Sunday, 13 Jun 2021

Shane Te Pou: Why we need to engage with gangs


Some years back, I recall attending a Hui for gang members along with the then Western Māori MP Koro Wetere and a formidable Māori woman in her seventies, whose name unfortunately escapes me.

Wetere was a canny and effective politician, as his consequential tenure as Māori Affairs Minister in the Eighties attests, and was humble enough to appreciate the limits of his persuasive powers.

Only a good old fashioned Nanny growling was likely to reach an audience like this one.

Wetere had wisely cast himself in the supporting role.

Wetere spoke first, warmly but firmly, urging the men present to abandon the gang lifestyle. His message was met politely but, if I’m honest, few seemed likely to shed their patches on the strength of his oratory.

But when the Kuia stood, the room fell silent.

“These gangs,” she began, almost hissing the word, “haven’t they done enough damage? Haven’t they caused your wives and children enough pain?”

She surveyed the 30-odd men in the room, her eyes boring into them: “Haven’t they hurt you enough?”

This frail septuagenarian wasn’t there to preach or judge. She told the men she loved each of them but had no love for the gang they belonged to.

“It doesn’t matter to me if you’re the Māori Affairs Minister or a 17-year-old gang prospect, we are all bound by whakapapa. Good or bad, your life and mine are connected. Your success is our success. Your failures are ours, too.”

Gangs are back in the spotlight, and today politicians like Willie Jackson and Marama Davidson cop no end of grief for daring even to meet with them, as Wetere (not to mention Muldoon) routinely had.

The logic behind these recent pile-ons escapes me. Gangs thrive on the margins of
civil society. They relish their outlaw status. Shunning them, therefore, it seems to me, plays right into their hands.

I’ve known Willie and his mum, Dame Temuranga June Jackson, for more than 30 years. I saw first-hand how they cobbled together what meagre resources were available to establish South Auckland’s first Urban Marae, Ngā Whare Waatea, and the Manukau Urban Authority (MUMA).

Dame June and her husband Bob built rehabilitation programmes, working with the Ministry of Justice, enlisting ex-prisoners, many of them with past gang affiliations.

What was different about this programme is that it engaged with the whole whānau. Wives and kids were put front and centre. Community workers, often steeped in the gang experience themselves, would run these programmes, visiting people in their homes, connecting with schools, helping kids get driver’s licences and find work.

Dame June, and community activists like her, didn’t need a lecture on the evils of gang life. They see it up close every day. But, for them, the solution lies in practical engagement designed to create durable offramps away from gangs and prisons and towards more constructive choices.

They understand that you break the cycle one whānau at a time and, even if many choose not to, every gang member who opts for the exit creates positive ripple effects that will be felt for generations.

Martin Cooper, a former Black Power leader in South Auckland, emerged as a respected and highly effective community leader by drawing deeply on Māori values and traditions. He confronted head on the culture of sexual violence within gangs and has also been a driving force in the movement to stop the manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine.

Now in his sixties, Cooper is a stalwart of the Kīngitanga movement and serves on the boards of several marae.

Leaders like Cooper, along with Māori-led initiatives aimed at breaking the cycle, receive a fraction of the resources dedicated to locking up gang members in the vain hope that doing so will make any difference in the long run.

Prison doesn’t break the cycle. Prison hardens people. It’s the best recruitment tool gangs have.

There’s nothing soft or “woke” about acknowledging the need to tackle root causes and, as long as we fail to do so, gangs will continue to prosper.

A couple of years back, there were a number of arrests in my hometown of Kawerau. The local boss got 17 years. For a few months, meth was harder to come by and gang numbers declined. But soon the void was filled with new recruits and a new supply. Rinse and repeat.

Politicians are either oblivious to the futility of “tough on gangs” policies, or they are so intoxicated by the electoral sugar-high that comes with law and order posturing, they are beyond caring whether the policies work or not. How else can you explain calls to push gangs even further to the margins of society when alienation is precisely what fuels them?

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