Te Aorewa Rolleston for RNZ
A former professor of indigenous studies at the Auckland University of Technology says any discussion around gangs needs to remember why they were formed in the first place.
Dr Rawiri Taonui is an independent writer and researcher on human rights, diversity, and anti-racism who has worked extensively within indigenous rights research.
He says the conversation around gangs needs to be looked at with further understanding.
"The key thing to remember is that, historically, there are two crimes here"
"Gangs have been responsible for murders, rapes, high levels of domestic abuse, sometimes sexual abuse, drug dealing, but we have to remember that the Māori gangs came into existence during the 1960's as a result of the theft of Māori land, the suppression of Māori culture, particularly te reo Māori and the urbanisation of impoverished Māori families," Taonui said.
Engagement with gang communities stirred debate this week after Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson accepted an invitation to attend a Mongrel Mob meeting in Waikato Hamilton over the weekend.
Criticism from members of the opposition over the past week has expressed upset and shock.
National's Police spokesperson Simeon Brown questioned such engagement with a community which "peddles drugs, wields firearms and engages in violence, causing misery in communities across the country."
Further criticism also accused the government of "coddling of violent gang members" and that it was "a kick in the guts for victims of the Mob," said ACT's Justice spokesperson Nicole McKee.
Taonui acknowledged there are victims of gang crime.
He agreed gang members have hurt people and, when prosecuted, they must pay the penalty and that he had little sympathy for those who were involved in dealing illegal drugs such as methamphetamine.
But Taonui also explained that critics needed to re-think their arguments as, to him, it just seemed to be a whole lot of yelling and it wasn't going to help with improving the current gang situation.
"The key thing is if we want to turn that around, we have to acknowledge the historical causes that have shaped the nature of gangs"
"If we're able to do that then it becomes a powerful tool for turning gang members around and putting them on a constructive pathway forward," he said.
Taonui stated that gangs such as the Mongrel Mob Kingdom Waikato were not perfect, but they were making sincere attempts to change the culture of their whānau.
"There are also many gang members, gang whānau and children of gang members who have turned themselves around and lead good lives making constructive contributions to their communities and society."
"Talking to those ready to embark on that path is important. Judgement and condemnation only reinforces the cycle many are trying to break free from," Taonui said.
Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt was also in attendance at the meeting along with members of the Polynesian panthers where points around justice, systematic racism and diverse communities were raised.
Taonui said the key to helping gang members turn their lives around was through discussion and the attendance of government officials including the Human rights commissioner especially was a good first step.
"If you want to compel gangs to change either as individuals or collectives or whānau, your greatest strength is to be able to go into their environment and be honest about what it is you can do to help them, be honest about the problems that gangs create in society and talk to them about the pathway forward."
"There will be ups and there will be downs, but that's the nature of the territory".