The Darkside

Picture this.

In the week leading up to Labour weekend we’re in Strathmore. It’s typically a windy Wellington Wednesday, and despite bright sunshine it’s a bit chilly standing outside the Strathmore Community Centre, nestling, as it does, on the lee-side of the Strathmore hill.

The ‘we’ are me and my lady Taape, Munz, the Black Power president from the Hawke’s Bay, Musc, the president from Gisborne, and, from New York, the Warehams. In fact there’s a virtual squad of them; John Wareham and his lady Margaret, and filmmakers Johnathon Wareham and his colleague and partner Gwen O’Donnell.

Dave Wu , Wellington Black Power 1973

The purpose of the gathering is to work on the communications and leadership skills of a group of street youth, affiliated to or actual members of the Wellington Black Power, but currently known as the ‘Darkside’. Darkside is actually the name of their rap group. I wrote a little of them in my previous blog.

However, the brand of the band has proved to be more attractive than that of an ‘old-school’ gang such as the Wellington Black Power. Darkside is how the youth want to present themselves. Life imitates art once again.

The local Police allege that the Darkside are the perpetrators of a great deal of local crime. They’ve filled the pages of The Dominion Post in recent weeks and they are the focus of a Police campaign, ‘Operation Hurricane’, designed to get them off the street in any way possible.

The media go for the hype hook line and sinker. Police statements and allegations receive little scrutiny or critical examination and seem to be generally taken at face value. One of the accusations that made national news was that Darkside/Black Power families were involved in pupil-on-pupil standovers at a primary school. These matters are still going through the Courts and the fuller story will come out, but my own investigations suggest that any link with the Darkside will be shown to be tenuous in the extreme.

On the other hand, the band brand name has now been vested with such notoriety that the kids start to live it out. At the moment, a hundred kids from anywhere in Wellington might become Darksiders – until they have to go home. A few are certainly hard-core and are living out their version of a gangsta lifestyle and committing crime, often violent crime, and causing mischief.

The question is, do we follow the lead of the French police in the Parisian banlieue and treat these young people like scum and try and suppress them, or do we try and engage them in society?

On November 14 The Dominion Post carried an editorial about the youth of the banlieue “Rioting for their rights’ which said in part that:

“The rioting is about a segment of society that feels it has been excluded….it is an ichoate cry of rage against being treated as worthless and being shoved to the side of society…”

I agree. But if the paper can have such deep insight about what’s going down in far away Paris, and mount advocacy in such a powerful manner, then pray tell me, why it can’t engage in quality thinking about what’s going on at its own doorstep?

What is really going on when, even though we have low rates of unemployment and reducing rates of crime generally, we have rise in street youth gangs and rocketing prison population? Current projections are a 15% rate of climb. Factor in an 85% rate of recidivism and we have a self perpetuating system in play. Whilst we are preparing to head off bird flu we just seem to sit there and accept the dysfunction of the criminal justice system?

Basically, it seems to me, that these people in crews like the Darkside are not enjoying the fruits of a buoyant economy and, just like those youth in the banlieue, they feel alienated and excluded. Rather than burning cars out local youth express their alienation through self defeating behaviours, acting out like the violent north American gangstas they see on music videos.

As I’ve expressed in this series of blogs before, my own view is that to reach a cohort of rebellious youth, our youth, we need young leaders and opinion leaders, change agents, honest brokers. We need to grow a cadre of change agents. People who can work from the bottom up and help their communities reinvent themselves. They are likely to be people who are figuring out how to resolve their own issues just as they figure out those of their respective communities.

The prevailing approach to social development is to bring someone from outside the troubled community – consultant, a professional of some form – to resolve the particular problematic. The alternative approach I’m suggesting is to identify, nurture and grow people and solutions from within the target community itself, even if is chaotic. The change agent doesn’t have to be a paragon; they will go through a personal transformation as the community goes through its own transformation.

And it is exactly with the aim of building that cadre of change agents and enabling them to challenge ‘self defeating behaviours’ that John Wareham, New York based Kiwi, founder of the Eagles Foundation (‘developing leaders, mentors and citizens’ – check their website )- is, pro bono, preparing to share his skills – if anyone turns up.

The minutes tick by. It’s at times like this that I mentally review all the arrangements and torture myself on what I could have done better to produce my intended outcome. This gig was, as usual, pushing the boundaries a bit.

The idea, in John’s words, was to help the crew:

“to sidestep the much misunderstood deadly mixture of emotional and social forces that drive underprivileged young men into crime and also to impart critical public speaking skills”

The device, the self learning tool, was to be the formation of a debating team drawn from the group. This debating team would then take on in public debate another, as yet unnamed team, over an as yet unspecified topic. It doesn’t sound like the sort of proposition that you might think would excite hard-core gangsta rappers. However the notion of publicly contesting ideas with words isn’t foreign to them at all. Rappers are wordsmiths, and rap battles are part of their world.

Following his work with the Mongrel Mob and Black Power leadership, John Wareham’s reputation also evokes interest. Additionally, the fact that Black Power presidents like Munz and Musc support the kaupapa, and have traveled some distance to take part in the programme, swings the balance towards participation.

A couple of bodies emerge from around the corner of the building and simultaneously Eugene arrives in the ‘mokaimobile’ with a crew onboard; Lokash, Rogue, Tuone, Lucas, Deano, Enoka, Toa ….within a short time we have 20 or so participants and my anxiety levels drop.


We’re on the way.

Again, I’ve said it before but feel obliged to repeat it, John Wareham is a master of his craft. At the same time as teaching people to speak publicly he gets them addressing issues on a personal basis. He probes, he pushes, he calms; he lifts people up and helps them lift themselves up. You can see it, physically. The guy who started the day eyes downcast, shuffling, mumbling ‘aw fuck I dunno‘ is now verbally dueling, equipped with mental models and able to assemble intelligent arguments. His eyes are sparkling as he engages the audience and delivers witty lines.

It’s now Thursday. We are due to debate on Friday, publicly, at the Michael Fowler Centre. John sets the plan of action. We’re going to have a dress rehearsal tonight at a formal dinner. A team for the debate on Friday will be selected from the dress rehearsal. The proposition for Friday is:

“That Pakeha owe Maori a decent living”.

The opposition team is formidable. They are Noel Cheer, Andy Curran and John Cummings. Mr. Curran and Mr. Cheer are six-time winners of the Parliamentary Debating Shield and have both represented New Zealand in international debating. Mr. Cummings is a senior Telecom NZ executive.

Auckland property developer Pat Rippon, who has backed us in building community resilience against methamphetamine many times before, supplies us with a budget for the ‘formal dinner’. We go to a good quality restaurant, Neat, in Cuba street. The boys have previously only looked in through the doors.

Our mokai whanau kaumatua, 82 year old Dr. Ian Prior, arrives. And here we see one of those momentary shafts of light into the uniqueness of our country Aotearoa New Zealand and the emerging plurality of culture. As the Doc comes in through the door the boys stop their conversation. These, allegedly out-of-control young criminals respond to their deep cultural instincts. They put down their drinks, and approach the old man. They line up, one behind the other, removing their caps as they move to shake the Doc’s hand and perform the respectful rite of hongi, all quite natural in a top line big city Pakeha restaurant.

Whilst the burghers of Wellington experience these young New Zealanders as disrespectful hooligans and criminals, here this elderly Pakeha is treated by young Maori with respect, care; love, one might say. Why? For thirty years Ian and the late Elespie Prior, through the Willi Fels Memorial Trust, have stood by nga mokai, and facilitated community focused activity. They have helped the parents and relations of these young people and worked to include them in society, helped them participate and succeed. That investment is now intergenerational as is the respect in response. This is the fabric of a strong, safe, inclusive and achieving community.

The practice debate kicks off. There are eight speakers, four each side. I hadn’t been able to attend the last two sessions of the training programme and I’m gobsmacked by the improvement. These guys are good. John Wareham sums up, gives each debater feedback and declares a draw. The team for Friday is announced, Eugene, Rogue, Two One. The proposition remains

“That Pakeha owe Maori a decent living” and,

“Oh, by the way, our team will take the negative”.

The boys are perplexed and there is a minor rebellion.

“How can we argue that when we don’t believe it?”

“It’s just a debate”, says John. “No one says you have to believe your argument, you just have to show that you understand the issues and put your case in a clear way and with a convincing manner”.

So, the boys step across the threshold of ideas and examine the beliefs of others.

Early on Friday morning, the crew hooks up for breakfast. The debaters are running through their arguments. We head up to the Michael Fowler Centre. By the time the debate kicks off there are about 100 people. Musc commences with a mihi-mihi and karakia and Munz introduces our Darkside/Black Power team.

Tuone and Rogue prepare their closing argument

The affirmative are pretty slick and deliver their arguments well and strongly. In fact in the view of the adjudicator they had the best speaker (John Cummings). But the boys took the day out, the verdict being by acclamation but reaffirmed in the adjudicator’s scoring with the negative earning 301 points to the affirmative’s 278.

It’s true that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. On its own, taking a few leaders with potential through a short intervention to pick up their skills and their thinking won’t solve the issues around the Darkside, or the Wellington Black Power, or crime in general. But when its part of the broader mokai whanau ora effort it becomes a significant contribution to building a climate for pro-social change and in creating a skilled cadre to lead it.

And damn we need change at our end of the nation. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony and keep on harping on about the prison rate and our nation’s response to crime but Maori are only 15% of the population but are 61% of all offenders. Inspector Wally Haumaha, currently the key Maori Liaison man at Police National headquarters, and a good man at that, was quoted in The Dominion Post on November 10 saying that Police were reacting to problems rather than preventing them. Wally’s view is that the Police should spend more time on preventative strategies for Maori. Other senior policemen look to raise the number of Maori policemen from 12% to 14% over the next few years. But if the answer is more policemen, even more Maori policemen, then perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. The people best equipped to deliver preventative strategies are called teachers, coaches, mentors, youth workers. Police action should be saved for the recalcitrant, not be our first level response.

I know that working this side of the street is full of ambiguity and contradiction. In the past couple of weeks senior members of both the Black Power and the Mongrel Mob have made public statements that endorse the need to build a better future. It is not in their nature of these men to be in public in this way, and it entails risk in being seen to be taking a pro-social line. But their stance in these matters has been consistent over time and the directionality is good. I accept that I don’t know what I don’t know, and that nefariousness may underlie all street gang actions. I accept Saul Alinsky’s challenge “You’ll see it when you believe it” and I’m going to continue to assume the best until I see otherwise.

Let’s leave that issue alone for now.

I’ve just come off the end of a long rugby league season. Engaging people in organized team sport is a proven community building strategy. This year in Hawke’s Bay we had 560 adults playing rugby league and several junior sides. Some of the adults are in opposing gangs. Some of them play together on the same sides. Some play against each other. Gang identity is put to the side in favour of being a sportsman in the code of rugby league. Its very whanau focused and the competition is hard and fast, incredibly aggressive but disciplined: no send offs in the 2005 club competition. Te Rangatahi o Omahu won the Lion Foundation Eastern Alliance and Eskview Seals won the Century Foundation Club Competition.

Wallace Sullivan, rugby player, captain, champion. In 2005 Wallace played across league and union codes and played in 5 Grand Finals in as many competitions and was a member of 3 winning teams - in one year!

Hawke’s Bay Maori were Grand Finalists in two out of three possible grades in the Maori Rugby League Nationals. Last Friday, our Watties Unicorns coach Alan Mason was named Ngati Kahungunu Coach of the Year.

With only one fulltime staff member, everyone has to pitch in. In rugby league you can spot the executive, they’re the ones laying out fields and cleaning the changing rooms. One of the Rugby League Hawke’s Bay crew who has helped me immensely this year is Kiwi rugby league legend Kevin Tamati. Part of the legend is KT’s sideline fight with Australian prop Greg Dowling after both had been sent from the field during a fiery Test. As they came off the bigger Dowling had a go at KT and the smaller guy replied with a devastating barrage of punches that has become one of rugby league’s most replayed moments.

Kevin Tamati (KT)

In October we ran the last match of a Test Series between the Cook Islands coached by Kevin Iro and New Zealand Maori coached by Tawera Nikau. KT was the on ground commentator. When the two teams came out they formed a line, facing each other, and started their respective haka. The Cooks were one game down in the series and the emotions were high, so high in fact that the Cook Islands crossed the halfway mark and entered into the ‘Maori space’. Face to face as they were, and with emotions at such a peak, it was inevitable that things would explode – and they did. There was a flurry of punches, then, within moments, the players recovered their senses. The crowd gasped and didn’t really know how to react. Was this to be interpreted as a scandalous loss of discipline and bring shame on all involved or……….KT’s voice came through the ground PA.

“Ah” he said, “no one was hurt”, and then, with perfect comic timing, “I’ve seen better fights on the sideline!” The grandstand erupted in laughter and the incident was positioned into an appropriate context.

At home nature is getting her Christmas decorations ready.

The kowhai has done its thing, the manuka is in full flower as is the flax, laden with honey for the tui who reward us for being good gardeners with frequent song. The loquat – are you familiar with this first fruit of summer?- is rich and sweet. Like life.

Arohanui. Denis.

Tags: Debate  Denis O'Reilly  Maori  

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