Why Growing Up In a Gang Town Isn't Always What You Think
I almost never talk about being from Kawerau, New Zealand, not out of embarrassment, but because people make assumptions about your life.
This article was originally published in 2017.
I'm not sure when I found out my old man was in a gang. I wasn't the quickest kid, so I imagine it was around five or six, sometime after noticing the thick green ink on his forehead. Or maybe it was closer to seven or eight, after realizing some of the kids at school were too scared to tease me. Sometimes I wonder whether these are the ages when Māori kids discover they're brown, new migrants are told they talk funny, and girls find out they're female. In my mind this is around the time some kids learn the horrible truth—they're not "normal."
Or at least what polite society treats as normal: if you're white, good; if you're a bloke, even better; if you're middle class, welcome. But if you diverge from this ideal you often spend your time wondering what life might feel like as someone who isn't treated as an object other people should fear. In my selfish moments I wondered what it would feel like as a Pākehā, or at least a kid without the absurd stigma of a "gang father" and a "teenage mother." Maybe people wouldn't cross the street when they saw you coming.
The thing is kids know perfectly well the way adults size them up, so there was never any mystery about where things stood. To adults who didn't know you, you were a problem child, at least until proven otherwise. To kids meeting you for the first time, you were treated with caution, even if you were—like me—short, softly-spoken, and bookish. I suppose the arch in my nose didn't help, making it look horribly broken like a consolation prize from a vicious fight. Smarter kids than me probably would've invented some wild yarn, but I didn't have a clue.
"Sieg dog," other kids would mutter, bending their middle fingers and leaving their thumb and little finger upright. In Mob towns and suburbs this is the universal greeting. "A way of saying hi to the bros." For nearly everyone else it's a transgressive act. Too close to brutal history to ever say with irony or good intentions. But Kawerau, where I grew up, is an upside-down inside-out town where gang members run successful businesses—legal ones, by the way—and former gang members, one "Black" and one "Mobster", run one of the most successful social service programs in the country. The local mayor isn't a politician—he's the local butcher, a hard case.
Yet what the country knows of Kawerau, if anything at all, are terrifying suicide rates, single mothers, and frightening gun fights. At sports tournaments in Rotorua or Hamilton kids would ask, after learning where I lived, "do you know any gang members," Well, yeah, I'd say, which was of course the wrong answer. "Whoooooooooooooa". From here the next question goes something like this: "is it true you'll get stepped out if you wear blue in Kawerau?" There's a pause. "Eh?" Blue is the Black Power's color and red is the Mob's color, but when you see patches most days you tend to forget the small details like this.
This is a history I almost never share. Not out of embarrassment, I couldn't ask for better parents or a better town to grow up in, but because people take what they know and make assumptions about your life. One of my old roommates at boarding school loved asking "do you get on the piss all the time," apparently because this is what all "gang families" do. But the worst one is "if only they were all like you." If you become a middle class adult with a good degree and a respectable profession, you're a prop in another person's political play: "you're an example," a prominent politician told me, half-cut and half-forgetting his talking points, at a post-election party a few years ago, "for people who want to escape gang life."
"It really goes to show anyone can do it if they put their head down."
This is what people say to me now I'm an adult. The problem with this, other than its vicious wrongness—"gang life" isn't something to escape, it's something to transform for the better—is its fraudulence. In truth, the old man was out of the Mob in time for my birth. Mom wouldn't tolerate anything less. Dad's parents were well-off too. As a kid in the 60s and 70s he'd moan at his "posh" parents with their woollen carpets and varnished floors, standard comforts his mates never had. Mom's parents were bougie as well and my siblings and I enjoyed all the rituals of middle class life because of it: overseas holidays, beachside vacation homes and European cars. If Nan picked us up in her BMW, I'd leave school out of the side entrance, dodging people I knew in case they learned the terrible truth.
We were pretty comfortable.
This is why I'd make a really terrible Example or Spokesperson For The Oppressed. I'd be an imposter. I judge literary prizes, sit on academic boards and write think pieces. I'm not oppressed. I live in lily-white Thorndon, Wellington's historic upper-middle class suburb, and in a townhouse overlooking Parliament and the Beehive. This is so far removed from struggle that, even if I were vain enough to presume to speak on other people's behalf, whatever I said would be contrived. Yet rather than dealing with messy realities people—well, mostly politicians—prefer to understand success as more effort than circumstance. If one person with a gang father and teenage mother can joins the ranks of the lifeless middle class then everyone can, if only they try hard enough (maybe buy a self-help book).
But this is wishful thinking. The thing about gang towns like Kawerau is that they're both the safest place to be and the worst place to be. Safe in the sense people living gang lives aren't stigmatized in their own communities—though they might be stereotyped, but the worst place to be in the sense that that one fact confines you to never leaving. The rest of the country will make assumptions about who you are. At least home is a safe space, so to speak, especially if you're a child. If I were inviting Mob members to move in with me in Thorndon, the community would live in fear of them, even if they were like my old man who's out of the Mob, helping run social service programs and elected to the district council.
Sometimes I wonder what other councillors think when they shake his hand at local government conferences and the like: do they notice the tattoos running down his arm?
People who grow up in comfortable suburbs sometimes understand the world differently. In city suburbs you tend to mix with the same demographic: people who went to the same universities as you, people with similar incomes, people with similar tastes and sentiments. The world seems to revolve around your little place in it. In Thorndon I come across the same types: politicians, journalists, public servants and writers. But, conversely, small towns like Kawerau increase your contact with many different people: people with small world views and people with expansive world views; the very poor and the very rich; inventors who never made it past year 11; musicians and poets; even scientists, like my Mum.
Sometimes I reckon the problem isn't so-called "gang towns" like Kawerau, it's a country that often can't see past its own nose.
All images from the series The Remembrance Project by photographer Wendy Brandon, who also grew up in Kawerau. Wendy's work features in the Auckland Festival of Photography exhibition Sense of Self, at Studio 541, June 16-25. See more of Wendy's work here and on Instagram.
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