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Gangs and Pushes

Before World War II Melbourne street-gangs were known as 'pushes'. During the last quarter of the 19th century journalists and courts identified gang-like street crime with young 'larrikins' or 'larrikinesses', a term applied to groups of young people who annoyed customers in busy shopping strips, or stormed pubs and shops to steal drink, food and clothing. Characteristically, the larrikin displayed contempt for authority and fought the police whenever arrests were attempted. In the argot of the street, larrikins had to be 'carted'.

Fears of larrikinism stemmed from British-born Melburnians uncertain about the morality of colonial youth, and derived in large part from the seemingly inappropriate self-assurance of unskilled workers. In the boom times of the 1870s and 1880s, labourers in Collingwood or leather-workers in West Melbourne were able to earn relatively high wages and so escape the constant surveillance that went with an apprenticeship or domestic service. Both C.J. Dennis' depiction of the Sentimental Bloke, and the few snatches of push slang left to us, reflect an insouciance and bravado, the posturing of well-paid workers free to roam the streets, rather than the desperate brutality of thugs warped by a life of poverty. And yet, pushes in areas like Bouverie Street, South Carlton, were frighteningly violent, and single constables were hesitant to chase push members into the impoverished lanes here, and in places like Montague or the Collingwood 'Flat'.

Gangs from different corners of Collingwood would gather each Friday or Saturday night, parodying, or hurling flour and ochre at, the Salvation Army, pestering local shopkeepers, or fighting each other and the police. Over time these localised identities hardened, so that in the first decades of the 20th century pushes like the Crutchy Push from North Melbourne, the Salt Lake Bruisers from Montague, or the Woolpacks (named for the Woolpack Hotel in Carlton) had grown, in the minds of the police, more violent, more identified with industrial locales, and more easily drawn into an adult life of crime.

In the 1920s the 'terrible ten', a special police squad apparently recruited to break up street gangs by brutal means, saw the end of the 'larrikin menace', and while young people continued to gather into loosely knit street-bands, the gang only re-emerged as a supposedly dangerous phenomenon in the 1950s. New folk devils, 'bodgies' and 'widgies', identified by hairstyle, dress and a penchant for rock music, were linked again to working-class districts. Subsequent gang identities, 'sharpies', 'mods', 'skinheads' and 'bogans' equally, have reflected a class-based youth culture, with Housing Commission estates in Jordanville, Doveton, Broadmeadows and Sunshine linked to particular gang styles and occasional 'outrages'. In the 1950s local cinemas and football grounds or less frequently dance halls and nightclubs, rather than the industrial street corner, emerged as sites for gang conflicts with immigrants from Southern Europe sometimes a target, just as the Chinese had been in the 19th century.

However, the motor car, television and the pop music industry have made any link between working-class youth, suburban solidarity and gang rivalries less clear. More recently, gang memberships have sometimes overlapped with ethnic identity. Latin American youth in the outer south-eastern suburbs have been linked to a gang identified by postcode. In the inner north, the 'Lebanese Tigers' were often described as a gang of mainly Middle Eastern origin.

While it is possible to identify gang-like structures among youth of recent immigrant groups, fears of ethnic street-gangs and their violence have more to do with media images drawn from Los Angeles than with the reality of life in Melbourne. For much of the city's history, the youth street-gang has been a constant, if sometimes dangerous phenomenon, drawing together mainly working-class males. For some young people, the loose comradeship of the street has provided security and identity in the difficult and increasingly delayed transition from school to adulthood.

Chris Mcconville