• Gangs are ok, but outlaw paramilitaries?

last modified June 23, 2013 by strypey

Danyl Strype comments on the demonization of gangs, and the purpose this serves in white-washing the suppression of working class self-organisation.

Growing up in the suburbs of Otautahi (ChCh), I developed what I've always thought was a healthy fear of gangs and their members. Later, living in the Inner City East, I lived next door to gang-related 'tinny houses', run by perfectly lovely people who were trouble-free neighbours, On one occasion my partner and I were subject to a dawn raid by drug squad goons who had the right street number, but the wrong flat number. By the time they figured out their mistake, old 'Colin'* downstairs was long gone and good luck to him - those cops caused us more inconvenience in one morning than Colin did in months of living beneath us.

I've even done some reading about gangs over the years which challenges the common perception of them as blood-lusting, pack-raping psychopaths. Examples include Hunter Thompsons's book on the Hell's Angels, and The Electric Cool-Aid Acid test which explores the other side of the relationship between the hippy counterculture and the Angels. I've learned from the experiences of friends that police officers are just as likely to be the source of violence or pack-rape as gang members (perhaps A Clockwork Orange gives us some idea why...). Still, I never shook the Once Were Warriors images of violence, mutual disrespect, and negative masculinity that dominated my perception of gangs,

More recently though, I was touched and inspired by Black Power elder Dennis O'Reilly speaking at Parihaka about the gang's efforts to reduce P use within their own ranks. His talk reminded me that for disaffected working class people - especially youth - alienated from broken families, and increasingly privatized neighbourhoods, gangs provide a sense of "neo-tribal indentity" (his words) - and a community of interest to  stand with, and to belong to. It reminded me that the horror of gangs is also a ruling-class horror about the implications of working class self-organisation, and especially in this country, of tangata whenua  self-organisation. It reminded me that the 'core business' of the gangs in Aotearoa is to ride motocycles, or drink beer and take other drugs, or maybe even scrap amongst themselves, but not to intimidate or harm the general public.  It reminded me that the cardboard cut-out caricature of the sawn-off-shotgun-weilding, tatooed, brown thug is no more a fair image of a gang member than the dribbling, forgetful, dread-locked, couch-potato stoner is a fair image of a cannabis user.

The other day as I was writing a letter to the editor of the daily paper in Marlborough, one of the whitest, most redneck parts of the country, it suddenly dawned on my that the growing police state in this country is being built on the fear and loathing whose flames are fanned by constant media hyping of this caricature of gangs. That by buying into this caricature, we are not only doing an injustice to the gangs and their members, but shooting ourselves in the foot, because as long as that caricature continues to represent gangs in the public mind, there will always be fear that authoritarian and prohibitionist interests can use to push their barrow.

Keeping this in mind, I intend to reappraise the way I put the arguments for regulated commercial supply of drugs. I intend to point out that the gangs are only militarized by the outlaw status created by prohibition. In a post-prohibition world there would undoubtedly still be gangs, because they serve a range of social functions mainstream society currently does not. However, they would no longer have one less reason to behave like an outlaw paramilitaries, as their members could seek a license to grow or supply cannabis (for example) in a responsible manner. If known gang members were discriminated against by the licensing bodies - at least at first - people who are attracted to the drug business would have no reason join a gang in the first place. Similarly, those who joined a gang for other reasons would not automatically be entering the drug business.

There are plenty of militarized groups in black market around the world that do not fit the common definition of a 'gang' - FARC in Colombia for example. Revolutionary armies around the world are often involved in drug dealing for the same reason they were involved in bank robberies in the 19th century, they don't respect the dominant system or its laws, and it's a source of funds for the cause. Some of the paramilitaries are gangs, and some aren't. Some gangs are outlaw paramilitaries and some aren't - there are plenty of peaceful, friendly motorcycle clubs around that people would see on their group rides and presume they are a lawless, violent gang. Thus it is outlaw paramilitaries, motivated and funded by the effects of prohibition, that cause the problems of violence etc that people are righfully frightened by, not 'gangs' as such.

The obvious argument against this change of terms is that it seems easy to hook into people's fear and loathing of gangs to support arguments for positive change. On the other hand, separating the issues of gangs from the issues of paramilitary behaviour could create an opportunity to work constructively with people like O'Reilly who are inside the gang world. I'd like to see gang members on television saying things like:
"I don't want to hurt anyone, I just want to smoke some weed, and grow some for me and my mates. If the government legalized cannabis, I'd only ever have to use my shotgun to go hunting. That'd be choice!"
or "In Te Tai Tokerau [or any other rural area] there's not much work, eh. If me and my mates could grow cannabis legally to make a living, there'd be no reason for us to steal, and we wouldn't have to mess people up to prove we can defend our crops."

This way we could work with people's quite reasonable fear of prohibition-related violence, without having to contribute to the demonization of gang members in a way that ultimately comes back to bite us in the ass.

* not his real name - obviously


riginally published on Aotearoa.Indymedia.org (June, 2010)


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