Rebels Without A Source
This article looks at the issue of vigilantism and drugs in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Ngaruawahia is in the Waikato on State Highway One about 20 km northwest of Hamilton, in the North Island of New Zealand/Aotearoa. It has 5500 people and is mostly known for being the home of the Maori King Movement and the Tūrangawaewae Marae, where the throne of the Maori King is located.
On October 14th, Ngaruawahia made nationwide headlines when the NZ Herald reported a local gang, the Tribal Huk, had made threats to drug dealers to clear the town in 24 hours or expect “visits”. This was backed by some community leaders, with reservations. The mainstream media frankly loves these sorts of stories and excitedly spread the subsequent claim of success. To be honest it isn’t clear if the threat was followed through on or exactly how many dealers there are in the town and the primary source for the story seems to be the self-promoting leadership of the Tribal Huk itself.
Despite the need to apply a degree of scepticism to the story, it does raise serious questions about the way society functions. Firstly, should vigilantism be supported by those of us opposed to the powers-that-be?
While vigilante behaviour is tempting, examples overseas in places like Mexico and El Salvador show it can spiral out of control with the emergence of death squads and gangs executing anyone who crosses paths with them, not just the criminals they are supposedly protecting the community from. Although I doubt that vigilante “justice” in Ngaruawahia will go as far as it has in the Philippines where the new President Rodrigo Duterte has actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of drug dealers and their families by vigilante death squads resulting in a major upsurge in extra-judicial executions and mass killings, it is very dangerous when community and local government politicians condone vigilante behaviour.
Anyone who has lived in an area where gangs have a lot of sway knows that tit for tat attacks escalate and these can range from threats, to home invasions to rape for even the slightest transgression or slight. In 2012 a dispute between two factions of youths resulted in a young person being killed outside a pub in Paraparaumu. Five weeks later another youth was stabbed to death in the same area in retaliation for the previous killing. Because this murder had taken place near a police station many youths took this as a sign that they had to start “looking after themselves”.
The drug issue in Ngaruawahia is part of a bigger picture of how drugs fit into society as a whole. The current situation where certain substances are made illegal, puts their distribution in the hands of gangs while allowing national politicians to grandstand and act tough. Both the state and the gangs benefit from this state of affairs, rather than the populace as a whole. Even some sections of the establishment are starting to realise this and are looking for other options. Legalisation of the drugs is one possibility. Most of the crimes associated with drugs have little to do with the use of the drugs themselves but the fact the drugs are illegal and in order to access them a person has to break the law. A person also breaks the law by manufacturing and selling drugs. If drugs were legalised these crimes would not exist.
Another advantage with legalising drugs is that people with addiction issues would be more willing to come forward to seek treatment. They wouldn’t be afraid of facing legal consequences, such as being arrested for possessing or using drugs.
One counter argument is that legalising drugs would lead to children and other vulnerable people getting easy access to them. The flaw with this argument is that any child or vulnerable person who wants access to drugs can already do so. I doubt very much that legalisation will see any upsurge in use because those who want to use them can access them already and will continue to do so while those who don’t (including myself) will continue not using them. The decision to use, or not to, use them should not be up to the state or a religious lobby group to make those decisions for us. However, anyone with an addiction or who lives with someone who has an addiction, knows all too well that something that may be perfectly harmless to one person could prove problematic to someone else.
Legalisation of drugs does not cure drug addiction for those who are prone to addictive behaviours. Not even the abolition of the state or Capitalism will entirely eliminate these issues. Thus, when those of us who are against the existing economic and political system are confronted with the unpleasant reality of drug addiction, we need to start working on some answers, no matter how difficult that may be.
Gambling can be addictive but, unlike drugs, it is legal. If a problem gambler realises they have an issue, they can come in and get help without facing any legal consequences. In many cases they may come to the gambling addiction counsellor early enough that they never progress to hard core gambling or criminal offending to feed it.
With drugs it’s more complex because drug addicts are not only dealing with a substance that is illegal but they’re also dealing with people who are criminals, to feed their habits. At any time during the course of getting treated for their addiction they run the risk of being arrested or denounced to one or more government agencies or their employers and lose their only source of income. That is usually why drug addicts usually don’t seek help until their addiction has become so bad that if they don’t get treated they will almost certainly end up dead or in jail.
While some of the community leaders and local politicians cheered the news from Ngaruawahia, they didn’t want to know the gang hadn’t really done anything that would make a difference. Even if the news was true, it did nothing to address the drug addictions of the P addicts of Ngaruawahia. Addictions don’t vanish just because the dealers get run out of town. It would have done nothing about those who deal in other drugs such as party pills, marijuana, cocaine and heroin. It would’ve done nothing about addressing the various underlying causes of drug addictions. Most importantly they wouldn’t have got rid of the P manufacturers. The reality looks more like a case of the gang trying to get rid of its competition. Gangs are hierarchical, authoritarian, often heavily misogynistic and socially parasitic organisations. They exist for the benefit of their members, doing good deeds for the average person isn’t their reason for being.
Communities undertaking actions on their own initiative to address social problems, certainly has commendable aspects in theory. However, we need to tread carefully before endorsing vigilante actions of any sort. Merely replacing one tool of oppression – the state – with another tool of oppression that doesn’t even have the pretense of being answerable to anyone – a gang – is not advancement. It is the descent into barbarism where he (and the male pronoun is appropriate here) who has the biggest club calls the shots. Democratic control by the community as a whole is what we should aim for. Meaningful action that has a chance of heading in that direction should be based on a well thought out kaupapa, not short term ‘quick fix’ thuggery or political exploitation. It will take the combined efforts of the various socially progressive elements in communities to work together over a long period of time, to begin to address the issue effectively.