Think before you “heart” it: NZ street gangs guarding mosques in the aftermath of terror a PR stunt

Over the past two days, my Facebook feed has been flooded with shares of articles featuring New Zealand patched street gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs- Mongrel Mob, Black Power, King Cobras-acting in solidarity with the Muslim community and the 50 victims of the recent terrorist attack, be it by performing the traditional haka or promising to “guard” local mosques during Friday’s Jumu'ah. Media love the spectacular images of gang members and outlaw bikers, and the news caught like fire across the globe. Many, including some of my leftist comrades, embraced the gangs’ actions with uncritical support — “hearted,” liked, and shared it.

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The screenshot is taken from Asrul Muzaffar (@asrulmm) on Twitter.

After all, what could be wrong with a bunch of guys involved in the drug business, violence, murder, extortion, or illegal weapon trade expressing their solidarity with the victims and staging themselves as vigilante security while playing their own victim card?

Online, comments like the following proliferate: “a big salute to the gang,” or “ this stuff makes me cry with joy.” A colleague of mine even commented, “Bikers at the Cool Side of things. Will we see this in Norway, too?” My answer: hopefully, never. Let me explain why I refuse to join this celebratory party. We are not talking ordinary bikers but rather guys with a solid criminal track record. There is nothing about their acts up to date or about this action to “heart.” While anyone is indeed welcome to express their solidarity with the victims of the New Zealand white supremacist terror attacks, the biker gangs’ actions are far from an innocent expression of support.

This “charitable” act on behalf of a community of those considered marginalized is not unique. Outlaw motorcycle clubs and patched street gangs that style themselves in their image have been engaged in such actions for decades now. Hells Angels MC have been the trendsetters in this respect since the 1970s, other clubs imitating both their organizational structures and their branding strategy-they are notorious for their toy runs and fund-raisers for good causes (Kuldova 2018).

The NZ street gangs are engaging here in just another PR stunt that fits this general strategy of impression management. Only this time, it crosses a line. When posing as vigilante security providers, the gangs directly challenge the state (and its monopoly on violence), exploit this tragic event to generate legitimacy for their informal power, and use it to gain popular support and recruit new supporters and members. This is a familiar strategy used by these and similar groups across the globe, and one I have written about in depth, as have my colleagues (Koetsenruijter and Burger 2018; Kuldova 2019a; Kuldova and Quinn 2018). But let us first briefly look at the actors who are being celebrated here as the very “hope for humanity.”

The Mongrel Mob has for the past 50 years used Nazi insignia and “Sieg Heil” as its rallying cry and a greeting. First, following the shooting, one of the local chapter presidents announced the plan to abandon it in a tear-jerking display of introspection and change of heart. The Mongrel Mob is well known for its engagement in organized crime, in particular production and distribution of methamphetamine. To name just one victim in Christchurch itself, a prospect of the Mongrel Mob has been responsible for the murder of Mallory Manning, killing her on behalf of the club and as a ticket to get inside the club for not paying the mob’s tax on sex workers on a street the gang claimed their territory, and for her drug debt. In Queensland, Australia, the street gang is banned by the state due to its involvement in murder, armed robberies, extortion, home invasion, firearms, and drug offenses. Jarrod Gilbert (2013) offers a solid and balanced introduction into the world of New Zealand street gangs in his book Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand.

The King Cobras have been similarly involved in dealing methamphetamine and other drugs, and running drug rings from prisons. Among other murder cases they have been involved in, in 2003, three King Cobra members received life sentences for stabbing to death, 37 times, the 15-year-old gang mate Michael Heremaia. Black Power has been similarly involved in drugs and violence, including a child abuse case; 697 of its members were reported in prison in 2013.

Street gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs have over the past decades been heavily involved in building their image and a semblance of legitimacy vis-à-vis the public (Kuldova 2019b). This impression management package typically incorporates philanthropic and charitable acts, community service, and vigilante actions aimed at neighborhood “security,” all widely shared on social media and often capturing the attention of more clickbait news outlets. There is no doubt that some members do indeed “mean it.” This, however, does not mean these are not primarily opportunistic public relation stunts that serve, simultaneously, several goals of these organizations.

First, the most obvious: improving the image of the organization in the eyes of the public and gaining legitimacy for their informal power (as in this case, following the logic that “if they can stand next to the police and protect mosques, they cannot be all that bad”). Second, the delegitimization of the state; the state is not only the enemy but also competition for these organizations. They are, after all, in the same business-namely, protection. Anything that potentially reveals the failure of the state, its weakness, is skillfully used to fuel the anti-state resentment of both the members and supporters, potentially also attracting new sympathizers. Anytime the state fails to protect people, these groups are quick to step in, displaying their intimidation power. Third, it serves the further normalization of vigilantism, street justice, and private community policing-all of which are problematic at many levels; it is precisely the logic of “we own the street” that lurks behind such actions. Fourth, it serves the recruitment of new members and supporters from the ranks of those disillusioned and marginalized (we could even say it may be no coincidence the gangs are interested in nurturing contacts precisely with the Muslim community, and precisely in such a moment).

Irrespective of a geographical area, whenever street gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs stage such public stunts, they serve the same goals and share the same structure. Let me remind you of another heavily broadcast case. Following the sexual harassment instances in Cologne and other cities on New Year’s Eve 2015, several German outlaw motorcycle clubs and vigilante groups promised to stand at local train stations-not acting, just using their intimidating looks-to protect women from harassment. Of course, there was a massive backlash to this particular display of solidarity and vigilante effort: they were branded as right-wing extremists, and as Nazis. The fact that they tried to take security into their own hands was considered particularly threatening. But let us be clear here. This German case and the current New Zealand case are structurally identical. The goals of the organizations are the same. The only thing that has changed, are the victims and perpetrators. We should recognize that both cases are equally troubling.

Anyone has the right and is welcome to display their solidarity with victims of terrorism, irrespective of which side it comes from; outlaw motorcycle clubs and street gangs can show solidarity, too. But let’s not be naive: turning themselves into alternative neighborhood “security actors” is a far cry from an innocent display of solidarity. And let us not forget that the combined harm resulting from the acts of these groups over so many years can easily compete with the terrible act itself. These are not your progressive heroes!

This being said, let me add one important reservation. There are socioeconomic and cultural forces and conditions, including increasing inequality and the destructive effects of neoliberalism, that make these organizations particularly attractive and their message seductive to those who are disillusioned, lacking in hope and future prospects. If we truly wish to fight terror, extremism, or for that matter any of these gangs, we must fight-together-the very conditions that make these organizations increasingly attractive in the first place.

Tereza Kuldova is a social anthropologist and senior researcher based at the University of Oslo. She is the author of, among others, How Outlaws Win Friends and Influence People (Palgrave, 2019), editor of Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs and Street Gangs: Scheming Legality, Resisting Criminalization (Palgrave, 2018) and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Extreme Anthropology.

Cite as: Kuldova, Tereza. “Think before you “heart” it: NZ street gangs guarding mosques in the aftermath of terror a PR stunt.” FocaalBlog, 24 March. www.focaalblog.com/2019/03/24/tereza-kuldova-think-before-you-heart-it-nz-street-gangs-guarding-mosques-in-the-aftermath-of-terror-a-pr-stunt.

Originally published at https://www.focaalblog.com on March 24, 2019.

Senior Researcher at the University of Oslo, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Extreme Anthropology, author of How Outlaws Win Friends and Influence People

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