I’ve been thinking recently about power and privilege.
Several months ago now a couple of political hopefuls, with aspirations for the Auckland mayorality, threw out some sensational takes on youth, crime, and the state of our nation’s largest city.
Those takes were picked up by journalists, whose editors chose equally sensational headlines, escalating the conversation, and going further by demanding a response from Government ministers. It didn’t take long for opposition parties to see an opportunity, and before long we had National and Act both weighing in and demanding action.
As I’ve reflected on the debate over the last few months I’ve been increasingly frustrated by the lack of evidence and basic understanding around the issues, displayed by those with the platforms to drive this debate.
The conversation has increasingly been framed by many media personalities and journalists through the “tough on crime” lens. This means politicians are constantly under pressure to prove they – and their party – are the ones being “tough on crime”.
Instead of talking about the real issues, or asking the critical questions of how we got to the point where children are getting into cars and driving them into buildings, or why our young tane are arming themselves for war, and giving up their lives for a patch of cloth, we have narrowed the conversation down to one, narrow, point.
The tough on crime rhetoric is failing us, not just because it demonstrates a lack of understanding around the issue at hand, but also because it obscures real solutions.
Instead of discussing how we can deal with the driving factors that contribute to crime, the growth of gangs, and violence, we are discussing ways to lock up more people for longer.
The evidence is fairly clear that these forms of crime are not prevented by harsher and more punitive measures. So, this conversation (if we are truly being honest), is not so much about how we protect people and keep our communities safe, it is solely about retribution and revenge after a crime has occurred.
We can do so much more to strengthen and empower our communities, resourcing and empowering our people to do more than survive, but to actually thrive. In doing so we will prevent crime.
However, the “tough on crime” rhetoric has become a political football, a tool to drive ratings and boost clicks for media personalities, and cheap headlines and easy votes for politicians. And as the powerful punch down on the weak, we miss discussing the solutions that could actually bring about change.
I can’t help thinking about the real world consequences of this kōrero. Of how policy created off the back of this moment, has the potential to continue to the cycle we are currently in.
I think about the kids I know who have experienced the worst of what New Zealand has to offer. Children born into homelessness, survivors of abuse, children, left to fend for themselves, who have had to find a way to survive which has put them out of step with mainstream society.
I think of the traumatized young men who have been conditioned to believe that violence is the only way to be, that love for one’s whānau, is to be bigger, stronger and more aggressive towards one’s enemy.
And than I think of how this conversation has been driven by people who have such little knowledge of the extremity of inequality and poverty in Aotearoa. Of people who do not truly know the depth of suffering and truama we are allowing in this country due to political decisions we as a collective have made.
Decisions to allow some to suffer, to struggle, to fight to survive, while allowing others to amass wealth, and live lives of excess and privilege.
If our media and leaders want to create safer communities, than they need to shift the conversation on gangs and crime.
We can go on about being “tough on crime” all we like, but until we get serious about addressing the reason our children and whānau are choosing this path, we will have very little success in healing our communities.
A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.
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