Men have always banded together for brotherhood, friendship or joint enterprise. In the late 1940s bored young soldiers returning from the Second World War formed motorcycle gangs in California. Their antics were popularised through movies and pop music, and when these reached New Zealand, copycat gangs were formed.
Young men who felt left out of mainstream society were drawn to the gangs. Gang members claimed they got together to ride their bikes, but some also became involved in crime.
From the 1970s small numbers of Pākehā men formed white-supremacy groups. They often wore boots and shaved their heads and were known as boot boys or skinheads. They have been involved in attacks on New Zealanders of other ethnicities and on gay men.
Māori and Pacific Island gangs
In the 1970s young Māori men joined gangs like the Mongrel Mob, Black Power and the Nomads. The Mongrel Mob is New Zealand’s largest gang – in 2018 it had over 1,000 members. These gang members wear patches on their jackets, and often have gang tattoos on their bodies and faces.
Young Pacific Islanders formed the King Cobras in the late 1950s. In the early 2000s some Pacific Island gangs mimicked street gangs in Los Angeles, adopting their gang colours and behaviour. These gangs are sometimes known as 'homie' gangs.
Gangs and crime
Gangs have engaged in inter-gang brawls, murder and rape. Men who want to join a gang often undergo beatings and have to commit crimes to prove their commitment. Gangs which deal in drugs sometimes discourage other crimes in order to protect their business. In recent years gang rape has been banned in many gangs, although rapes by individual members still occur but with considerably less frequency than before.
In the 1980s police discovered New Zealand links to Asian crime networks and Chinese triads based in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. There are also triad-like gangs throughout Southeast Asia. Triad-like gangs and other organised Asian crime groups have been associated with offences like extortion and kidnapping, and smuggling drugs and pāua.
Gangs and society
In 1954 the government set up a special committee to investigate youth delinquency. Various other groups over the years have studied youth crime, but with little effect on young people’s behaviour.
Prime Minister Robert Muldoon set up schemes in the early 1980s where gangs were paid to do contract work to stop them getting involved in crime. Some gangs abused the work schemes and used the money to attract new members and do up their headquarters. Because of this, the schemes ended in 1987.
There is a variety of opinion about the best way of dealing with gangs but some experts say the best way to stop gang crime is to prevent young people getting mixed up with gangs, provide useful activities for gang members, and outlaw some gang behaviour.
Laws have been passed to give police more power to deal with gangs and to confiscate the assets of criminals who have made money through criminal behaviour.
In 2009 gang members were banned from wearing their patches in Whanganui, but the law was overturned due to human rights issues. A subsequent law banning gang regalia from public premises such as schools, government buildings and swimming pools was passed in 2013.