The gang problem is not just about personal choices
OPINION: Okay, I totally get it. We dislike gangs because they terrorise their communities, and gang membership is a significant factor for involvement in crime.
For these reasons, our instinct is to want gang members shunned and banished, which is why Judith Collins, in a recent interview, said: “They should go away, I am sick of them”.
She said this quite nonchalantly because she knew this sentiment would resonate with many ordinary Kiwis. That’s what populist politicians do: they focus on achieving popularity instead of workable solutions.
Gangs have been part of New Zealand’s social landscape since the 1950s. Today, thanks to experts, we have a better understanding of the reasons behind gang formation. It turns out that our wish for gang members to “go away” is in fact part of the problem.
* Poverty, desperation, social exclusion, this is the soil in which gangs grow
* Opinion: Leopards, and gangs it seems, don't change their spots
* Ex-cops urge political parties to work together to combat rising gang membership
* Gangs: civic-minded groups feeding the hungry or violent drug dealers?
If society looks down on you because of your race and low socioeconomic status, wouldn't you want to go where you can be somebody? If you feel unwanted, disrespected and threatened, wouldn't you want to go where you can belong and feel protected? If you had no skills or access to employment and all your mates were in a gang, wouldn't you want to join them?
Remember young men, especially those who have suffered abuse (many while in state care), are unlikely to be emotionally and intellectually mature enough to navigate through persistent hardship without resorting to their inner destructive tendencies to commit harm. By the way, these destructive tendencies, which coexist alongside our tendencies to sympathy and cooperation, are present in all of us – according to Freud, anyway.
Of course, I agree that criminal behaviour must not be ignored, but imprisonment hasn't made the problem go away.
If you don't believe me, look at reconviction data, which shows gang members tend to reoffend more often and more seriously than other offenders.
To tackle our gang problems, we have to start by getting away from the simplistic thinking that the problem lies solely with personal choices. No-one would choose to be taken away from their families at a young age and suffer abuse in state care; no-one would choose to exist on the margins of society, with no mana or sense of identity. And no-one would ever choose to suffer persistent discrimination and humiliation.
Antisocial behaviour gives those who feel invisible in society a sense of power, and with that power comes a sense of self-respect. Someone I know who nearly joined a gang in his youth described his earlier antisocial behaviour as mostly empowering but not without internalised shame (shame causes its own cycle of depression and violence).
By now, most of us understand that our political, economic and social systems are structured to mostly benefit the people on top (the 1 per cent). That is why we don't hear our politicians publicly wish the mega-rich, the ones who hide their money in offshore accounts, would “go away”, even though some of these people, and their gangs of enabling accountants and lawyers, have been responsible for inflicting far greater misery on people than all the New Zealand gangs put together (think the 2008 financial crisis alone).
But not only do we not demonise the uber-rich, we actually let their chums organise our laws to give their dubious activities an air of legal respectability.
And that's how it is that billionaires in their nice suits become the winners of our social and economic order, while patched men linger at the very bottom.
And if you think leaving a gang is simple then you have not read the research. Leaving often means putting yourself and your family at risk and becoming socially ostracised.
Despite these difficulties, some do make it out but still face stigma and obstacles to reintegration. Gang membership is likely on the rise because social and economic hardship, exacerbated by Covid-19 and lockdowns, are on the rise. Although there are no reliable statistics, an informal police surveillance list shows close to 8000 people belonging to a gang (the list doesn't record those leaving, so is not accurate).
Some Kiwi deportees, the ones cruelly uprooted from their lives and families in Australia, have also formed their own gangs. It is amazing how cruelty begets cruelty.
And yet, we still don't learn. We still think the hyper-masculine mantra of tough, tough, tough is the best way forward, even though evidence shows punitive policies don't achieve anything but mistrust and hatred of the state.
This pandemic has already illustrated how dangerous mistrust of authority can be. It's to our collective benefit to do what we can to reintegrate marginalised people back into mainstream society. A good starting point would be to alter our gaze and get off the gang-bashing bandwagon.
As Simone de Beauvoir said: “Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being.”