When Mongrel Mob members poured into Ōpōtiki for a tangi recently, we got plenty of fevered takes in the media, especially from politicians, which as usual drowned out the voices of those who actually knew what they were talking about. Here’s one of them, Warwick Godfery, a former Mongrel Mob member and now Kawerau district councillor, talking to Jack Tame on Q + A, in this lightly edited version of their kōrero.
Jack: I wonder if we can start by turning our attention to the events in Ōpōtiki this week — an hour up the road, pretty similar to Kawerau in a lot of respects. What did you make of the events there this week?
Warwick: Well, the first thing is, we need to acknowledge a life’s been lost, and there’s children without a father, and a mother without a son, and a father without a son. So it’s sad circumstances, and opportunity needs to be accorded for those families, and those connected to those families, to grieve and work through their emotions.
And I think community leaders and police and gang leaders have worked well together to coordinate that and continue to work well to go forward in a good way. Sadly, some media outlets or some people have taken an opportunity to politicise the issue. And to not be respectful in the languaging is very unhelpful in those situations.
Police were criticised in some circles for the way they handled that situation. Some people felt they shouldn’t have closed roads, that they should have been much more assertive. What did you make of the way police handled it?
I think the police’s first priority is safety, and, in their mind, they foresaw that things could be unsafe. And they worked their best to minimise any issues, so what they did wasn’t unusual.
We had a funeral here recently, in Kawerau, where a young man was unwell and took his own life, and he lived in a dead-end street. The street was almost shut down for three days. And the police presence was standoffish, but they got through that situation without any escalation.
Police appear to have been taking a similar approach [in Ōpōtiki] — working with gang members, working with community leaders, and thus far, there’s been no escalation. So these are good outcomes.
What would have happened if police had escalated things?
Oh, I don’t believe it would have been helpful at all.
I don’t know, but it wouldn’t have been helpful. As I say, people are grieving. Someone’s lost a father. Someone has lost a son. It’s an emotional time, and you’ve got to be respectful of people’s loss.
I mean, look at the scenes there. You had people hanging out of vehicles, patched gang members doing “Sieg Heil” signs, carrying swastika iconography, barking. Can you appreciate that, for many people, gang behaviour is, at the very least, deeply intimidating?
Yeah, well, that’s fair. But throwing petrol on the fire through your politicising approach, [with] “ban the gang” and “ban the patches”, and the languaging I’ve heard from the likes of Seymour and Luxon, it’s not helpful at all.
So, Warwick, for our viewers who perhaps aren’t familiar with you and your work — can you give us your story?
Yeah. Well, you could say my view on this kaupapa is informed by my experiences. I was a Mongrel Mob patched member for eight years back in the ‘80s, ‘90s.
And since that time, I’ve worked in the health, social and education sectors with a lot of the members and families. And I run the boxing club here, and a lot of my members of this club are, like, third-, fourth-generation. They’re mokopuna of a lot of the brothers that are still in there now.
Is it fair to say you are probably the only elected councillor in the country who was appointed to office when he still had the words “Mongrel Mob” tattooed on his forehead?
I’m not aware of any.
It occurs to me that different gangs in different parts of the country have quite different roles and operations, and we just use that one term to describe all of them. For example, the Comancheros and the Head Hunters and the King Cobras in Auckland are likely to be quite different to the Mongrel Mob and Black Power chapters in regional parts of Bay of Plenty. So I wonder, how do the Mob and Black Power fit within these kinds of communities?
Yeah, well, you only have to look at our data. We’re a community with some of the lowest household incomes in the country. Our meth readings are among the highest in the country. There’s three generations of gang membership in this town, and it’s become a normalised thing. Approaches like banning patches will be absolutely ineffective.
You know, when our children grow up with a grandfather and a father in the Mob, it becomes an intergenerational consequence, where, often, our young people’s visions for their future become sort of distorted. And that isn’t helpful for people that are looking to realise their potential. A lot of our young ones, their koros are Mobsters, their fathers are Mobsters. So them heading in that direction is intergenerational, possibly a different reason than the original membership.
A lot of people might watch this and accuse you of being an apologist for the gangs. To be clear, do gangs cause harm?
Oh, no one’s shying away and saying that that doesn’t happen, that it’s an aspect of the culture. If you look at the drug trade as an example, the gangs are at the bottom of that pyramid. The very bottom.
What do you mean by that?
Well, a lot of our members are living in cold, damp homes. They’re not living in mansions. They’re driving cars with no warrants. Everyone knows that the distribution pyramid of drugs — gangs are always at the bottom of that. The street gangs are at the bottom of that.
There’s been a shift in the gang movement as of late. It’s been led by those grandfathers and senior members of the gangs, moving towards something positive. You know, a drug-free, smoke-free, alcohol-free type approach.
You asked me about my own experiences. As a gang member, I was always alcohol-free, smoke-free and hard-drug-free. Towards the end of my time with the Mob, I was drug-free, alcohol-, smoke-free, didn’t even drink coffee or tea, and exercised every day. And there’s a movement along those lines, albeit a small portion.
You believe that? You believe that there are members of the Mongrel Mob and the Black Power in particular that want to move towards a drug-, alcohol-, violence-free life?
Well, we only have to look at the recent moves from some of the chapters around the country on both sides. There’s been real positive moves. And I know a lot of those senior members personally. We have history. So, absolutely there is a movement towards that. But bringing the young ones with you is always difficult.
Gangs are inextricably linked to drugs and violence. Gang members’ behaviour is so often overtly intimidatory. Why should society be expected to tolerate people who are so intensely antisocial?
When you look back at some of the intergenerational original trauma that created the gangs — that needs to be looked at. And the solutions are in addressing those traumas and not a reactive, dog-whistle approach.
Clearly, gang harm is a major concern going into the election. The National Party has a policy which would extend police search powers. They want to ban gang patches in public. What do you make of those ideas?
Yeah, it’s classic dog-whistle stuff that happens every three years. And police, as I understand, already have pretty good powers. Banning gang patches is pretty pointless when you’ve got it on your face. What’s that going to achieve?
The underlying problems of why gangs exist need to be addressed, and things like — as I understand, we’re the second highest prison population in the world, proportionally, second only to America, where you get sentenced for 100 years.
Now, that’s nothing to boast about. And it’s been the same for over 30 years. Over half the prison population belong to a gang. Nine out of ten, when they walk out, will be back inside — the revolving door. And so we know that doesn’t work, and the calls to, “Let’s have an even stronger approach,” well, that’s unhelpful.
What would be effective?
Things like work schemes, gang-to-work schemes — they worked well.
Closing down the prisons when you’ve got a nine out of 10 failure rate. Why wouldn’t you close them down and turn them into drug and alcohol rehabs, when the justice department’s own data tells us 65 percent of the prison population have a diagnosable mental health condition?
But that’s what we do with our mentally unwell. We lock them up. Well, little wonder that it’s a revolving door. So, turning our prisons into drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres.
I know education is a ladder. There’s a lot of good work being done with some of our wānanga around the country, in making that ladder more accessible to our marginalised communities. Those are some of the ways. But you won’t do it in five minutes.
Yeah, what do you make of the political debate?
Pretty disgusting, I think, some of the languaging. It’s very unhelpful, and it’s pretty abusive. No, it’s not an issue to politicise. Leave it to the police and community leaders, gang leaders. And the support is there if needed.
How would your life have been different if you hadn’t got out of the Mob?
What do you think?
I don’t think it would have been a hell of a lot different. You know, they’re still my bros, but most of them have passed away now. I still work with the families, work with the grandchildren in the club here, and I’ve got the mokopuna of the members that I used to be with. And that’s a privilege.
You’ve seen all sides of this. You’ve been on the gang side of things. You’re now a local councillor. What do you say, if you’re in here in the gym and a young person comes in and they’re considering joining a gang?
I don’t say anything. There’s three ways to lead. By example, by example, by example. So you can follow mine or follow someone else’s. Your choice.
This interview screened last Sunday on TVNZ’s Q + A programme.
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