Emergence of ethnic gangs
Ethnic gangs began to form in the 1960s as Māori became urbanised and lost touch with tribal communities. Various explanations exist for the formation of indigenous and ethnic-minority gangs, including: intergenerational impacts of colonisation; social exclusion; cultural alienation; economic deprivation; institutional discrimination and racism; and bonding through a sense of common identity. Unlike some overseas ethnic gangs, which limit membership to a certain ethnicity or nationality, Māori gangs may recruit from other ethnicities.
The largest of the Māori-dominated gangs are the Mongrel Mob, Black Power and the Nomads (which split from Black Power in 1977). Others with significant Māori memberships include the Tribesmen (formed in the 1980s in South Auckland) and the Stormtroopers (formed in 1969 in Dargaville). These gangs have the same structure as the Hell’s Angels: a president, vice-president, sergeant-at-arms, patched members, prospects (unpatched recruits) and associates. As with outlaw motorcycle clubs, women cannot become patched members.
Former Mongrel Mob member Tuhoe ‘Bruno’ Isaac has said, ‘Being Maori meant nothing to us even though the majority of us were Maori; the only culture worth anything to us was Mob culture. The patch replaced all ethnic or cultural dimensions. You never spoke the reo, or performed a hongi within the confines of the gang or gang pad in my time. All that “Maori stuff” was to be left on the marae or wherever it was normally lived out. ... Dog culture [the culture of the Mongrel Mob] was the ruling power in my life.’1
According to popular myth, around 1960 a Hastings (or Wairarapa) magistrate described a group before him as ‘nothing but a pack of mongrels’.2 In one version it was two Māori brothers being sentenced and in another it was a group of young Pākehā. The story is probably apocryphal. However in the early 1960s a group of mainly Pākehā boys from the Napier–Hastings area began calling themselves ‘the mongrels’. By the early 1970s they were wearing patches bearing the name ‘Mongrel Mob’, and were Māori dominated.
In 2018 the Mongrel Mob was a collection of loosely affiliated, independent chapters with no national organisation or president. New Zealand’s largest gang, it had over 1,000 patched members and more than 30 chapters. Prisons are a major Mob recruiting ground – in the late 1970s a chapter was even formed in Auckland Maximum Security Prison.
Members are notorious for tattooed faces, red bandannas and patches, usually featuring a bulldog wearing a German Second World War helmet and swastikas. Mongrel Mob members shout ‘Sieg Heil!’, bark like dogs and use a Mongrel Mob salute (little finger and thumb up with middle fingers on palm). The Mob has had numerous public and violent clashes with Black Power, its main rival.
Patches and colours
Some motorcycle gangs require that patches must be worn on motorcycles, but cannot be worn inside a car. Black Power supposedly has a rule that patched members cannot wear the patch when on a bicycle. The patch is sacred to a member, and losing one’s patch can result in severe repercussions, including a beating and expulsion. Patches stolen from other gang members are thus highly prized and are often displayed in gang headquarters or sewn into the seat of a member’s pants as an insult to the former owner. Mongrel Mob members refuse to wear blue, and Black Power members refuse to wear red. In 2009, in an attempt to control gang activity, the Wanganui District Council banned certain gangs from wearing patches within the city.
In Easter weekend 1970, in Wellington, Reitu Harris and six others formed a Māori gang they called the Black Bulls. The Black Bulls changed their name to Black Power in 1971 and a Black Power chapter was also established in Auckland. The gang took off from 1975. Like its name, its symbol – the clenched fist – is inspired by the US Black Power movement, and its colours are blue and black. Members salute each other with a clenched fist and their main expression is ‘Yo! Yo!’ or ‘Yo fuck yo!’ Members claim closer ties to Māori culture than the Mongrel Mob, although this claim is debated. Black Power has a loose structure, but is tighter than the Mongrel Mob and it has a national executive. It also has had a women’s section. Black Power has sometimes adopted a quasi-political mantle, attempting to portray itself in the media as a whānau-focused group. It was in this guise that, in the early 1980s, the gang managed to form a relationship with the prime minister, Robert Muldoon.
Pacific youth gangs
Pacific Island gangs such as the King Cobras (formed in the late 1950s) appeared as new generations of young Pacific men distant from home cultures grouped together. From the 1990s US-style teenage 'Homie' (short for 'home boy') street gangs began to appear, particularly in Auckland, modelled after the two major Los Angeles street gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Although they see themselves as 'gangstas', they have been described as ‘wannabes’ (not true youth gangs), ‘territorial gangs’, ‘unaffiliated criminal youth gangs’ and ‘affiliated criminal youth gangs’.3 With time, however, they have become increasingly sophisticated and violent. They were linked to eight homicides over a two-year period during the early 2000s. In 2018 there were about 70 such gangs with around 1,000 members in South Auckland alone, although many have nebulous memberships and exist for only short periods.
Street gangs often use tagging (graffiti) to express their neighbourhood presence. They do not wear patches, but instead have coloured identifiers. As their names often form three-letter acronyms or abbreviations, they are referred to by the police as ABC gangs. Respect Samoan Pride (RSP), Killer Beez (KBZ) and Bud Smoking Thugs (BSTs) are examples of such acronyms.
There has been very little research on female youth gangs, though they have existed periodically, albeit temporarily and with little structure. Often female gangs have merely been adjuncts to the male gangs. One female gang which achieved brief notoriety in the late 1990s was the Deadly Fucking Bitches (DFB's), which was formed in Christchurch Women's Prison by lifer Melissa (Missy) Wepa. However like most women's gangs, the DFB's were small, unstructured and short-lived.