WHILE NEW ZEALANDERS RECOIL in shock from a seemingly endless series of ram-raids, the news from overseas is worse.
According to the UK internet magazine, Spiked: “a few weeks ago, about 100 young people ransacked a Wawa convenience store in Philadelphia. The mob stole merchandise, knocked over shelves and threw food and drinks around, leaving the store looking like a natural disaster had hit it. Many got their phones out to record the madness. As chaos reigned, a young woman twerked on a counter. Fighting spilled out into the parking lot.”
This degree of lawlessness, akin to, but a whole order of magnitude greater than, our own ram-raids, is indicative of a society that has lost all respect for itself. Societies that respect themselves do not produce young people who pillage convenience stores or drive stolen cars into neighbourhood dairies. Societies that respect themselves produce citizens who respect one another.
Those who recall the rioting that accompanied the “Black Lives Matter” protests against the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer back in 2020, may also recall the number of times journalists and politicians repeated the words of Martin Luther King:
“Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
What happened in Philadelphia, however, was not the spilling-over of rage at the death of yet another African-American at the hands of the Police. White America heard the rage of the BLM protesters – and the rioters. What happened inside that Wawa store is what happens when White America hears the rage – and ignores it.
Comfortable New Zealand needs to ask itself whether the ram-raids it finds so disturbing are the product of something similar.
Prime Minister Ardern and her Labour colleagues promised action against poverty and homelessness. A government, supposedly driven by “the politics of kindness”, pledged itself to fulfilling a “transformational” programme of social and economic change. Except, the only transformation visible from the mean streets of South and West Auckland was the transition from bad to worse.
The Covid-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a factor in the deterioration of young and marginalised citizens’ life-worlds. For many the habits of schooling were simply lost. That so many of them remained lost, however, owes a great deal to the fact that so few people came looking for them. An education system that does not crack down hard on truancy sends out a terrible message. It is saying: “We don’t care.” Young people seldom need to be sent that message twice.
Comfortable New Zealand is learning the hard way that its alienated and unwanted young people have some “messages” of their own to deliver.
Earlier this week it was reported that, in the past five years, the number of gang members in New Zealand has doubled from 4,000 to 8,000, and that the recruitment of 18-25 year-olds is up by 75 percent. When the state’s official places of learning breathe a huge sigh of relief that their most disruptive students are no longer in the classroom, does that mean that those truants have given up on being taught? Or, are they simply learning different lessons, from different teachers?
And these lessons are dreadful – made all the more so for having about them the unmistakeable ring of truth. Money is everything. No one cares where it comes from. The Courts can’t cope. If you’re under 17 you won’t go to jail. The Police are powerless. The Law is a joke. Stealing is easy. Don’t worry about getting caught. Always remember who your friends are. Violence works.
Think of the ram-raid as a kind of grim performance art. Like the trashing of the Wawa convenience store in Philadelphia, it offers a terrifying, fun-fair reflection of the hyper-consumerist society we all inhabit. Because, if money and things truly are what define us, then why should our alienated and unwanted youngsters be content to remain undefined, simply for want of cash? If, as they strongly suspect, Comfortable New Zealand has given up on them, then why shouldn’t they make New Zealand uncomfortable?
If rioting is the language of the unheard, then ram-raiding and the trashing of convenience stores is the language of those who no longer believe in talking.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 21 October 2022.