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Story: Gangs

Black Power, the Mongrel Mob, Highway 61 – gangs with their noisy motorbikes and brazen patches are a controversial element of New Zealand society. Are gang members products of poor and trouble backgrounds looking for friendship and fun, or are they criminal organisations associated with drug running, violence and rape? The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Story by Greg Newbold and Rāwiri Taonui
Main image: Thea Muldoon with Black Power members

Story Summary

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Bike gangs

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.

White supremacists

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 2010 it had over 1,000 members. Gang members wear patches on their jackets, and often have tattooed faces.

Young Pacific Islanders formed the King Cobras in 1960. In the early 2000s some Pacific Island gangs mimicked gangs in Los Angeles, adopting their gang colours and behaviour.

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. Gang rape has been banned in many gangs, although individual rape has continued.

In the 1980s police discovered New Zealand links to Chinese crime networks called triads based in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. There are also triad-like gangs throughout Southeast Asia. Triad-like gangs have been associated with crimes 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 studied youth crime, but with little effect on young people’s behaviour.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon set up schemes in the 1980s where gangs were paid to 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.

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.

In 2009 gang members were banned from wearing their patches in Whanganui. Members who disagreed with this wore gang colours instead.

How to cite this page:

Greg Newbold and Rāwiri Taonui, 'Gangs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/gangs (accessed 25 May 2017)

Story by Greg Newbold and Rāwiri Taonui, published 5 May 2011