Written by Anasha Epenesa.
Edited by Dr J. Tupou-Havea and A. Young.
If you were to walk into a building surrounded by prominent New Zealand gangs such as the Mongrel Mob, Black Power, Filthy Few, Kuki Squad, Tribal Huks, Tribesmen, Stormtroopers, King Cobras and 501s, you would probably surmise that something big is about to go down…
And you would be right – for all the wrong reasons.
On the morning of Monday, 20th February 2023, a powhiri welcomed everyone to the first-ever Hikoi Nation Gang Hui. You might be wondering who or what is the Hikoi Nation. Is it a marathon? Is it a current affair show? You would be pleasantly surprised to discover that Hikoi Nation represents a team of five men and women. But don’t let that number stunt their ability. These men and women have cultivated relationships and connections with respected gang leaders over several years. Ultimately, Hikoi Nation aims to be a neutral network that allows the gangs of Aotearoa to have their stories of trauma and abuse, suffered at the hands of state and faith care seen and heard by various government bodies.
So, what was so significant about Monday? The Hikoi Nation Gang Hui was an intentional response to the Royal Commission of Inquiry investigating victims of “Abuse in Care”. For context, over 100,000 young Maori and Polynesian boys were ripped away from their families and became children of state care between the 1960s and 1970s. These young people were abused, beaten, molested, raped, and tortured while placed in state care. These horrific events have left a damning effect on their lives and their whanau. Reconnecting hundreds of patched gang members into one space at the same time - something truly unprecedented - was finally achieved because Hikoi Nation was able to mediate and bridge the gap that allowed these two worlds to come together—a absolute game-changer.
The Manukau Event centre is a familiar venue for me. Attending many weddings and birthdays in this space was a happy place. The walk into the Manukau Event centre for Hana and I was slightly ominous, a ‘happy’ that wasn’t familiar to us. Who did we think we were? We were two young Samoan women from the Bluwave TV team, surrounded by so many people from different walks of life and lived realities from our own. As we sat down at our table with patched members of the Mongrel Mob sitting to our right and the Kuki Squad to our left, my anxiety transformed into a strange state of anticipation. I was exchanging time and space with beautiful strangers, gleaning insights into a world that I had absolutely no experience with. I truly felt honoured to have been invited by Ronald Andreassend and the Hikoi Nation team to attend such a significant yet historical moment for the gangs within Aotearoa.
As these gang leaders and members occupied the mic stand, we heard first-hand experiences of what generational and family trauma felt like, robbing their families of their innocence at such a young age. Victims were 10 -14 years of age when they were dispatched from their state homes. The trauma left these vulnerable children with no sense of hope or justice. The seething rage, hormones and uncontrollable emotions led most of these young people to seek an environment of kindred spirits. For those in gang life, being with your gang whanau and hearing their siren song made you feel validated and connected. Joining a gang at least made sense because life was already not an easy journey and had been about survival thus far – but now you found belonging and had people who would ride with you and die with you for life.
Listening to these stories was humbling, sobering and very enlightening. You don’t often hear Pasifika people speak on their unearned privileges, but my cup of gratitude was overflowing. The experience made me aware that even as a brown Polynesian female who has faced my own share of obstacles, I still had certain advantages that many of the people in this building sitting around me were not afforded. My upbringing in a safe space that I often took for granted allowed me to become the woman I am now. It also broke my heart to hear what some of these people had to go through as children and young teenagers.
Please note when I say I AM NOT condoning or diluting the immoral and illegal actions and behaviours that many people in this room have or had done. I am seeing this all through a different light: I now have more awareness, education, and insight from being present at this gang hui, seeing life through their perspectives as they were forced to make choices when they didn’t have other options. Seeing 250-300 people in that room alone made me realise that this is only a percentage of those deeply traumatised from their abuse in care. Even though abuse and trauma is an intangible entity that leaves their invisible marks on your soul, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife, as if you could feel it touching your soul too. The synergy in the room was soul-shattering yet mana enhancing as there was this extension of empathy for your fellow human being and being able to see them as a person, not just a statistic or a tattooed face wearing a leather jacket and patch. This space gave an anonymous person/group a voice, a name, and the space they always deserved.
I’m a woman of faith, so I realise that my own experiences also shape my perspective, but being present at this Hui left me with three particular impressions:
Aotearoa’s Gang culture and gang members are often seen as the boogie man - a title justly earned. However, they are also PEOPLE with their own histories and backgrounds that give them an identity. They should not be scapegoats for politicians and fillers that absorb crime statistics or seat warmers in our prisons… as people get wounded by words and bleed red just like you and I, and have also been shaped by their society and surroundings.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry should take a lot of this stuff on board - and ACTUALLY, DO SOMETHING with it. There’s no point in writing a report and letting different government bodies read it if it is just going to sit on the shelf as a box ticked. These testimonies are part of a living document. These victims deserve compensation for having their stolen childhoods, which contributed to much of the anti-social behaviours they exhibited. To bring this point closer to home, imagine if you’d been tortured and raped, ripped away from your whanau and loved ones, and continually called every derogatory name under the sun; how would you survive? Would you still be alive to tell the tale? From what I witnessed, the pain they had been through broke these different men and women at their core, and the will to survive was the only facet of life they held on to. Talking about morals, principles, and values come from a place in society where those who can speak to these things can critique from a level of comfort. I know what it feels like to survive daily without dying, so I get it. I’m not here to compare my trauma, but I get it. We need to see the imbalance in our societal climate if a person’s beginnings and early surroundings bared evidence of constantly being shamed, living in despair and worthlessness. If you can’t speak to those spaces from a ground zero level, maybe you should find out their stories before criticising them. When that first step is achieved, there is the obligation to follow through and make changes so it doesn’t continue to be passed on to future generations.
Honour – many Maori and Polynesian cultures are honorific, and with many gangs comprising these collectives, it would make sense that honour is embedded in the identity of these groups. Honour is part of one’s DNA in this space: honouring family, honouring your word, honouring those that came before, honour building up something worthy of legacy for those who come after you. If you don’t have honour, what you say and do will land on deaf ears. The men and women of the Hikoi Nation deserve recognition and honour for what they managed to do with this event. It was a game-changer. They connected the world of government and gangs together peacefully so these gang members could have their stories told in a safe space where their trauma was finally heard.
As the Maori Proverb says: He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata… It’s the People… It’s the People… It’s the People…
Our People of Aotearoa, from ALL walks of life, are always the most important.
As a brown Samoan woman, to have witnessed what took place and feel the profound impact of this type of hui, I look forward to seeing real change. Small steps in the right direction… painful, excruciating, longsuffering… but those steps are finally being walked out. Let’s hope that we see good things continue as both sides carry this dialogue in the future. Only time will tell if what happened on Monday will bring the recognition and validation needed to help the much-needed healing journey.