No choice but to take Bloods ties
From the day he was born, 16-year-old Tuora Ngamotu was destined to be in a gang.
"He had no chance really," his father says. "Pretty much the whole town was in the gang, and he was in there with the best of them."
Now his family want him out of that scene, but he wants to stay.
Ngamotu is a proud member of the Roskill South youth "crew" the Bloods.
He grew up in Taupo with his Maori parents and extended family and by age nine, he was going to parties, seeing drug use and visiting gang pads with his Black Power father.
Ngamotu is part of an emerging trend identified by Waikato University research.
Boys as young as nine are joining gangs, not for money and the lifestyle, but because they believe it's what society expects of them.
The new research shows young men feel as if their teachers, families and communities have no faith in their abilities, so they turn to youth gangs for support.
As part of a 2011 study on the motivations behind gang membership, clinical psychology student Sarah Campbell interviewed seven young men who had been in a "crew".
"They were very aware of the stereotypes in their environment and they lived up to them," said Campbell, who based her masters thesis on the research.
"From what they were saying, they don't seem to fit within society so they go and joined a group of young people who understand their situation."
Campbell's thesis identified five main factors that influenced and maintained the boys' desire for youth gang membership: friends or family, money, a desire to participate in anti-social behaviour, neighbourhood surroundings and the negative reactions of others.
Although some of those factors were well-documented, the idea that gang membership was a "self-fulfilling prophecy" was fairly new, Campbell said.
The study quotes directly from the young men, all aged between 16 and 23, who had belonged to Hamilton gangs from as young as nine.
One, Hemi, said he felt his teachers looked down on him. "Yeah, like I thought that they thought that Maori boys couldn't make it nowhere, even though I would get high maths scores and that in a test, they would put me in the lowest maths group."
He also said his parents were not encouraging. "Like when I used to come home with certificates from school, Mum just used to run me down, say that I could have done better."
Teine, another participant, said he got similar treatment from others in the community.
"Even walking around the neighbourhood, I would try and talk like an older person.
"I would sit next to an old person and say, 'Hey sir, how was your day?' and he would just look away, look down on me, and that always used to piss me off."
Campbell said the young men responded to those perceptions by conforming to them, and that included behaving violently, being lazy or dishonest, stealing and by joining gangs.
Although Campbell said she was not an expert in the area, and emphasised the study was of a very small group, she said it highlighted the need to support boys as soon as they start primary school.
Youth education and psychology expert John Langley agreed, saying early intervention was crucial.
With the help of parents and early childhood teachers, it was possible to identify children as young as three who had problems, he said.
The issue was that there were not enough people trained to deal with those children.
A new police youth plan, however, does include child case managers, who work with at-risk children aged between eight and 13.
Anne-Marie Fitchett of Police Youth Services said the children might not have offended, but they might have siblings in the justice system. The aim was to help before anti-social behaviour became entrenched.
Campbell's study was submitted as a thesis under the title "Youth gang membership: Factors influencing and maintaining membership".
While still young, Ngamotu lived rough for two years in the bush while his dad was on the run from police, and finally moved to Auckland to live with an aunt while his father was in jail.
Ngamotu said he joined the Bloods – rivals of another Auckland youth gang, the Crips – to make friends and for protection, because it's "gangsta".
"I thought it would be cool. Felt like nothing could stop me."
He describes the "clique" as being like a company, with colours to show loyalty.
"You look after the 'hood, sort of like a big business. Look out for people, you look out for little kids. You defend your turf when people come to wreck your stuff."
Ngamotu has twice been in trouble with the police, once for stealing a moped, then for joyriding in stolen cars.
Taken under the wing of youth worker Henry Langi at Community Approach, a mentoring programme, he now attends a panelbeating course, and a music group with other youth gang members. He also has a passion for drawing – throughout this interview he sketches with quick, deft strokes that build a complex picture of a robot and a No8 pool ball by the time we finish talking.
Those are the positive things that Langi and Ngamotu's family want to encourage. But while happy enough to attend the courses, he is determined not to leave behind his friends and the respect his Bloods membership brings. "I just see it as gangsta. It's not normal. Not an ordinary thing. I feel out there. People can think what they want."
He knows not everything about the gang is good. You can get beaten up, he says, just for looking at someone. Illegal activity is likely to happen any day. But there's also a good side. "I've got lots of friends because of it. Do lots of things because of it."
What concerns his father is that if his son is not out of the gang by age 18, the pressure will come on to start participating in the "real" work of the gangs. "And every gang is bad. No matter what, they're bad. These kids just don't realise it yet."
Sunday Star Times