Jarrod Gilbert: Is gang violence in NZ the worst it’s ever been?

Opinion:

There have been some high profile violent gang events that have attracted great attention recently. Opposition MPs have said things are out of control, despite the fact that police data shows that the number of firearm incidents has not been exceptional this year.

The gangs make terrific headlines and even better political fodder. And while there certainly are concerns that need to be addressed, suggestions that current gang violence is worse than it has been in the past doesn’t bear great scrutiny.

Exactly 30 years ago, in December 1991, a public meeting at the community hall at Caroline Bay in Timaru discussed gang events in that town. And boy-oh-boy there were certainly some events.

At either end of Timaru there were two clubhouses, one belonging to the Devils Henchmen and the other to the Road Knights; outlaw motorcycle clubs that were both formed in the late 1970s. Conflicts between the groups were not uncommon, but they flared in November 1990 when a Henchmen prospect stabbed to death a white power gang leader associated with the Road Knights. This led to ongoing battles and skirmishes.

In August 1991, things began to escalate. The Road Knights planted a massive bomb under a car belonging to a member of the Henchmen. Luckily it didn’t detonate. Police estimated the blast would have caused damage in a 50-metre radius.

Following that, the Road Knights planned and executed an audacious and violent attack. On the morning of November 5 at 5am, the time of a shift change for police, the Road Knights attacked a number of the Henchmen’s homes. One of the Henchmen awoke to the sound of an explosion as his car had been firebombed. Rushing outside to douse the flames he went headlong into an ambush. He was shot twice.

As he staggered back inside, he went to the kitchen. He would later tell me that he didn’t want to get blood on his new carpet.

During times of conflict, gangs will often communicate with each other
and attempt to find peace. But the stakes were now too high. The Henchmen therefore communicated to their rival through the media.

“They can’t sit back and relax now,” a Henchmen said, “some close friends of Peter [the man who was shot] are very angry.”

The rules of gang war had been breached. Hitting members’ homes – where there are wives and children – was strictly off limits. Another rule of gang warfare is that people’s places of work are also out of bounds. But now that a line had been crossed, the rules were off the table.

Less than 24 hours after the attacks on the homes, Hilton Haulage, a business in which the Road Knights’ president worked, was set ablaze and six trucks were burned and destroyed.
Following that, a bomb containing half a kilo of explosives surrounded by 18 kilos of nuts and bolts was found at a Road Knight motorcycle show.

The bomb’s centimetre-per-second fuse had burnt itself out within a metre of the bomb’s core.

Not long afterwards a stolen red Holden cruised down Timaru’s main street, slowing as it went past the Excelsior Hotel, a pub favoured by the Road Knights. Shotgun blasts rang out from the car hitting three gang members.

The violence was eventually quelled by suffocating police pressure.

Indeed, it was the principles that were applied in Timaru that became, in my opinion, the template for how best to police gangs when their activities exceed what the public is prepared to tolerate. [I have written
about those before.]

Those tactics are being employed right now, and suggestions that the police aren’t doing enough are off the mark. They are doing what they can do within the legal frameworks provided to them. In fact, I would argue that the current police approach to crime generally is the best it has ever been.

One other interesting thing emerged from the war in Timaru of the early 1990s. That was an observation by one of the police officers involved. He told me – as strange as it sounds – that the gangs were actually pleased to have the police cracking down on them.

The tit-for-tat violence had escalated to such a degree that it was impossible to escape from. The members were constantly on edge and fearful for their safety, but pride and machismo meant they couldn’t find a way to back down. The police pressure afforded them a way out, and quickly things regained a sense of normality.

This idea has never been so poignantly captured than it was in a rare 1986 TV interview by the president of the Damned, an Invercargill outlaw club, who was talking about the war his group was engaged in. He said, “I wouldn’t mind getting on my bike and riding around like it used to be, [but you can’t now because] you’re thinking about it [the war and being attacked] all the time, you know – who knows where it will lead?”

For him, the war ended abruptly when he was killed by a single stab wound to the chest.

Despite perceptions driven by focused media attention, gangs are actually seldom at war, but when they do flare up they are understandably troubling to the communities in which they happen.

They are no picnic for those involved either.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University ofCanterbury and the author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand

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