COMMENT:

After the terror attack in Christchurch created fear and confusion, a small community in Hamilton looked toward its supreme leader for words of guidance and comfort. And he obliged.

His speech was titled The Darkest Day.

"Our utmost condolences go the bereaved families of our brothers and sisters in Christchurch.

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"We must respond to an incident of this malignancy appropriately. Let us today commemorate the deceased with a pivotal change in our treatment of others, we are the ones who can influence a better tomorrow."

And a better tomorrow is not necessarily about grand changes but small gestures, he said.

"It could be making a better effort to see your whanau, giving a compliment to a loved one or even smiling at a complete stranger, try to show love every day".

These were not the words of a priest or a politician, but the instruction of Paito 'Sonny' Fatu, Mongrel Mob president based in Hamilton.

They're hardly the words we associate with that gang. He doesn't represent all of the Mongrel Mob, though, just his lot. But his lot is growing.

Sonny controls a handful of Mob chapters, and his 'Kingdom' is 400 strong locally, and is expanding overseas, too.

While Sonny's words of positivity were directed at the tragedy, the tenor of them is not new. I visited his gang's whare eighteen months ago when a large meeting was on. Before having a big feed, the members, partners and kids listened to Sonny talk about that month's topic – children.

Paito
Paito "Sonny" Fatu is encouraging Mongel Mob members to shift their behaviour toward the better. Photo / Supplied

He spoke of the importance of looking after them and caring for them. He stressed that the members' families and not the gang were to come first. The gang, he said, could take care of itself, but the families needed more help.

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It felt more like a religious service than a gang meeting.

Sonny was not alone on stage. With him, as always, was his right hand man, Griff. A man of tremendous oratory skill. A street preacher. Another at his side was Sarge, younger, stocky and sunglasses, and a man who's done more than anybody else in the gang world to engage social media. Don Draper with a patch.

None of the men have the usual swagger of either the successful or the tough, although they are undoubtedly both. There is a quiet confidence about them. A humility. Sonny scarcely ever speaks above a whisper.

These are the men leading the revolution.

Part of the reason they're able to do this is that the gang scene in New Zealand is radically different now than it used to be. There have been some obvious changes in the gang scene since their beginnings in the 1960s and 70s, not least of which is the age of the membership. The aging of the gangs has changed them as much as aging changes individuals. We all mature, we are less reckless, and tend to put other before ourselves – particularly loved ones.

These changes are also reflected in offending data. Older men commit fewer crimes than young men.

But ostensibly, at least, the changes within Sonny's chapter aren't about a slowing down of behaviour associated with the Mob, it's about fundamentally changing it. I have identified a number of 'pivot points' in gang history; events or periods upon which the entire scene has hinged. I think we are currently experiencing one.

There will be sceptics, of course, and that isn't just understandable; it's probably healthy.

Not only are the Mongrel Mob responsible for some of New Zealand's most notorious crimes – think Ambury Park 1986 – but they have also been apt to bite the hand that helps them.

In 2012 a chapter in Dunedin were given access to $20,000 of Whanau Ora funding and they promptly used it to set up a cannabis growing operation. Entrepreneurial, for sure, but not what was envisaged.

So people are right to cast a narrow eye to see how this plays out, but the evidence thus far is there to see.

Currently there is only one of Sonny's men that is locked up. Just one. That doesn't happen by accident. Remember, the rest of the Mongrel Mob make up the largest gang numbers in prison.

But let's say Sonny's efforts are all just a front to hide their nefarious illegal activities. Let's say they are still up to their old tricks and are just better at it. Well, in that case the police can continue policing them as hard as they like.

Even under this, the worse case scenario, whereby the Mob members remain doing all other illegal activities but are not engaging in violence at home – just that one change that Sonny preaches – then we are still better off. The next generation of harms germinate in families of violence and dysfunction. That fix alone is worthy of praise.

But I suspect it's more than that. It feels bigger and more complex. This is the start of something entire new. Not an adaptation of the past, something we have never seen before.

What does that mean? The answer to that is simple.

I have no idea.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is the author of PATCHED: THE HISTORY OF GANGS IN NEW ZEALAND