Story: Gangs

Page 1. Why gangs?

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History of gangs

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.

Juvenile delinquents of the 1840s

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.

Birth of the modern gang

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.

Gang slang

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.

Why do gangs form?

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 lack structured adult involvement. 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.

Gangs and criminality

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.

How to cite this page:

Greg Newbold and Rāwiri Taonui, 'Gangs - Why gangs?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/gangs/page-1 (accessed 25 February 2017)

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