Inside the culture of gangs
A decade researching gangs from the inside has resulted in an insightful book on the history of patched criminal gangs in New Zealand. BECK ELEVEN meets its author, Jarrod Gilbert, a man for whom the line between work and home life became extremely blurred.
There is nothing new about someone immersing themselves in a foreign culture for the sake of art or understanding. It's just that when Christchurch researcher Jarrod Gilbert immersed himself in some of New Zealand's most feared gangs, he was subject to such "occupational hazards" as a knife to the throat, sound beatings, a bar stool raised over his head and more than a few hangovers.
After 10 years of committed research, Gilbert's book, Patched: the history of gangs in New Zealand, was released yesterday.
The book traces the roots of patched and outlaw motorcycle gangs from the predominantly white groups of bodgies, widgies and milkbar cowboys of 1950s New Zealand to familiar names such as the Mongrel Mob, Hell's Angels, Highway 61, Coffin Cheaters, Satan's Slaves, Epitaph Riders, outlaw motorcycle gangs and skinheads.
Gilbert, 38, grew up in Auckland, was "decidedly middle- class" and had no gang association. As a Canterbury University student, he learned there was scant research into New Zealand gangs at about the same time as legislation around gangs, surveillance and bugging was being discussed in Parliament.
He was intrigued that laws could be passed with little research on their subject. It was the genesis of a decade-long, extraordinarily vast and all- encompassing project that would see the boundaries between work and his personal life blur.
He would have to ingratiate himself with a culture that is almost exclusively closed to outsiders.
"I think most people saw it as an impossible task but naivete and arrogance goes a long way," he says.
He started by hanging around in bars frequented by gang members reasoning that "beating me up was hardly worth anyone's while".
"You meet one person, they introduce you to another and next thing you know, you know a gang. It just goes from there.
"Early on I worried that I'd get no information but partway through my biggest concern was that I had too much."
Building trust was key to the project and he unwittingly stepped over the line many times.
"It's a real sub-culture, they have their own ways, laws, rules. I knew none of that initially so I broke every single one. For example, you don't ask about the size of the group or a member's criminal histories.
"These things are well-known in their underworld but they were foreign to me. You resist the temptation to ask those questions and you just hang out until the answers reveal themselves."
So while the book is partly a product of laborious hours going through newspaper archives, parliamentary debates and legal documents, the real meat came from ingratiating himself with criminals.
"The lives of gang members, like the lives of most people are monotonous and unremarkable, but sometimes they get quite remarkable. I was privy to, and involved in, certain activities that certainly stretched my ethical boundaries as a researcher and my personal moral boundaries. "
Gilbert will not be drawn on drug-taking or other activities that readers might suspect he was party to during a decade of close association.
"It was an ethnographic study - that is participant observation where people do what they can to ingratiate themselves. I am reluctant to talk about some of my research techniques because I will open myself to criticism where I will be attacked, not for my findings but for my research.
"I will make no apologies for what I did because unless researchers are prepared to go deep into the field then we will never discover different pockets of society."
He concludes that laws targeting gangs are ineffective because increased police action leads to increased gang cohesion and that the police view of gangs has done more to set up the myth than the gangs themselves.
"The book is an accurate reflection of the scene. When I started out I had all these preconceived ideas, same as the public. The difference between my views now and then is that now they are based on evidence and fact, the book allows me to take people on that same journey as I went on."
Readers will be a lot safer venturing into a bookstore or library for Patched than taking Gilberts particular "journey".
"There were times when, particularly among the Maori gangs, well all of them really but certainly the likes of the Mongrel Mob and Black Power, where you'd drink, literally, for days.
"And I was usually relying on someone to give me a couch so I'd just stay up for as long as everyone else stayed up. I probably forgot more then I remembered during those sorts of occasions.
"Also, when people have been drinking for that long, the spectre of violence lingers so while you're drinking, you still have to keep as much wit about you as possible to ensure you don't come unstuck - and there was many a moment where things were taking a turn for the worse.
"I'm Pakeha, I'm tall enough but I'm not very wide and there were times when I couldn't talk my way out. I caught a couple of beatings - well, I'd like to call them fights that I came quite badly second in - two of them were in Christchurch.
"They were the outcomes of too much drinking and too much talking when I should have been listening. They were largely unavoidable but if I'd walked away I would have lost mana so you just have to hold your ground even when you know it's not going to work out well for you. There was a point where I was on the floor and a bar stool was raised, at that point the fun was really over.
"In another instance a guy pulled a knife on me. One would hope you could act a bit staunch but when you are on the wrong end of a knife, you don't feel particularly brave - but then I can't complain because it was just an occupational hazard.
"In the immediate sense it certainly didn't work out but in the aftermath, if you can hold your own - even for a short period - you get a bit of respect.
"But it's important to say that of the thousands of hours I spent in the field, these instances were few and far between. For the most part I was treated extremely well by the gangs."
Gilbert is that reasonably rare mix of academic who speaks as an equal but even so, he adapted physically between gangs, growing a beard while hanging out with the Mongrel Mob and Black Power, shaving his face and head with the bikers and skinheads, although, the skinhead look "seems to be occurring naturally these days".
"I'd be away for a couple of months at a time and my manner and language had changed.
"There were little things like transferring between the gangs. You're with the Maori gangs, then you're with the skinheads still using the term 'bro' and that gets a bit uncomfortable.
"For years I had more gang members in my phone than friends. Every social moment was spent with gangs. Even if I was going to watch rugby - or cricket, which they were never too impressed with - I would pop round to the clubhouse to watch."
Direct interviews were uncommon and Gilbert soon realised that note-taking made him look suspicious. The only people gang members knew who jotted notes were police officers so he carried a small notebook and took himself off to the toilet to scribble information.
"In the end I would text myself or take field notes the next day."
The closer his association, the more he felt he understood the attraction of belonging to a gang.
"I feel sheepish saying this but if you are walking down the street with a pile of gang members or riding down the road with a big outlaw club, you do feel a sense of power, like you are somebody.
"If you don't have anything else in your life that you can get that feeling from, one does not have to look any further than finding the appeal in a gang."
He suspects Patched will reveal stories that even some of the gang members will not be aware of.
"Sometimes the truth gets lost. It's like rugby, you might not have a reason the other team is a rival, it just is but as soon as there is personal injury or injury to a property then that grievance becomes intimate. It escalates, people feel genuinely aggrieved and it just snowballs into decades- long acrimony."
He hopes the book will change perception of gang members as his changed over the years.
"When the general public hears the word 'gang', they think 'murderers, rapists, drug dealers, monsters' but even if a guy is a thug, he might be extremely talented with guitar or have a great sense of humour or be able to engage in good conversation. I met people in the scene I quite happily hung out with . . . and still see today.
"Leaders get to be leaders not only because they can prove their mettle but because they have a few smarts. Not all gang members are idiots by any stretch. Don't get me wrong, one or two are psychopaths but as a general rule, they are average working class or lower blokes.
"Gangs are not formed in Fendalton or Merivale. They are formed in lower socio-economic areas and the reason for that is high unemployment, poor educational opportunities, over- crowded homes, invariably they've been beaten around at home, and often quite damaged individuals who are looking for something and the gang provides them with a sense of community, brotherhood and, importantly, a sense of status that they feel - rightly or wrongly - that they don't get from wider society."
Gilbert surmises gangs are not the reason for drugs in New Zealand and says the book shows that to be a myth.
"If we got rid of every gang member in the country tomorrow, the drug problem will go on unimpeded.
"If I could click my fingers tomorrow and get rid of gangs it would be a positive thing for the community but it is not as simple as that, while we have communities that have the ingredients for gang membership, we will always have gangs.
"If we are prepared to accept communities that have those ingredients, like poverty and abuse, then we cannot then bemoan gangs. We reap what we sow. It is not for me to say they are good or bad, it's just for me to say that they are."
With Patched published, Gilbert plans to launch a university course, continue giving expert evidence in court and providing submissions on law and bylaws.
"I still get invited to [gang] parties but it's nowhere near as all- encompassing for which my liver will be entirely grateful.
"It took a terrible toll on relationships. I wasn't so conscious of how difficult is was for others at the time and I owe some people a tremendous debt.
"The line between my work and my personal life became incredibly blurred, my work became my life but I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure and the result is worthwhile, I think.
"But it is nice to be back."