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Thug Life

A History Of Australian Gangs

In March 2016 a small group of disengaged and lawless Victorian teens, known as the Apex gang, made national and international headlines when a frightening street riot erupted during Melbourne’s family-friendly Moomba Festival. Three years on, what have we learnt? Some still argue that Melbourne is in the midst of a youth gang crisis and crime wave, others point to a declining crime rate and suggest that a moral panic has evolved in response to disproportionate news reports. In this edited extract from his new book, Melbourne Under Siege?, Dr Brian Williams unravels how the Apex and youth crime situation emerged, takes a historical look at gangs in Australia and why young men and women find being in a ‘gang’ so enticing…

During 2014, a group of dissociated teens, mostly of South Sudanese descent, first formed the so-called Apex Gang, clumsily naming their breakaway mob after their non-descript residential street in the south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Dandenong. They were soon joined by other like-minded youngsters from a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, including Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern and Australian.

The ‘gang’ – if it ever really existed at all – never displayed any of the indicators traditionally associated with such a criminal outfit. It seemingly had no structure or organisation, no formalised leadership and no defined membership. Nor did the group have a clubhouse, a uniform, a set of colours, or even a common purpose. Yet, within a few short years, the loosely defined Apex Gang evidently swelled in numbers and spread its tentacles. It was subsequently joined in the fray by other similar groups such as the YCW (Young Crucified Warriors), Islander 23 and MTS (Menace to Society).

Despite considerable examples of unlawful and antisocial behaviour seemingly modelled on such violent video games as Grand Theft Auto, these gangs mostly flew under the media and public radar until a frightening street riot erupted in the streets of Melbourne in the most publicly exposed way imaginable – during the family-friendly Moomba celebrations in March 2016. The ensuing mayhem, perpetrated by hundreds of swarming supporters of Apex and Islander 23, put Melbourne firmly in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. All of a sudden the city didn’t look so marvellous any more. It now looked like Melbourne had gone mad.

The Moomba riot was a watershed moment in the reputational history of the Apex gang, and others like it. There was now a media firestorm about Apex, and headline after headline was devoted to the fabled gang’s sordid and outrageous activities, real or perceived.

The brazen attacks labelled and publicised under the banner of ‘Apex’ were characterised by their outrageous levels of violence and randomness: car-jackings, assaults, home invasions, personal thefts, shop smash and grabs, ram raids, jewellery store heists, vandalism and public brawls.

These wrongdoers had seemingly no respect for the law, little trepidation about the powers of the police, and only scant fear about the consequences of their actions.

The response to the ‘Apex’ problem and ensuing mass media attention has understandably left everybody talking. Emotional opinions, untested perceptions, and rubbery statistics have been left flying around everywhere.

Some in very high places have suggested that Melburnians have become so traumatised by the gang culture they are too scared to venture out at night. Their dissenters mock these suggestions, even providing satirical responses online. To others, an overemphasis on political correctness impeded the swiftness of the response needed. But Victoria Police formed a different view, confidently declaring in April 2017 that Apex was by then a spent force and a ‘nonentity’. Some in the know questioned if Apex ever existed at all, and suggested that the entire assemblage may have simply been a front for more organised and mature criminals willing to recruit impressionable minors do their dirty work.

The most polarising question of all that has emerged is whether or not Melbourne is in the midst of a youth gang ‘crisis’ and ensuing ‘crime wave’. Although the available crime data does not always fall into line with the rhetoric, those from both sides of the debate often use the same sets of statistics to justify their position, which only goes to show how easily these types of broadly calculated figures can be cherry-picked or carved out to support a preordained argument.

Yet, the most deeply disturbing development throughout this whole debate has been the emergence of some of the worst prejudice in Australian history. In particular, it has been the innocent Australians of South Sudanese descent who have found themselves being unfairly targeted and discriminated against. In both express and implied ways, this racism has been conveyed and amplified through numerous methods, ranging all the way from blatantly uncensored online rants to subtle reporting practices.

Whilst there can be no denying that a very, very small minority of Australian–South Sudanese youths have fallen into criminal conduct (about 150 hardcore offenders at last count) any attempt to racially transfer blame for this behaviour on to an entire sector of the population can only be described as despicable. And in modern day Australia it should be possible to outline and debate the pertinent issues without any need to slide into racism.

It is clearly time to provide a balanced review of the ‘Apex’-like developments to separate the perceptions from the realities, always mindful of the fact that there have been many victims left severely traumatised. It needs to be understood from the outset that the problems we are facing are not just policing issues. And a deeper evaluation should also not ignore the most pivotal question of all: how do these embittered young people end up being so dangerously of the rails in the first place?

With so much recent talk about Apex and other youth crimes gangs causing such disorder, it is also worth reminding ourselves that groups of belligerent young men have routinely formed fearsome gangs and mindlessly rebelled against the laws of the community. They have also sought opportunities to belt the living daylights out of each other, and often for no particularly good reason. All major Australian cities have had their gangs over the years – ever since crime statistics started to be recorded, ‘youth crime’ has been a recognisable problem. And it has always attracted the headlines.

During the late 19th century, Melbourne journalists and the courts identified gang-like street crime by labelling the lawless participants as ‘larrikins’ –  the term broadly applied to the groups of young males who were then harassing customers in busy shopping strips, robbing passers-by in the street, and storming pubs and shops to steal drink, food, clothing and cash.  

From there right up till World War II, the Melbourne street gangs came to be known as ‘pushes’. The ‘pushes’ were all frighteningly violent street brawlers, and their menacing activities and tribalism soon saw the inner industrial areas of Melbourne divided into unofficial boundaries, which contemporary residents would hardly be able to pinpoint today.

The pushes all wore distinctive attire and had colourful tags, which usually reflected their geographic origins. The impoverished industrial areas, such as Collingwood, Richmond and Fitzroy had multiple pushes within their boundaries, all heavily opposed to each other. One of Australia’s most legendary gangsters, Squizzy Taylor, had commenced his criminal activities stalking around with a notorious larrikin crew called the Bourke Street Rats before graduating to lead one of the Richmond pushes.

And Melbourne was not alone in the growth of the youth pushes. One of the most infamous packs in Australian history was the Rocks push, a notorious gang which violently dominated and terrorised The Rocks area of Sydney for several decades. Speaking of Sydney, it should also not be forgotten that after the carrying of concealed handguns was outlawed there in 1927, the New South Wales hoods began carrying razors in their pockets to disfigure the faces of their adversaries. The brutal activities of the razor gangs continued for a number of years, and was also replicated in the inner areas of Melbourne, where fishhooks often became the weapon of choice.

In Victoria, a police squad known as the Terrible Ten was assembled to deal with the local pushes. The Terrible Ten not only consisted of the burliest men available in the force, they were even officially issued with lengths of hose and pick handles to apply to the noggins of the offenders. This was the type of response that law-abiding citizens then wanted to see.

A new gang title emerged in the 1950s and ‘criminally-inclined youth’ was again identified as a dangerous phenomenon. The ‘new folk devils’ were the male Bodgies and female Widgies, who were characterised by their hairstyle, dress and penchant for rock music. They lounged around developing districts, often intimidating passers-by near milk bars, street corners and dance halls. As a sign of the times, most Bodgies rode motorbikes and some even had cars, duly hotted up and gaudily decorated.

All of Australia’s major cities had a Bodgie and Widgie problem, with Sydney leading the leather-clad charge. The first Bodgie gang there was the Woolloomooloo Yanks, and by 1948 about 200 Brylcreem-lathered Bodgies were regularly congregating in Kings Cross milk bars, before they began frequenting other inner-Sydney locations. Concern about the blade-carrying Bodgies and Widgies ignited a wave of moral indignation throughout the Australian community.

Some concerned and punitive citizens advocated that harsh corporal punishment was the only method that could be applied to Bodgies to help them see the errors of their ways. Less popular were those theorists more concerned with adopting preventative measures. With the vocal support of many middle-class Victorians – including parents, teachers, clergy and community leaders – the police of the day cared little about theoretical niceties or the need to discuss psychological rigour. They preferred a confrontationist approach.

In such an environment, no-one seemed to object too much in Victoria when a specialised ‘Bodgie Squad’ of plain-clothed, heavyweight police were assembled in the late 1950s to deal with the problem. Their most common tactics consisted of giving all Bodgies a thick ear outside dance halls, or arresting them on the spot and later applying a bit more physical treatment at the local lock-up. Under such persuasive measures, the Bodgies and Widgies of Melbourne were eventually consigned to history.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s the ‘Sharpie’ and ‘Skinhead’ movement had clearly arrived. And with this youth subculture came a lot of very nasty gangs. As recalled by Melbourne rock identity, Bruce Milne, in an article for ‘Perfect Sound Forever’, Sharpies were largely defined by their haircuts and clothing. Though there were some variations, the basic look for both males and females was short hair, with long mullet wisps (or ‘rat tails’, as they were called) out the back, often bleached. The standard uniform was flared, high-waisted pants or jeans and a tight-fitted, striped cardigan. Staggers jeans were worn for special occasions, and the girls were sometimes seen in extremely short denim skirts.

Footwear for males consisted of big platform boots, often multicoloured and sometimes even made of suede. They had a heavy heel and an exaggerated rounded or squared toe – coincidently, perfect for kicking a fallen enemy in the head. Girls wore platform shoes with a solid cork base – the higher the better – or sometimes treads, a weird looking sandal made out of car tyres. The height of their shoes and tight cut of their clothes meant that many Sharpies seemed to strut around with a gait not dissimilar to the comedic TV character Herman Munster. They even raged a bit like Herman Munster as they performed their usual dances to simple, pulsating, call-to-arms anthems like “Metal Guru” and “Teenage Rampage”. The classic Sharpie dance saw them forming small circles, bouncing on their legs, and thumping their fists up and down in front of their bodies.

In terms of adornments, Sharpie girls always heavily plucked their eyebrows, and caked themselves in heavy eye make-up of gaudy colours such as powder blue and burnt orange. On the other hand, Sharpie boys were the first males to routinely wear earrings, initially just one small ring, although, this number seemed to escalate with the rise of the Sharpie movement. Sharpies were often bored kids, hailing from the battling outer suburbs that had sprung up too quickly, and they had a dearth of facilities to entertain them.

Their gangs were highly territorial, and often named after the housing commission estates from whence they came. Broadmeadows had the fearsome Broady Boys, and the outer eastern enclave of Jordanville had the Jordy Boys. Other housing commission areas in Doveton and Sunshine also had their own gangs. Among a multitude of other local luminaries, there was also the Holmesglen Skins, South Blackie [Blackburn] Sharps, Frankston Sharps, South Melbourne Sharps, Melbourne Skins, A and A Sharps, Ringwood Sharps, Berger Boys, (Heidelberg), Borough Boys (Greensborough), Balmoral Boys (named after Balmoral Street in Braybrook) and the Northside Sharps.

Presumably because they were either too poor or too young to own cars, much of the criminal behaviour of the Sharpies took place on railway lines and their associated stations. The Sharps would congregate in huge numbers around Flinders Street in central Melbourne, disturb local businesses, vandalise public and private property, and accost passengers for money. They would also do likewise around cinemas, bowling alleys, pinball parlours, musical concerts and suburban shopping centres.

At least two major Sharpie battles resulted in two music festivals – an all-day concert held at Frankston on Boxing Day, and a Richmond concert featuring Sharpie favourite Lobby Loyde and The Coloured Balls – being abruptly called off when the bouncers (from Bob Jones security, no less) could not possibly quell the riots. Because of their exaggerated dress and mannerisms, a certain level of sentimentality may have historically attached itself to the 1970s urban stories about the Sharpies. It needs to be understood that whilst many embraced the Sharpie fashion and ethos, not all were actually members of a gang.

But that is where the joy should end. There was absolutely nothing humorous or heroic about many of the thugs attached to the Sharpie gangs. Some were violent individuals, who used strength-in-numbers to conceal their cowardice, and others were effectively serving apprenticeships for what would later become hardened criminal careers. They were into aggravated burglaries, savage assaults, random bashings, car theft, rape, arson, wholesale vandalism, armed robberies, and were usually equipped with a range of knives and other weapons. Front page stories featured iron bars and homemade guns.

And while they did engage in punch-ups among themselves, they much preferred easier targets, particularly anyone they randomly decided did not fit their image, or anyone who had innocently strayed into their self-designated territory. They hated surfers and would often travel (you guessed it, by train) to a coastal suburb to bash as many beachgoers as they could. Anyone with longer hair could be ostracised and isolated as a ‘pansy’ and subjected to a ‘poofter’ bashing, and they sneeringly referred to all ethnic groups as ‘wogs’ and doubly targeted them.

In light of these types of experiences, there was little public objection whenever the cops bit the bullet and threw the local Sharps or Skins into a divvy van and drove them off for a stint in the local cells, or even in gaol. They were eventually replaced by the emerging punk culture, famed for its own challenging brand of behaviour, that operated on the fringe of society.

The 1980s were halcyon years for Melbourne’s infamous graffiti crews, with gang membership booming during this era. The increased exposure to American media showcased the culture of graffiti, hip hop and American gangs, which in turn, influenced Australian youths. The new gangs were frequently profiled in the press for their criminal activity. Some of the illicit luminaries at this time were DMC (Da Mad Artists), WCA (Wild Child Artists), PBP (Puffing Billy Posse) and AC (All City). Although their striking ‘artwork’ was revered and celebrated by other younger graffiti writers, most in the community considered it to be downright vandalism and highly expensive damage to public property.

The graffiti crews represent a rare example of a gang culture that has demonstrated longevity, often boasting an older membership base. Some members are even aged in their fifties, having first met as teenagers in the 1980s. They have now clocked up more than thirty years of offending, and gone on to prove that you’re never too old to be immature. The veterans have been joined by a core group of men in their 20s and 30s, in addition to children as young as 12.

Given that graffiti is a cashless criminal subculture, the motivation behind this type of activity is a mystery to many. The exponents are also highly sophisticated and networked, taking the time to meticulously plan their crimes. ‘Their tag is their cash – it’s their notoriety, it’s their fame,’ explains Sergeant Duncan Browne of the Victorian transit safety division. The graffiti gangs have never seemed to cause too much hysteria, because it is the gangs with violence in their culture that usually have everybody talking. Those that specialise in drawing pictures on trains, calling out names, and pulling faces at police rarely inject much panic into the populace.

In more recent times, many youth gangs have been perceived as loosely overlapping with their ethnic identity. Typically, they comprise of male members sharing common religions or ancestry. In the outer south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Latin American youth have been linked to a gang identified by its Noble Park postcode, 3174, and the Lebanese Tigers has emerged in the inner north. There have also been Chinese and knife-wielding Vietnamese gangs emerge all over Australia. In Sydney, a prominent gang has been Brothers for Life, which is believed to have recently split into a number of cliques.

Some lesser-known Australian youth outfits have now replicated the names of American street gangs, notably Black P. Stones, Latin Kings, MS-13, Bloods and Crips. Other more radical gangs such as Friends Stand United, Public Enemy No. 1, Volksfront, Hammerskins, and Blood and Honour have also hit Australian streets. Increased attention has recently been paid to Queensland’s south-eastern gangs, Lesbian Butch Soldiers (LBS), Village People and FLC.

Whilst there is still a multitude of purported ‘gangs’ dotted throughout the suburbs of Melbourne, their links to criminal activity are tenuous. Many appear to be little more than loosely affectionate names used referentially by youths residing in these areas. They include such self-appointed cadres as Footscrazy Boys (Footscray Boys), Sunshine Boys, KBK (Kick Back Crew), HCB (Hoppers Crossing Boys), Wezza Bloods (Werribee Bloods), KPC (Kings Park Crew), D-Block (Deer Park), STA (St Albans), Laverton Boys, YRB (Young Richmond Boys), AVB (Ascot Vale Boys), Flemington Boys, MBML (My Brothers My Life), NMB (North Melbourne Boys), ETB (East Timorese Boys), C-Town Soldiers (Cranbourne), Reservoir Bloods, Braybrook Boys, Tottenham Crew, Altown Boys (Altona), JSC (Junior Sunshine Crips), SNK (St Albans/Kings Park), KYR (Kill Your Rivals) and 3LK (Love, Liberty, Loyal, Knowledge).

The progress of technology and social media has seen the internet become a focal point for the modern youth gang. Their purported fellow travellers largely communicate and coordinate their activities via the computer, whilst also posting pictures and boasts of their exploits. Some are even savvy and motivated enough to run a gang’s personal website. Many of the more modern gangs can come and go very rapidly, about the same timeframe that alliances can swiftly shift on social media updates. As veteran youth worker Les Twentyman has observed, ‘Of all the gangs that start up, only about one in 10 hangs on for more than a few months.’

Why have some young men and women traditionally found the allure of being in a ‘gang’ so enticing? They seem to take enormous physical and reputational risks for seemingly little or no reward. It must be understood that youth gang members feel a sense of belonging in their group, which they believe they cannot replicate anywhere else. During their developing years, they enjoy the thrill seeking and high risk-taking. It provides them with more spurts of adrenaline than anything else, and satisfies their thirst for notoriety. And even though this concept may be difficult to reconcile for some moralists, they also do it all for fun.

In light of all this, why did the Apex Gang (and recent other examples like the reputed Menace To Society) cause so much fear, discussion and media attention? Why the sudden re-emergence of ‘moral panic’? Much of this attention surely relates to the nature of the crimes – extremely violent, and directed randomly at everyday citizens. But some of this hysteria has also been race related.

Those who admit to being part of the Sharpie gang movement over 40 years ago – yes, there are still some around – will hazily reminisce that most of their anger was directed at other gangs. By contrast, they will argue that the Apex-like affiliates have always appeared to show no fear of the consequences of their actions, and there is a perception that they have ‘figured out’ the foibles in the justice system to exploit. In such circumstances, it is little wonder that they have attracted media saturation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Brian Williams is a writer, educator, public presenter and lawyer, with a specific interest in criminal law and criminology. This is his sixth book.

MELBOURNE UNDER SIEGE? THE MORAL PANIC BEHIND THE APEX GANG AND YOUTH CRIME BY BRIAN WILLIAMS, NEW HOLLAND PUBLISHERS RRP$32.99, IS AVAILABLE FROM ALL GOOD BOOK RETAILERS OR ONLINE AT WWW.NEWHOLLANDPUBLISHERS.COM

BY BRIAN WILLIAMS

For the full article grab the June 2019 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.

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