After the needle entered his right arm, the man raised his left fist in a brief salute. Surgical mask covering parts of his facial tattoos, he nodded to the nurse. A long ponytail cut a line through the blue and white letters covering his back: a patch, signifying membership of one of New Zealand’s largest and most infamous street gangs. Mark Pitman, leader of Black Power New Zealand, was getting vaccinated on national television.
“I want to do it and I want the rest of our organisation around the country to know I’ve got it done,” Pitman told the camera. “I’m a leader. And I lead from example.”
Pitman is one of a small but growing cohort of New Zealand gang leaders who have found themselves in the spotlight of the country’s vaccination rollout, as it aims to get shots in the arms of the most vulnerable and hardest to reach. About 8,000 New Zealanders are members of street gangs, the best-known of which are the red-branded Mongrel Mob and blue Black Power, two usually competing factions with chapters across the country.
Some gang members are involved in criminal activity, while many others are no more criminal than the communities from which they come, says Dr Jarrod Gilbert, director of criminal justice at University of Canterbury, who researches and documents gangs. However, gangs have an intimidating reputation in New Zealand. Pitman was previously sentenced to three-and-half years in prison and had a gang pad seized under the proceeds of crime act for masterminding what prosecutors alleged was a million dollar-plus a year drug-selling operation.
Now, in its pursuit of some of the world’s highest vaccination rates, New Zealand’s government and health officials have found themselves working with unusual bedfellows. Cabinet ministers are meeting with gang leaders to hash out a strategy – and some have even been granted essential worker status in the Covid response. As some of New Zealand’s most alienated, marginalised and distrustful communities, the gangs provide a microcosm of the challenges facing New Zealand’s Covid response and vaccine rollout. But some experts and leaders say the Covid cooperation also presents an opportunity – to re-examine how the gangs and government relate, and to confront some of the social problems that feed their existence.
“I’ve been on the road since Friday last week,” says Harry Tam through a speaker phone intermittently cut out by GPS directions. The long-time affiliate of the Mongrel Mob, who has not been accused of involvement in organised crime, is behind the wheel again during this interview, reeling off destinations: “Went to Rotorua to talk to some of the mob leaders from the Bay of Plenty … Waihau Bay, to the East Cape chapter … Kawerau, working with the president of the Te Teko chapter of the Notorious Mongrel Mob to vaccinate his members and their families – we did 27 that day.”
Tam, who got involved with the Mongrel Mob when he was a teenager, has kept a foot in two worlds: as well as maintaining honorary Mob membership, he works in social service provision and spent years as a senior policy adviser. For the last two months, much of his time has been dedicated to sketching a line back and forth across New Zealand, town to town, gang pad to gang pad, patched member to member.
“We are trying to beat the casualties,” Tam says. But he says doing so involves trying to dismantle some of the distrust of government that has been bred over many years.
“And of course, our people have good reason to be suspicious of the government, because many of them come from a background where government hasn’t been good to them.”
Many of the country’s original gang members were raised in brutal circumstances as wards of the state. In the years since, families have often experienced multiple generations of abuse, family separation and poverty – interacting with the state primarily through the criminal justice system. Now, he says the government must learn from the Covid experience: neglecting communities like these can have repercussions through all of New Zealand.
“There’s one hell of a lesson here to be learned. It’s amazing, governments have neglected this community for decades, and conveniently forgotten about it and then all of a sudden, Covid comes out, all of a sudden, they’re all worried that if this community won’t get vaccinated, they may infect us,” he says.
“This community is kicked around like a political football at the whim of politicians, never paying any attention as to why these communities exist and why they behave in the way that they do. There’s no pro-social policies directed at them. The only policy is law enforcement, law enforcement and more law enforcement,” Tam says.
Government has acknowledged that “Gangs are in our community everywhere,” says Māori development minister Willie Jackson. “It was a no-brainer to actually support some of their ideas in terms of getting them vaccinated.”
It was Jackson who suggested to cabinet that he meet with the gang leaders – arguing that if they remained unvaccinated, the gangs and their networks around the country were not only at risk themselves, but putting others at risk too. The pathway forward, he said, had to be one of cooperation.
“How do you get to them? Well, you’ve got to get to them with their own.”
He says the strategy has worked. Last weekend, Jackson spent Saturday at his local marae (Māori meeting ground), vaccinating the local king cobra gang. “I’m not a huge great gang supporter or whatever. I’m a supporter of our community and other people.”
“The gangs are often a petri dish: you see reflected in there the acute examples of whatever is happening in society,” say Gilbert. “If you can understand the gangs, you understand poverty, you understand intergenerational violence,” he says. “It’s no different now with the Covid response.”
The latest examples of government dialogue with the gangs could inform other future programmes, he says. “The pragmatic moves here to address the Covid and vaccine issues within the gangs could just as easily be used to tackle the social problems that surround the gangs more generally.”
But working with the gangs has risks – especially for politicians, who are acutely aware of the potential for blowback and negative headlines.
Tam, as well as at least one Mongrel Mob president, was granted essential worker status by the government to do this work, a fact that immediately generated headlines and accusations. Former deputy prime minister Winston Peters accused him on national television of using the status to smuggle a Covid-positive woman out of lockdown – a false claim that Peters was forced to retract and apologise for.
Gilbert says how the response to Tam illustrates the wider political challenges to the government of working with gang communities.
“The government did take some highly pragmatic and – I would argue – very important moves to work with certain gang leaders to influence their communities. But of course it only took five minutes for that to be in the media before there were howls of protest,” he says. “This situation is of our own making, because for the longest time, we’ve talked about the gangs in wholly negative and quite sensationalist ways.”
As minister, Jackson says those howls have been mostly silenced in the face of Covid. Pragmatism has won out. “You can’t run your political strategy or your political party based on what’s the next poll gonna be. You’ve got to run it based on principle.”