. A series of new laws and amendments were made to existing laws including the Crimes Act (1961) and the Harassment Act (1977).

Not all of PATCHED is about the outlaw gang-community balance and community responses when outlaw gangs overstep the mark. Some of the more interesting sections in the book discuss things outlaw, such as, clubhouse etiquette, tinnie houses, women in gangs, rules and informal codes of behaviour, taxing, intimidation and other forms of underworld entrepreneurialism.

In his solid Conclusion, Gilbert views gangs as “an inevitable part of society” but they will only rarely affect the public with their activities. People join gangs because of the sense of power they provide individuals, “Whether riding in a pack of an outlaw club, or walking into a public place with members of a patched street gang, one cannot help but appreciate the sense of power that exists within these groups, knowing each member has the other’s back. The feeling of being a part of something strong and powerful and exhilarating, and this is only enhanced by the furtive glances of onlookers and the respect paid by those who come in direct contact with the group. Even in mundane situations, you gain attention, you are somebody.”

More importantly, Gilbert writes, “Gang membership is largely built upon adverse social and economic conditions. Gangs may always be evident in less deprived communities, but with better social conditions they are likely to be smaller in number, less entrenched, and generate fewer community problems. As long as New Zealand has communities faced with poor education, overcrowded housing, unemployment, family abuse, and poverty, the country will always have gangs.”

Gilbert is insightful and thorough in his writing, but I can’t picture 1%ers ever taking up this book unless they have a strong, post-grad interest in social policy. The turgid, academic style makes the reading of this book very heavy going for the average reader. Although many gang members have been interviewed not much of substance has been derived from them. As mentioned in an Amazon review, maybe most outlaws didn’t really want to talk to this joker.