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August 6, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Full Blooded Islanders

Gang Patches & Boxing Gloves in Newtown, New Zealand.

The year is 1985. Oscar Partsch is 3. Of Tokelau and German descent, his family has just immigrated to New Zealand from Hawaii. They come to Wellington, and settle in the suburb of Mount Cook, in the Arlington flats.
Oscar described it as the “concrete jungle”. In this concrete jungle, his family had 13 people staying in a 2 bedroom state house. In this concrete jungle they would be racially abused, for their broken English and differing cultural habits. In this concrete jungle he will meet the Johnson family, from Samoa. There are 5 sons; Pele, Gus, Popo, Vice, and C Moa. Between them, they will found Full Blooded Islanders, or FBI, in Newtown.
Arlington Apartments, 57 houses built in the 1970s, were recently the subject of a demolition and rebuild. But the Hankey St tower still stands, a landmark reminder of the bad old days that birthed the kaupapa of patched gangs.
According to Oscar, growing up in Arlington there was a lot of racism, a lot of violence. He said this factually; not as an excuse, nor to victimise himself. He offered it as an explanation for why things are the way they are.
Pele, the chapter President, affirmed this, yet neither saw it as an excuse for sympathy. Neither men are prone to self pity. They see it as incubatory; it made them who they are, prepared them for a multitude of challenges they would face later in life. They sought refuge at a time when few would give them shelter. The Māori, the Palagi, the Indians, their neighbours in Arlington, all labeled them lesser. The older Samoan community, the generation of their parents and grandparents, did not accept them, and still do not. So they turned to each other. What else were they to do? What else is anyone to do? No one picks up a gang flag or goes through the journey of getting patched to actively intimidate people, or to profit from crime, or to become another ripple in a wave of moral hysteria — they do this to belong.
Social housing will always try to eat its babies, but daily opposition from your surroundings breeds toughness and resolution. In this way, Full Blooded Islanders is the antithesis of Arlington, born of its hallways, battered doors, and plywood windows. They took misery and made it a catalyst for growth and strength. They created a brotherhood, emblazoned across the bottom rocker of the patch. Brotherhood got them out of the jaws of state housing communities in the 80s, and brotherhood enables them to overcome new adversity.
Adversity might range from the serious, like court cases and custody of children, to the mundane, like paying bills or a busy week at work. They are no different to you and me, with jobs and families and day to day commitments that need to be fulfilled. Brotherhood means that one of the boys got out of the cells just in time to attend a member’s wedding. Such is life. A patch doesn’t change a person.
“Brotherhood” might read as a cliche, but it is truly the most accurate description for FBI. Family means everything. It means calling the incarcerated brothers and updating them on the lives of their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. It means that those incarcerated brothers look after the neutrals and the victimised in prison and give them protection inside. It means that when they get out, they have someone to turn to. The supporters’ gear is emblazoned with, “family, unity, respect.” These three qualities make up brotherhood.

The brotherhood gives them significant positive influence in the community. The former mayor of Porirua still turns up to FBI family days. FBI has taken an active role in preventing P dealing in Newtown, and have actively confronted rival gang members in public for selling. This is not a task for the faint-hearted, especially given the criminal backing behind dealers. But it comes with the territory. FBI have never engaged in drug dealing. They are very aware of the moral dilemma that would come with selling crack while looking after their own children.
They have been approached by larger gangs to sell on their behalf, but have refused. After all, destroying a community through drug addiction would be antithetical to FBI, to their whole raison d’etre — family. They have an interest in preserving their communities, rather than selling P to the next man for short term gain and desolating their children’s futures. After all, they can’t abandon a community they have battled over.
FBI were the first to wear red in Newtown, but later changed to green out of mutual respect with Black Power. Mutuality is a common theme in Newtown. They grew up with boys who would become part of Black Power, Nomads, Mongrel Mob, knew them as kids before there were face tattoos, patches, felonies, and the tumultuous lives lived behind those markers. They could co-exist, it just needed some give and take. Reaching that give and take was another matter, and is what lead to the creation of Green Gloves Boxing Gym around 2008.
The gym began as a response to violence in Newtown. Between 2007 and 2010 several skirmishes occurred between Black Power and FBI. One particular incident resulted in several arrests and a Black Power member in ICU for facial reconstructive surgery. There was a string of similar encounters, after which there was heavy attention on the boys, from Black Power and Police. Speaking to the boys, the experience served as a valuable lesson in the highly damaging effect of prolonged conflict. Violence never occurs in isolation.
Every action has a consequence. The boys are keenly aware of this. For three months afterward, wives and children had to be dropped off and picked up from work and school, never left alone and always with an entourage for security. Their houses became targets for rivals. No one wants to live their lives like this, and thus FBI seeks to manage — rather than escalate — conflict. Newtown is too small for warfare. Hence, Green Gloves Boxing Gym was created.

The gym sits in humble surroundings at the top of Hanson St and Stoke St. On a clear day you can see all the way down to the waterfront, past the Hanson apartments and Countdown, past the basin reserve, all the way to the CBD. It features a small ring with a single rope, heavy bags, and brand new pads, gloves, uniforms, and boxing boots courtesy of a charity grant. Everyone is welcome to learn at Green Gloves, and on any given Tuesday or Thursday at 6pm, a wide range of people will show up to train, from schoolkids to tradies and young professionals.
Every second Thursday a local community group comes in and takes a 20 minute Zumba warmup and Lord have Mercy if you can’t dance enthusiastically to Proud Mary and Taylor Swift. An electronic timer sits on the wall, dictating fighters to train in two and three minute intervals. Before amateur competitions, the head coach Pele makes the fighters spar for three, three minute rounds non-stop.
It was only at the tournament that they found out that their rounds would only be two minutes. Still, they were prepared well. Before another tournament, Pele informed the fighters that if they got beaten up in the ring, they’d get beaten up once they stepped out of the ring. Naturally, all the fighters won their fights.
The gym produces unique boxers, unique young men and women. There’s a video on YouTube of Mandela winning a fight by TKO after breaking his opponents nose. He was 15, while his opponent was 17 and weighed 40 kgs more than him.
Iaka and David are Golden Gloves Champions. David is 14, and spars — and easily beats — grown men. The gym teaches pressure fighting, avoiding opponents punches, and overwhelming them with unorthodox combinations to eliminate them as soon as possible. This is born of growing up around adversary as well — constant societal pressure requires a fighting style fit to deal with that pressure, to respond in kind. Newtown breeds a special kind of warrior. The smell of sweat, barked instructions from the coaches, the battered ring mats and tattooed hands — these are all markers of the frenetic fighting style and what makes a Green Gloves boxer.
FBI prospects show up, but not to sell drugs or engage in petty crime — they set the gym up, hanging bags and rolling handwraps, wiping down gloves and sweeping floors once training is over. They have a serving role at social functions and generally are regarded as a useful pair of hands. If they are being tested, they are being tested on their loyalty, their work ethic. Getting patched is, as one member explained to me, “a personal journey”.

Some have not lasted, relapsing to old habits. Some have stuck on. One of their members used to have a leadership position with King Cobra Aiga 11.3. He patched over to FBI after King Cobra started selling drugs. This speaks to the respect FBI hold in the community. The newest patched member is a Sri Lankan immigrant. FBI is not discriminatory.
Broad are the shoulders that wear the patch. For so much as it’s a blessing, as much is it a burden. Earlier this year there was a home invasion in Wainui on a known Black Power member’s house. The attackers were wearing green; FBI colours. One of the boys in Naenae got a “please-explain” call from the leader of Black Power in Wainui. He assured him it wasn’t FBI. Which was good, as Black Power had been planning to show up to, putting it subtly, have a “conversation”.
In a way it made sense that the attackers tried to align themselves to FBI. They have a reputation for standing behind their words. Last year there was a hit put out on Pele. Again, putting it subtly, this was “dealt with” swiftly; the hit was taken off within 24 hours.

Wellington plays host to a horde of gang members, most of whom are connected by family ties. Living in close quarters makes conflict inevitable, futile, yet all the more anguishing. It is entirely different to the situation further North in the regions, where Mongrel Mob and Black Power stake claim over vast territories, and motorcycle club numbers have dwindled, with the presence of HeadHunters MC and Rebels MC still being relatively new. The uniqueness of the gang demographic in Wellington has meant that compromises are made.

The subtlety with which FBI operates stems again from the ethos of boxing, of controlled conflict. Training requires immense self discipline. Time and time again, the fighters hit the floor, spring to their feet, repeating burpees and pushups and situps in endless iterations until they are fit enough to fight. Countless hours are spent practicing, perfecting combinations. Footwork is 90% of boxing; to get your feet in the right spot, a length of pipe is tied between the learner’s ankles. They spar and spar, and spar some more, the coaches yelling instructions at them scarcely heard behind the embrace of headgear. With every victory, the boxer loses a little piece of themselves. But at Green Gloves, fighters leave as more than they were to begin. They improve their health, and physical fitness. They form relationships and are fiercely loyal to one another. And they learn the freedom of discipline and the joy of fighting, for each other and to better themselves. The gym has given young men and women something more than conflict over colours.

Over the years family members have faced their own struggles. Gus once turned up to boxing with an ankle bracelet, ensnared in EM bail. The next week he was gone; to Rimutaka. C-Moa was given up to 7 years non-parole. Ironically he would have been out sooner if he’d killed someone. He had the choice between Whanganui and Rimutaka prison. Whanganui could offer him the rehabilitation support he needed. But Whanganui is three hours north of Wellington and a world away from the familiarity of his brothers and sisters. It was also predominantly Mongrel Mob, Black Power, HeadHunters, Hells Angels. Not that the odds worried him. But as a result he elected to serve his sentence in Rimutaka. He runs his wing. As he should; he is a king. But 7 years is a heavy price to pay for a crown.
It is easy to condemn gang culture as immoral, as intimidatory. Yet to do so is to become part of the problem, to merge into the sea of misery that created patches in the first place. Like it or not, gangs have been, are and always will be a part of the tapestry of New Zealand.
FBI are royalty, and the boxing gym a castle; a vestibule against the tide of gentrification and a reminder of what Newtown used to be. Before it became coffee houses and craft beer bars, before tolerance was fashionable, before privilege was seen as a mark of shame and racism was disguised behind political correctness. An FBI patch at the Newtown Markets is not something to be afraid of. It is a visual representation of those with a vested interested in the community beyond property development and suburb zoning. Full Blooded Islanders were meant to be here, preordained as warriors worth more than their circumstances. Green, the colour of kings; green, the colour of healing.


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