In their broadest sense, gangs are a mode of social organisation which is as old as humanity itself. While female gangs do occur, most gangs are formed by men. These exclusive groups band together for brotherhood, community, warfare, defence, crime or profit. After the world’s first cities developed over 5,000 years ago, written laws defined some gangs as ‘criminal’ and persecuted them for their activities. In 1307, for example, the Templar Knights of France were charged with criminal heresy, and suppressed by King Philip IV of France. From about the 17th century, as cities grew, gangs associated with crime for profit became increasingly common in European and American cities, and in America’s ‘Wild West’.
In Australasia, Ned Kelly’s Australian band entered local folklore, as did the Burgess gang of New Zealand, which robbed and killed several South Island gold miners in the mid-1860s.
Juvenile urban gangs were present in London, Chicago, New York, Sydney, Auckland and many other cities in the 19th century.
In 1842–43, 128 delinquent boys aged 12 to 20 arrived in Auckland from England’s Parkhurst Prison. Some formed delinquent groups and frightened local citizens. But the threat they presented was brief, and they were soon assimilated into wider society.
The gang as we know it today, dressed in denim and leather with back-patch identifiers and mobilised with motorbikes and cars, had its origins in the US in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Following the Second World War discharged American soldiers with full pay packets, youthful energy and no jobs, bought motorbikes and hung around in groups with names such as the Market Street Commandos, the Booze Fighters, and the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington (POBOBs). A riot at Hollister, California, in 1947 brought the gangs to public prominence and the Hell’s Angels were formed from the POBOBs soon afterward.
Gangs sprang up all over the west coast of the United States and eventually spread internationally. By 1960 motorcycle clubs such as the Galloping Gooses, the Gypsy Jokers, and Satan’s Slaves had emerged in the US. Within five years, having been identified in media reports as a public menace, the concept of the ‘outlaw’ motorcycle gang had been born.
Gangs speak a language of their own. Church: a gang’s weekly meeting. Blocking: gang sex or gang rape of women. Taxing: extorting money for a perceived offence or for performance of a service such as protection. Prospect: an unpatched gang recruit. 1% or ‘one percenter’: a member of an outlaw motorcycle club, as opposed to a legitimate motorcycle club. Ridgies (from the word ‘originals’): a member’s ‘original’ jeans, which are never washed and become sewn together as they disintegrate. Patch: a gang emblem, usually sewn onto the back of a leather or denim vest or jacket.
The modern gang is often linked to urban poverty, and social exclusion based around class, religion, or ethnicity. Gangs usually form among groups of young men who feel alienated from mainstream society, are denied decent job prospects, lead otherwise uneventful lives, have poor parental role models, and have lacked structured adult involvement during their developmental years. The youth gang is a form of demonstrative rebellion by young men who feel excluded from mainstream society. Gangs provide these men and their female associates with a sense of family and belonging that has frequently been absent from their childhoods. Membership gives meaning to life, shelter in times of need, and protection from other gangs and from abusive or predatory adults. Gangs also provide parties, cheap drugs and alcohol, and involvement in various forms of criminal activity.
Many gangs and gang members are associated with crime, but not all members lead criminal lifestyles. Research indicates that gangs form a continuum, from law-abiding legitimate groups to organised crime networks, with an array of groups in between.
Some commentators argue that, in a similar way to clubs and religious groups, a gang’s core role is to provide a shared ethos of friendship, brotherhood, community, commitment, and meaning to its members. Accordingly, while gang members may carry out criminal activity in collusion with colleagues or other gangs, many do not see this as a central part of gang business. The police, on the other hand, tend to argue that gangs are criminal organisations per se and that members become criminals by virtue of their association.
New Zealand’s gang phenomenon was deeply influenced by the United States, where youthful delinquency emerged as a specific problem, and the term ‘teenager’ became common, in the 1950s.
After the rock ’n’ roll era commenced in the US around 1954, bodgies and their female counterparts, widgies, appeared on the New Zealand scene. Bodgies typically wore tight jeans and their hair plastered down with Vaseline or Brylcreem. Rock ’n’ roll’s arrival signalled a revolution in youth culture, and was accompanied by rising public concern about the erosion of traditional values.
In the 1950s young New Zealanders flocked to buy hits by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and others. They imitated new styles of dance, dress and haircuts. Motorcycles, gangs and violence were glamorised in films such as Marlon Brando’s 1954 The wild one (originally banned in New Zealand), James Dean’s Rebel without a cause (1955), Elvis Presley’s King Creole (1958), and hit songs like ‘Black denim trousers and motorcycle boots’ (Cheers, 1955), ‘Rebel rouser’ (Duane Eddy, 1958), ‘Rumble’ (Link Wray, 1958) and ‘Mac the knife’ (Bobby Darin, 1959).
From the mid-1950s teenage gangs such as Currie’s Cowboys and the Saints became common in Auckland and Wellington. The Coffin Cheaters were active in Dunedin. By 1959 there were about 51 different gangs in Auckland and another 17 in Wellington, many centred around motorcycle ownership.
In 1961 a chapter of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club in Auckland formally affiliated with its American counterpart and became the first chapter to be chartered outside of California. The Hell’s Angels’ formal structure of elected president, vice president and sergeant-at-arms, and membership denoted by a circular back patch with top and bottom bands (called rockers), became the template for most New Zealand gangs thereafter. Like overseas gangs, New Zealand motorcycle club members preferred American or British motorbikes, such as Harley Davidsons and Triumphs. Only men could be patched members of outlaw motorcycle gangs.
By the late 1960s some of New Zealand’s most notorious gangs had appeared. The Head Hunters were formed in 1967, followed by Highway 61 in 1968. Highway 61 was the largest motorcycle gang in New Zealand in 2010. In 1969 the Epitaph Riders – the first major South Island gang – appeared in Christchurch, followed by the Devil’s Henchmen in 1978. Another South Island gang, the Road Knights, formed in Tīmaru in 1979. In 2010 the Road Knights had chapters in Timaru, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. Following a reduction in numbers that saw some smaller clubs or chapters fold between 2000 and 2010, there was a marked expansion in certain other motorcycle gangs. Chapters of major urban and overseas clubs, including the Hells Angles, Head Hunters, Comancheros, Bandidos and Rebels, formed in regional centres such as Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.
There are many New Zealand outlaw motorcycle gangs (sometimes known as OMCGs). Some members are involved in the illegal manufacture and sale of drugs, and other forms of organised crime. However, although members may wear the 1% ‘outlaw’ badge, they argue that their primary reason for membership is a shared interest in motorcycles, and that any criminal activity has nothing to do with the club. Most members of motorcycle gangs are Pākehā, although in New Zealand they are seldom overtly racist and the ethnicity of a member is rarely an issue. But some OMCGs do have a high Māori membership, like the Tribesmen and Highway 61.
The book Staunch: inside New Zealand's gangs, written by Bill Payne with photographs by Peter Quinn, was published in 1991. By 2009 all of Wellington library’s lending copies were missing, and the only reference copy was held at the desk. Auckland Public Library also had many copies stolen.
In the late 1970s Pākehā street gangs with neo-fascist and white power tendencies were formed, particularly in Christchurch. Their emergence may have been influenced by an economic downturn and rising unemployment, as well as by overseas trends. White supremacists generally form disorganised groups that are tied in with other racist organisations through common beliefs. They are conspicuous by their dress – often shaving their heads and wearing combat fatigues emblazoned with Nazi-style regalia. Operating under such names as United Skinheads, White Power, Bandenkrieg (a now defunct group of neo-fascist teenagers who worked with the Road Knights motorcycle gang) and The Fourth Reich (a gang formed inside Christchurch Prison in 1992), racist groups have been involved in firebombings of marae and police stations, and random attacks (including murders) on ethnic minorities and gay men.
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.
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 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.
In 2018, 36% of all prisoners had gang connections and 70% of Māori prisoners had gang connections. The majority of gang members in prison were there for drugs, violence or sexual violation. Often the most publicly visible form of violence from gang members is gang clashes, which started to become common during the 1970s. In South Auckland, for example, the Storm Troopers fought frequent battles with other gangs and in June 1971 in central Auckland there was a huge brawl between the Hell’s Angels, Highway 61, the Polynesian Panthers and the Mongrel Mob. Ten years later Black Power and the Mongrel Mob brawled publicly at a family day in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, which was attended by 1,000 people.
In 1973 an escalating feud between the Epitaph Riders and the Devil’s Henchmen of Christchurch led to the fatal shooting of one Henchman. Two years later a member of Highway 61 was shot and killed in Auckland by the Hell’s Angels. In 1979 a major riot between the Storm Troopers and Black Power in the Northland town of Moerewa led to several policemen being seriously injured and a gang member being shot in the leg by police.
From the late 1980s onward, however, open inter-gang conflict receded as a result of police pressure, a maturing leadership, and a shift in gang focus towards money-making and organised drug trafficking.
In Mongrel Mob and Black Power initiation ceremonies ‘prospects’ must prove themselves in tests ranging from drinking urine from a gumboot, to committing a specific crime, being bashed by the gang, or serving jail time for a patched member’s crime. Cam Stokes, a former police officer, argues that prospects ‘must be prepared to engage in illegal activities to prove their loyalty to the gang and to eliminate the possibility that they are an undercover police officer.’1
In gang culture, women are usually seen as subordinate. Until the early 2000s, gang sex and gang rape of women (both referred to as ‘blocking’) was endemic to gang culture. One particularly infamous incident occurred in 1988 when a young woman was kidnapped and taken to a Mongrel Mob convention in Auckland, where she was raped by more than 15 men.
In recent years heavy prison sentences, drug dealing and rising awareness of women’s rights, have all contributed to a decline in the practice of gang rape nationwide. In many gangs, blocking has been banned altogether, although individual members are still imprisoned for rape from time to time.
Gang killings attract strong media attention. This is more pronounced when innocent victims, rather than other gang members or associates themselves, are killed. In 1987 teenager Colleen Burrows was murdered for refusing to have sex with Mongrel Mob members. In 1996 police witness Christopher Crean was murdered at home to prevent him from testifying against Black Power members over their part in a violent brawl. A founding member of the Fourth Reich was responsible for killing James John (Janis) Bamborough in 1999 for being homosexual, and Korean backpacker Jae Hyeon Kim in 2003 for being Asian. In 2007, in a Mongrel Mob drive-by shooting at a Black Power member’s house, two-year-old Jhia Te Tua was killed in Whanganui.
Born in a brothel
Raised in a jail
Proud to be a Mongrel
Sieg fucking Heil!
Until the early 1980s organised criminal activity within gangs was low, with the exception of odd outbreaks of turf and patch wars. However some gang members had commenced small-scale drug dealing, and within a decade had begun developing potentially lucrative international connections. Initially marijuana and some LSD were the primary drugs used and sold, but from the early 1980s a few motorcycle gangs were importing methamphetamine. At first the market was small but it grew exponentially during the 1990s.
In the early 2000s some gang members focused on quietly making money from drugs rather than expending energy in destructive and profile-raising patch wars. The sale of smokable methamphetamine (known as ‘P’ or ‘Pure’) has outstripped other activities as the primary illegal money-maker for criminal gangs. In 2008, 78% of identified clandestine laboratories manufacturing P were connected to organised criminal groups dominated by gang membership.
A number of gangs also run legitimate, tax-paying businesses such as nightclubs, massage parlours, fishing operations and retail outlets. Police believe that these are sometimes used to launder money made from illegal activities such as drug dealing.
Transnational gangs have a relatively small presence in New Zealand. By the late 1980s police had identified Asian triad-type gangs with involvement in drugs, prostitution, fraud, counterfeiting and extortion. The establishment of the 14K, Wo Group and Sun Yee On (from Hong Kong) and Ah Kong (from Malaysia) in New Zealand date from this period. A more recent arrival is the Big Circle Gang from China. Their members have been associated with intimidation, extortion, gambling, counterfeiting, kidnapping, pāua smuggling, drugs and violence. Today, however, most Asian crime in New Zealand involves small unaffiliated syndicates, who often have family connections. There is also evidence of syndicates from West Africa, Iran, Italy, Romania and Pakistan. Since the early 1990s there has been identified instances of organised transnational crime involvement with New Zealand gangs and local criminal figures.
There are three main strategies to deal with gangs: prevention, intervention and suppression. Prevention focuses on discouraging youths from joining gangs through effective parenting, early childhood education, school activity and after-school programmes. Intervention uses education, work opportunities, counselling and health services to move existing or fringe gang members away from crime. Suppression involves policing and legislation. Suppression has been the most common international approach used since the 1980s. Gang problems have increasingly become treated as law-enforcement problems rather than as issues for social agencies or communities.
Historically, New Zealand has tried all three strategies. In general, strategies have been reactive to immediate issues (like an incident of serious gang-related violence) rather than long-term responses addressing the causes of gang formation. The bulk of research suggests that an approach using multiple strategies simultaneously is the most effective.
In 1954 a Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents (the Mazengarb Committee) was set up by the government. When the committee reported in September of that year, a copy of the report was distributed free to every New Zealand household. The committee recommended such measures as greater censorship, and not letting youths have access to contraceptives, to try and stop what it saw as a decline in moral values. This report and others that followed in 1955, 1964 and 1981 had no observable impact on the youth delinquency problem, and gang involvement continued to increase.
In the 1970s government schemes tried to reduce youth gang recruitment by helping underachieving students make the move from school to employment, and by providing recreational and sporting activities outside of school. In the mid-1970s work cooperatives for adult gang members were set up. A 1981 report recommended subsidised work should be made available to gang members. The government acted on this, and throughout the mid-1980s millions of dollars were given out to various gang collectives for work-related activities. Although most funds went into genuine projects, in some cases government revenue was used to support extravagant clubhouse renovations and opulent lifestyles. This resulted in a cancellation of the schemes in 1987.
Robert Muldoon, prime minister from 1975 to 1984, had an unusual relationship with the gangs. He believed in engaging with gangs through government-subsidised work schemes to keep people from a life of crime. Whether the schemes effectively reduced gang offending and anti-social behaviour is unknown, but the profits gleaned from them certainly enriched and strengthened certain gangs, and made them more attractive to young prospects. Negative publicity resulted in a sudden decision to close the schemes to gangs in January 1987. At Muldoon’s funeral in 1992 a group of Black Power members performed a haka in his honour.
An intervention approach was used in South Auckland in 2006 to combat youth gangs. In Counties Manukau the government funded youth workers, services for high-risk young people and families, and parenting information and support programmes reconnecting youths with their culture. From 2008 this approach was used in other parts of New Zealand.
In the run-up to the 1972 election Labour leader Norman Kirk promised that if elected he would ‘take the bikes off the bikies’ (which proved legally impossible to implement). In 1973 legislation aimed at gangs was introduced prohibiting unlawful assembly. Further legislation in 1976 allowed for the confiscation of vehicles used in offences.
On New Year’s Eve 1973, in an attempt to crush the gang through intimidation, 25 carloads of police descended on a party being held by the Epitaph Riders in Christchurch, resulting in the arrests of 81 people. In 1974 a specialist police unit called the Task Force was established in Auckland to deal with public drunkenness and violence. Although not specifically an anti-gang measure, the Task Force was used to combat what was seen as a rising problem of hooliganism on Auckland’s streets.
In 1997 the Harassment and Criminal Associations Act was passed giving police greater powers. In the 1990s the Local Government Act was used to tear down gang fortifications. Other legislation such as the Proceeds of Crime Amendment Act 2002 and tax laws have been used to deprive criminals of illegally gained wealth. An amendment to the Evidence Act in 1997 empowered judges to allow witnesses to give evidence anonymously if they feared intimidation or attack. In 2008 the Organised and Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand – a special unit within the police – was set up to disrupt and dismantle organised crime. In 2009 passage of the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act gave police greater powers to seize the proceeds of crime and to use them to fund further policing efforts.
In 2009 Wanganui District Council passed a controversial bylaw banning gang patches in the city (subsequently overthrown), and several other cities considered following suit.
Dennehy, Glennis, and Greg Newbold. The girls in the gang. Auckland: Reed, 2001.
Desmond, Pip. Trust: a true story of women and gangs. Auckland: Random House, 2009.
Gilbert, Jarrod. Patched: the history of gangs in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013.
Gilbert, Jarrod. 'Gangs and the underworld'. In Criminal justice: a New Zealand introduction, edited by Jarrod Gilbert and Greg Newbold, 316–330. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017.
Isaac, Tuhoe, and Bradford Haami. True red. Pukekohe: True Red, 2007.
Kelsey, Jane, and Warren Young. The gangs: moral panic as social control. Wellington: Victoria University, 1982.
Newbold, Greg. Crime in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2000.
Newbold, Greg. Crime, law and justice in New Zealand. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Yska, Redmer. All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties. Auckland: Penguin, 1993.
A website set up by former police officer Cam Stokes with extensive information about New Zealand gangs.
A site with information about young people and gangs.
A Parliamentary Support research paper with information on gangs.
A 2014 publication with information on organised crime and the government's response.
A 2007 Time magazine article on New Zealand gangs.