Boy racers strike back

BLAIR ENSOR
Last updated 05:00 31/03/2013
Boy racers
Iain McGregor, Dean Kozanic, John Kirk Anderson/FairfaxNZ

Hammer down: Police are targeting boy racers in Christchurch through Operation Hammer.

Boy racers
Iain McGregor
Ticket time: Police write out tickets to a gathering in Countdown car park on Moorhouse Ave.

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They're up to the same old tricks, according to police - pouring diesel on roads, hurling abuse and keeping people awake at night.

But the group of boy racers who have emerged from the rubble of the Christchurch earthquakes have new tools at their fingertips.

They're part of a smarter generation who use social media to arrange spontaneous events en masse and they're prepared to fight for their rights. Experts say the boy racers are among a groundswell of protest activity in Christchurch as the city goes through a phase of "disillusionment" after the earthquakes.

Police believe they're more organised, threatening and aggressive, and their numbers have swollen.

In the past month, a specialist squad of seven police and extra staff have targeted the car enthusiasts as part of Operation Hammer. They say the crackdown has been a success with complaints about boy racers from the public down 72 per cent.

But a group which started out as the Anti Police Riot Squad and later changed its name to the Anti Police Harassment Squad is not impressed with the tactics.

Members say they're trying to clean up the negative image of the boy-racer community and believe a small minority is causing the trouble. They claim police are being heavy-handed and unfairly targeting law-abiding car enthusiasts - removing their cars from the road when they have no grounds to do so. Police disagree and make no apology for the crackdown on illegal boy-racer activity in the city.

A week ago, the boy-racer group used Facebook to organise a spur-of-the-moment protest that resulted in more than 100 people gathering outside the Christchurch central police station. It was billed as a "peaceful park-up", but ended as an ugly, alcohol-fuelled mess that led to six people being arrested.

Organiser Kevin Simaile, also known as Nigz Nayra, said it was disappointing that a drunken minority cast a negative shadow over the event, but it was still a success.

"[The protest was organised] to show the cops that we're going to stand up for ourselves for once. We're not going to get bullied and pushed around," he says.

"[We protested] to get heard, and it's worked."

Canterbury road policing manager Inspector Al Stewart has no issue with people protesting, but the events that unfolded outside the station showed exactly why boy racers were being targeted by police. He is happy to meet the organisers of the protest to discuss their concerns despite receiving a "hurl of abuse" when he confronted those at the rally.

"No-one came up to me and said, ‘Hey look, this is what we're protesting about, this is why we think you guys are unfair.' The reason they are getting police attention is because of their behaviour," he said.

"We've got absolutely no problem with car enthusiasts getting together and sharing their interest and showing off their cars. Our concern is when they start committing offences," he says.

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Since the earthquake, there had been a resurgence in the number of boy racers cruising the streets of Christchurch. They were breaking the law by pouring diesel on roads, doing burnouts, intimidating the public and smashing bottles on the road, Stewart said.

"They are more threatening and aggressive in their behaviour."

However, another organiser of the protest, Tim Cummings, said a large numbers of boy racers were unhappy, not only with police, but also with a small rogue group who "think they're untouchable".

"We're not just fighting against the police, we've [also] got the other boy racers who don't like what we're doing. There have been scraps between each other."

Cummings said his group was confronting other boy racers about their bad habits in an attempt to clean up their reputation. The amount of diesel poured on roads and rubbish left in streets had already reduced significantly, he said.

"There is the huge majority on our side, but there are still these little boys . . . who think they are God's gift."

Cummings said the protest was organised after he met other boy racers sick of being picked on during the police operation.

He said police were stickering cars they said were unsafe and removing them from the road, but vehicle testing stations later ruled them roadworthy.

Stewart admitted police sometimes got it wrong, but said: "We've got to make those judgment calls on the side of the road".

PROTEST ON THE RISE

Dr Anne Scott, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Canterbury, said the boy racers were part of a rise in protest activity in Christchurch, fuelled by the earthquake and a global resurgence in activism. She said research showed three phases following a natural disaster - the coming together, disillusionment and recovery.

"I think we [Christchurch] are well and truly into the period of disillusionment now and it's going to mean protest." Social media is also driving political unrest as it has made it cheaper and easier for young people to stage spontaneous protests, she said.

"I think it's probably a great thing. I think society needs more protests. I presume at some point these protests will start to peter out and things will start to come back to a sort of equilibrium."

Political extremist Kyle Chapman, who organises an annual white pride march in Christchurch, believes protest levels in the city are at unprecedented levels.

"Protest is happening all the time at the moment - it's not just on the street. People are pissed off and individual-type protests are happening every day in Christchurch at an incalculable rate. People are suffering."

Cummings said cruising in his car was one of the few enjoyable pastimes he had left after the earthquakes and police "harassing" him fuelled his desire to protest.

Groups such as the Student Army had shown there was power in numbers, and events could be arranged quickly using social media, he said. He believes the people of Christchurch are prepared to protest, because "the earthquake has made a lot of people sick of everything".

"It's good that we can get hold of that many people that quick. It shows the cops and everyone else that there is a lot of people who are sick of [being treated unfairly].

"This will show other groups that it is that easy [to organise a protest using social media]. You can get people behind you for your cause," Cummings said.

Veteran activist John Minto said he was jealous of a modern protester's "ability to communicate quickly" and believed he would have been able to mobilise a lot more support for past rallies if he had had access to social media.

However, social media has its pitfalls, and those behind the boy-racer protest have discovered that the hard way. Cummings says he has received threats from people who have messaged him on Facebook to abuse him.

"They say I should go hang myself, my kids would be better off without me, ‘I hope you crash your cars into poles'.

"The hate is amazing. We want to be treated like any member of the public."

- Sunday Star Times

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