The least of these, my brethren
The president of Black Power’s Whanganui chapter, Damien Kuru, is currently in prison for manslaughter. A jury found him guilty in the killing of Kevin Ratana, a Mongrel Mob member, even though he wasn’t there when the shooting happened, and there was no evidence to tie him to the killing, either directly or indirectly. Last month, an appeal against his conviction was declined. Here’s Denis O’Reilly with his opinion on why the case is so troubling.
There are several things about the manslaughter conviction of Damien Kuru (and the subsequent denial of his appeal) that are deeply troubling to me.
And perhaps they’d be troubling to many other New Zealanders, too, if they could get past the characterisation of this young Māori man, a husband and father of three children, as just another gang lowlife deserving of the worst that the criminal justice system can throw him.
When Damien’s appeal was denied last month, Stuff ran a story with the headline: “Whanganui gang boss Damien Kuru loses appeal against manslaughter conviction.”
There’s an othering, a caricature, implicit in that term “gang boss” — a contemporary racist euphemism deployed in Aotearoa New Zealand to substitute for “Māori and Pasifika youth”. It feeds into a current climate of fear and hysteria about criminal gangs, and allegedly unpunished lawlessness by ram-raiding rangatahi.
We saw a textbook example of that fear and hysteria just over a week ago, when Mongrel Mob whānau gathered in Ōpōtiki for the tangi of one of their own.
Some Ōpōtiki people, including the mayor, attempted to calm the media storm visited upon their town with a measured and rational response. But they were no match for the headlines, or for our so-called leaders, who seemed intent on stoking the fires of quietly race-based hysterical overreaction.
Maybe it’s too much to expect politicians not to lose their minds in an election year. But if nothing else, their response provides a perfect illustration of how nearly impossible it is to have a balanced, rational discussion about gangs.
How can we make progress on this when politicians are tossing around words like “subhuman”, “crypto-fascists” (what does that even mean, Shane Jones?), or “domestic terrorists”?
There are human beings behind the patches — sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers. And they’re not the cause of our broken society, but a symptom of it.
I’m no apologist for violence and criminal activity, no matter who commits it. Nor do I seek to sugarcoat the unwholesome aspects of gang life. But I’ve been close enough to Aotearoa’s Indigenous gangs, for long enough, to know the difference between reality and racist fearmongering. I know that while some gang members are dangerous criminals, not all members of gang families are criminals, or condone criminal behaviour. And I know too that there are pro-social leaders within the gangs who’ve been working for change.
Damien Kuru is one of them — and his (in my view, wrongful) conviction raises questions about the racist construct of our criminal justice system. It also deprives Whanganui Black Power of a leader who’s been working hard to steer his members and their whānau towards a more positive future.
In 2022, Damien was convicted of manslaughter for the shooting of Kevin “Kastro” Ratana. He was sentenced to five years and two months imprisonment.
There was no evidence tying Damien to the shooting of Kevin Ratana, either directly or indirectly. Everyone involved in the case agrees this is a fact. Damien wasn’t there, and he has been steadfast in refusing to concede that, as the president of Whanganui Black Power, he ordered or even silently endorsed the action of his members in shooting Kevin Ratana.
To convict him, the jury relied on the evidence of a police “expert”, Detective Inspector Craig Scott, who held that there was a chain of command within Whanganui Black Power that meant Damien must have ordered or endorsed the killing. Although not acquainted with Damien, nor the Whanganui chapter of Black Power, he argued that Damien was responsible for the actions of his members because he would have held “final authority over all chapter business and its members”.
This is fictive. That a man can be sent to prison based on such fiction is deeply concerning.
The facts are that, in August 2018, Kevin Ratana was killed at his partner’s home in Pūriri Street in Whanganui.
Mr Ratana was a member of the Mongrel Mob. He was killed after a number of Black Power members went to his home to intimidate him into leaving the neighbourhood, which they considered their territory. Mr Ratana produced a shotgun and was shot dead.
Seven Black Power members were charged with the crime, including Damien Kuru, who lived about 300-metres from where Mr Ratana was shot and was shown to have been elsewhere in the neighbourhood at the time.
Four of those charged pleaded guilty to either murder or manslaughter and one had their charges dismissed. Damien, along with another senior member, denied being involved and proceeded to trial. Before his trial, Damien was offered an easy route to early release by pleading guilty. He refused and was then found guilty of manslaughter.
Let me declare at the outset that, as a commentator, I bring with me several potential and actual conflicts of interest.
I am a life member of the Black Power. I know Damien Kuru and his whānau, intergenerationally. Damien once worked for the Consultancy Advocacy and Research Trust (CART), an organisation that I chair. I’m an unashamed advocate for him. As a reader you have been fairly advised.
Equally, I grieve over the wasted death of Kevin Ratana. He is whānaunga to my wife and thus my children. Moreover, and here is the rub, Kevin Ratana is also whānaunga to many of those convicted of his manslaughter.
Almost immediately after Kevin Ratana’s death, I ended up in a television confrontation with broadcaster Duncan Garner over my sense of a duty to recognise the rightful humanity of the players, victims, and perpetrators alike.
Duncan’s views then (I might say he has since mellowed) were less formed by dog whistles and more swallowed in a fog of racist cant that portrayed both the Black Power and Mongrel Mob as a despicable underclass of criminals, loafers, and leeches — a two-headed antisocial Hydra, personified by the dissolute teenage welfare mother on the female side, and the dangerous street gang banger on the male side. And, by definition, dark-skinned, urban and undeserving.
As Michael Laws, the vituperative former mayor of Whanganui, put it:
The true timebomb that exists in this country — our growing underclass, predominantly brown, transient, illiterate, dirty and diseased . . . so too the children with brains atrophied by their parents’ willing ignorance. And imbuing that warped world view upon the next generation.
Following the High Court trial, at the request of multiple counsel representing the convicted Black Power members, I provided to the High Court a comprehensive set of cultural reports under Section 27 of the Sentencing Act to assist the court in determining a just sentence. In referring to my report at sentencing, Justice Ellis noted that:
Gangs in New Zealand — and, in particular, indigenous gangs such as Black Power and the Mongrel Mob — have too long and too easily been condemned as the cause of a raft of social ills when, in reality, they are symptoms of much deeper problems, many of which stem from our history as a country. I agree with that.
For many Māori, that history means colonisation, land loss, loss of the reo, marginalisation, compounded later by urban drift.
In turn, those things have led to a broken connection with land and with community, the breakdown of whānau, and a loss of identity. Poverty in every sense of the word, but particularly — the reports point out — poverty of spirit.
Following the Second World War and the rural to urban migration of Māori, pressures to supply low cost and social housing led to the intensive development of suburban state housing blocks and low-cost building solutions for low-income families.
These pressures led to the development of Whanganui suburbs such as Gonville and Castlecliff and fostered the environment in which the majority of those convicted of Kevin Ratana’s manslaughter were raised or came to live in as youth. In these settings, Māori were maintaining a more Pākehā lifestyle and experienced weakened ties to iwi lands and support networks while adjusting to different systems of social organisation.
The quest by their grandparents and parents for what has been described as “the big three” — work, money, pleasure — conditioned these young men who formed the Whanganui Black Power to affiliate and congregate.
In his book Outlaw Bikers and Ancient Warbands, Hyper Masculinity and Cultural Continuity the late Dr Carl Bradley (Ngāti Hauiti, Clan Donald) noted:
In both the ancient warbands and the outlaw biker clubs, warrior ideologies work to create a cult of sacred masculinity and the mystique of such a cult is shown to appeal to young men who feel marginalised by mainstream society and neoliberal economics.
Part of this conditioning was the easy expression of aggression and recourse to violence. Justice Sir Joe Williams, in sentencing a gang member, once said:
Your anger and aggression is part of your personality and you make a free choice in that regard. But it is also a response to the drivers I’ve discussed that aren’t of your making at all, to the way the world responds generally to Māori boys and men from poor backgrounds. We must be honest with ourselves about that.
These young men convicted for the killing of Kevin Ratana have been adversely affected by the post-colonial socio-political environment in which they were raised. Dame Tariana Turia once described this as “communal post-colonial traumatic stress disorder”. “How do we heal the wounded spirit?” she asked.
Last month, in a webinar organised by the Helen Clark Foundation and the New Zealand Drug Foundation to discuss harm minimisation from the effects of methamphetamine, a panellist, Trish Walsh, spoke movingly of “patu ngakau”, a soul wound.
This consequential poverty of spirit, or intergenerational soul wounds, revealed sometimes in harrowing detail through the Section 27 sentencing reports, has cascaded upon all of those convicted of Kevin Ratana’s manslaughter.
It has been the very absence of a strong coherent sense of positive Māori identity in the lives of Whanganui Māori gang members that has characterised their behaviour as a community. They have suffered the negative consequence of being poor, young and brown in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand without enjoying any of the compensating advantages of a strong sense of Māori identity.
In the eyes of the Whanganui community and of the police and criminal justice industrial complex, it has been convenient to subsume these whānau Māori identities and to position them as outsiders, members of the Black Power gang. At trial, Damien Kuru’s whānau home was described not as his home but as the Black Power HQ.
With his permission, let me share something of Damien Kuru’s backstory.
Damien is a son of the Whanganui River. He has patrilineal whakapapa to the river tribes, and to Ngāti Tūwharetoa. Damien’s matrilineal line is Ngāti Pākehā no Aotearoa.
Damien’s father, Tui Kuru, was a former president of the Whanganui Black Power. When Damien was about eight years old, his dad was murdered in Whanganui.
This was a traumatic event, and the psychological impact on Damien took some years to become evident. The state intervened and Damien was placed with a Pākehā family. Against the usual narrative in these instances, Damien thrived in a safe, non-violent environment.
When he was 13, Damien Kuru was sent back to Whanganui. It’s evident that Damien is intelligent. He entered his first relationship in his early 20s, and he has three children to his partner. His innate intelligence, his interpersonal skills, and his strength of character marked him as a future leader among his peers.
At 25, Damien Kuru joined the chapter of Whanganui Black Power, at the behest of his uncle Craig Rippon, who was then president. Craig was an older member of the Black Power, and he exemplified the “redemptive self” or “desistance” movement.
In 2007, a two-year-old child from a Black Power whānau, Jhia Te Tua, was tragically killed by members of the Mongrel Mob in a drive-by shooting. In response, Craig Rippon helped set up the Matipo Community Charitable Trust to promote pro-social development in the area. Craig established excellent rapport and relationships with Trustpower, local body and civic authorities, and education and training providers.
Tragically, in late 2015, in a demonstration of the visceral nature of the gang life prevailing in Whanganui at the time, Craig Rippon was hacked to death on his front lawn because of his pro-social intervention in a dispute over a puppy which he had returned to its rightful owner, a neighbour and non-gang associated citizen.
Damien stepped into the leadership breach left by his uncle’s death. Perhaps it was his destiny determined in part by his whakapapa. He set his pro-social shoulder to the wheel. He had already embarked on a positive journey and was doing a business diploma at UCOL.
Damien’s potential was spotted by the late Ann Dysart, a very senior official in the Ministry of Social Development who was leading a radical community development programme called E Tū Whānau. Ann began to foster Damien’s personal development through a “Gang Action Plan” project run under the auspices of the Consultancy Advocacy & Research Trust (CART), which I chair.
Through E Tū Whānau, Ann championed a model of social change that empowered whānau to draw on their inherent strengths and experiences. Damien was partnered up with an older Black Power leader from Taranaki, Ngapari Nui. Despite his gang membership, Ngapari Nui was also at the time the tribal chairman of Ngati Ruanui.
The programme was community-directed and it purposefully set out to engage with a local group of up-and-coming Black Power leaders. The Gang Action Plan activities took the emergent Black Power leadership group out of town and out of their comfort zone.
The impact was profound. Group members for the first time attended a cross-gang E Tu Whānau hui in Wainuiomata. They also engaged in pro-social activities especially involving their wives and partners.
Kate Rippon, Craig’s wife and Damien’s aunty, told me at the time of Damien’s arrest that gang leadership is difficult in a town with several Black Power affiliated chapters and that Damien faced situations where “not everyone will do want you want them to do, or not do”.
Nevertheless, although there was no direct evidence to link him to the death of Kevin Ratana, Damien was duly arrested and charged. As I intimated at the beginning of this piece, the Crown’s case against Damien was based on the evidence presented by Detective Inspector Scott.
In his book Patched. The History of Gangs in New Zealand, Dr Jarrod Gilbert refers to the lens of “Blue Vision” which he says exists when police uphold a belief regardless of the evidence against it. He says that the false story becomes ingrained in the collective police culture, and they are blind to anything that may contradict it.
The Blue Vision paradigm presented at trial to the jury by Detective Inspector Scott was in my view leaden, simplistic, pedestrian at best. Seemingly detached and independently observant, it read like an ethnographic primer. The jury were told by Inspector Scott that the Mongrel Mob wear red and say “Sieg heil” and the Black Power wear blue and say “Yo, yo”.
Despite my already declared interests, I hold a master’s degree in social practice, so in my own right I believe I can comment from an informed perspective.
Detective Inspector Scott described to the jury a hierarchical organisation with set roles for “officers” in the gang. There may be some truth about such structures in the world of international gangsterism but this evidence came nowhere close to broaching the reality of the Indigenous world of the Māori gang member and the reality of a dynamic relational lifestyle and belief set.
Detective Inspector Scott spoke of a mechanistic structure, whereas I propose that the Māori gang is biological, organic, morphing and adapting to circumstance and situation.
Nowhere in the trial was there discussion of whakapapa, tikanga, or the troubled post-colonial history of the people of the Whanganui River. While there is a plethora of literature attesting to the complexities of the dual world faced by Māori in effectively engaging with the New Zealand criminal justice system, the Crown does not discuss this magnified duality where the Māori offender is also a member of a sub-cultural cluster as a gang member.
The Crown case gave no context to the jury of the long, complex, and tragic history that preceded the events that led to the death of Kevin Ratana. For instance, the 2007 murder of the baby Jhia Te Tua by members of the Whanganui Mongrel Mob. Nor the proximity to the location of this murder to where Mr Ratana and his partner set themselves up, and where Damien Kuru and his whānau (and other Black Power members) lived.
While at trial there was reference in the police statement of facts to the victim “rolling” on Black Power members and affiliated whānau, there is no discussion of the “slow fuse” build-up to the tragedy itself. There was no exploration of the many efforts made by gang members themselves to defuse the situation. There was no explanation as to why the police didn’t intervene when their intelligence must have been aware of rising tensions and Mr Ratana’s activities.
There is a pertinent issue of hyper-vigilance and hyper arousal. While it’s hardly equivalent to Mr Putin invading the Ukraine, at a micro-level, Kevin Ratana moving into “the hood” at Castlecliff evoked a similar level of fear and apprehension among the resident whānau. Again, let me quote from the late Dr Carl Bradley.
Why is it that small groups of young men have been displaying hyper-masculine characteristics of the warrior since well before written history and forming into groups that celebrate such a culture? A quick survey of ancient warbands and other groups of males throughout history suggest that such cliques have been part of their communities since pre-literate times. Warbands and other manifestations have been playing a role through the ages, particularly when responding to perceived or real threats.
At the Court of Appeal hearing, two of the judges, Justice David Collins and Justice Matthew Muir, denied the appeal. However, one, Justice Cull, found that the conviction was unsafe. Justice Cull’s concerns arose in part from the evidence provided at trial by Detective Inspector Scott.
Justice Cull considered this evidence to lack “probative value” and to be “highly prejudicial”. Consequently, Justice Cull considered that this led the jury into “impermissible reasoning” and an “unreasonable verdict” resulting in an “unsafe conviction”.
Before the High Court trial, Damien was offered a deal if he would admit to the manslaughter of Kevin Ratana, but he made a brave call to reject it and to stand for what he believes is “tika”, is right.
He has further calls to make. Oblivious to the realities, the Parole Board will still want him to buckle and kneel. They will most likely decide that he cannot return to his community and to mix with his whānau and meet the grandchildren he has not yet seen. They will likely deny him the right to be Māori.
A few weeks after this appeal was denied, I visited Damien at the Whanganui Regional Prison. I asked him what he thought about the decision, and he told me this:
“It raises more questions than anything . . . if they go by the book then their decision doesn’t make sense.
“That’s the definition of racism. The evidence says I had nothing to do with it. Even the judge’s comments verified what I already knew. Just for them [the jury] to go the other way.
“First of all, I questioned my lawyers if they believed me because they were telling me ‘take the deal, take the deal’. I’ll take ownership of things I’ve done. I wouldn’t have gone to trial if I was guilty. I would’ve taken the deal. But I’m sticking by what I believe in. I believe I’m not guilty because I had nothing to do with it. The evidence will show that. . . . I thought they went by the book. It proves that there is prejudice.”
There is a void in tribal leadership in the Indigenous gang space. We are at a watershed. Whanaungatanga demands intervention. But the only champion I witness these days is that fearsome wahine toa Dame Naida Glavish. Most Māori leaders wither and look the other way when asked to act and intervene.
This case raises matters of prejudice and the racist structure of our legal system. Parliament starts the day with a prayer to a Christian deity. Let me remind all members that the Christ to whom you pray said that when you cast down unfairly on the least of us, you do so unto Him.
Denis O’Reilly is a lifetime Black Power member and chairman of the Consultancy Advocacy and Research Trust.