This evening, the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill passed its third reading, by a narrow margin of three votes – three votes cast by the three members of the ACT caucus who represent the authoritarian faction which has edged in on the libertarian faction and now looks likely to consume it. Two of the votes will come as no surprise – the reactionary populist John Boscawen; and card-carrying hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigadoon David Garrett. Most surprisingly Rodney Hide – perhaps in a bizarre sort of solidarity with his two newest MPs, because I thought him better than this – also voted for the bill. The other two members – Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy – remained true to their liberal principles and voted against.
Let it be understood right away that I agree with the bill’s purpose in principle: to keep the residents of Wanganui free from intimidation by gangs. People have a right not to be intimidated, and that right must be secured by the government. But in this case, the cure is worse than the disease because it does nothing to actually treat the disease, only its smallest symptom; and because it fights arbitrary coercion with more arbitrary coercion.
The bill prohibits persons wearing certain things – `gang insignia’ where `gang’ is essentially at the Wanganui District Council’s discretion, and `insignia’ is determined as an issue of fact by a judge in a given case by recourse to the Evidence Act – from being in certain `specified places’ of the Wanganui district.
This is a weapon long-sought by the authoritarian populists who control Wanganui’s local politics – it enables them to outlaw groups who oppose them, or whom they would otherwise have to deal on more even terms. Practically any group could potentially be declared a gang under the right circumstances – the criteria are that the group, or some of its members be engaged in “a pattern of criminal activity”; that they be commonly identifiable by some sort of symbol which can be recognised well enough to ban; and that the ban be deemed necessary to prevent intimidation. Historically this could have applied to HART protesters, striking longshoremen, tangata whenua occupying land in protest at unjust systems of redress and uncooperative local government bodies. Today it could apply to those campaigning for the h to be put into Wanganui, if the protests become heated enough, which they could well do if Michael Laws carries on the way he has been. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.
But for all that, it won’t matter a damn to the gangs themselves. When you try to constrain identity by legislating against its expressions, you engage in a running battle which cannot be won without continual escalation to more and more illiberal measures. Subcultural systems which are forced to adapt to the norms of a majority culture will always find loopholes – the more constraint imposed, the smarter the subculture gets. The Chinese are finding this out from the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse (video with full-colour English translation here), and the parents of tweens are finding it out from Britney Spears, and media content owners are finding it out from filesharers. If a broad ban on patches is enforced then the definition of what constitutes a gang symbol will change. Bandanas, coloured clothing, and so on will be worn instead of patches, but will convey the same intimidatory meaning. What then? Either the law is an ass, having failed to prevent what it seeks to prevent, or the definition of what constitutes insignia in law must change to match the definition in usage. I own the typical blue-and-black checked swanndri – should I be barred from wearing it in public in Wanganui, lest someone feel intimidated? Should my sister, who owns a red one? Talk of banning all blue and all red will be decried as reductio ad absurdum, but ultimately that’s the only way the policy will work, for the two main gangs which operate in Wanganui anyhow.
Or perhaps they’ll just ban those colours when they’re worn by MÄori men of a certain build, and there’s the rub. Fundamentally, culture and class and inequality are the issues over which gang insignia are mere wallpaper, and banning it no more addresses the problem than changing the wallpaper stops the walls of a leaky building from leaking. Fix the alienation problem and you fix gangs – something that driving those at the margins of civil society further out into the cold will never achieve.
Update: Former Detective Sergeant in charge of the Auckland gang unit Cam Stokes made the same argument on Nine to Noon this morning. He goes further, arguing that the ban could make the work of Wanganui police more difficult by robbing the police of some intelligence-gathering capability, and could make convictions for some offences difficult to secure.
Another update: At The Standard Eddie reveals that Hide’s support for the bill – despite categorically stating ACT would never support it – was a trade-off for National supporting the 3 strikes bill. Filthy political lucre!
Ok, now we need to establish that the NZ Police crest is a gang insignia…
if a Christian church was selling P to teenagers would you put that down to “alienation”? How abour bombing abortion clinics – is that about “alienation”?
People have a choice – even when you’re disadvantaged. You can sell P to teenagers or not. You can do drive by shootings into houses or not. You can intimidate other people or not. In fact most people who are disadvantaged choose to act like human beings. Those that don’t have chosen otherwise.
I don’t agree with Laws but nothng I read from the Left would convince me he’s wrong.
I agree with your post Lew, you have hit all of the ‘moles’ on the head for me. Banning just pushes activity underground, where it still continues, just less visibly. And it’s not dealing with the cause of the problem. I cannot see the cause ever being really addressed because it is too hard. Much easier to be able to say (perhaps in the next election year)that, “we are tough on gangs”, “look at what we did…” And although we all want people to be safe and not intimidated – this act will, in the end, contribute more to the problem, than the solution.
This whole idea that gang members are not human smacks of the usual dehumanisation required before you deal to people you don’t like. And we know that people don’t like the brown gangs – that’s for sure.
You seem to mistake me for a gang apologist. I’m not arguing that certain actions are always and necessarily the result of alienation; I’m arguing that they are in the case of gangs. It’s the people, not the actions, that are relevant here, and much as I find organised religion distasteful, it’s absurd to equate a church with a gang (except in a few isolated cases) as you have here.
The purpose is not to make excuses for them; it’s just the observation that there’s a huge amount of research and anecdotal evidence which points to that being a major cause. If you want to fix the problem, fix the cause. If you disagree with the diagnosis as to the cause, propose another – but be aware that you’re up against a great deal of expert opinion on this one.
Atomising peoples’ actions down to individual choice ignores the reasons people make those choices – it’s pointless except in service of a punitive agenda.
I guess work at the national level to criminalise gangs associated with crime (P supply, armed robbery, extortion, etc) was too hard.
people in the same circumstances make the choice to act like human beings. in fact most people do. a smaller number choose to sell P to their kids and institutionalise violence towards women.
that’s a choice people make. most people who are “alienated”, whatever that means, don’t join gangs. And most of the negative effects of gangs are felt within disadvantaged communities ie by people who have chosen not to join gangs and who rely on the State to protect them.
if all the Left can do is resort to hysteria about how the Police will now be rounding up left-wing activists then i can see how Laws gets support.
Good writing. That about sums it up perfectly, Lew.
You’ve answered my objection to the principle of atomised causeless choice with a restatement of the example which prompted the objection. Clearly you have nothing further to add.
Ok, so what makes some of those people join gangs, at much higher frequency than other people? (who we might term `non-alienated’, and you’re right – it is a complicated matter to define).
Come off it. It’s not that the `Left’, whoever they are, can’t come up with useful solutions – it’s a matter of fact that nobody is coming up with useful solutions. Schemes such as this one, which won’t work and will have negative collateral effects are a dime a dozen – any idiot can think them up, but that doesn’t make them any use. Regulations like this have been implemented in the USA, and resulted in Deadheads ending up in the clink because ignorant small-town policemen figured they were gangsters.
Dealing with criminal gangs is among the most complicated and fraught policing and policy tasks, the subject of thousands of hours’ worth of work every day, all around the world. If you think that a small-town ex-cop and a populist hack can revolutionise a century’s worth of modern organised crime policing, you’re more delusional than the average authoritarian.*
* Borrows, to his credit, is under no such delusions.