Sure, it’s a stereotype, but cliches are born of at least some basis in fact, and when it comes to bikers, the stereotype of the wild, shaggy,road-dusty biker wreaking anarchistic havoc, brawling in bars and living on the edge of the law has it’s basis in a tough and grimy reality.
We all know that the vast majority of bikers are honest, law-abiding, hard working types who function during the day as lawyers, accountants, painters, carpenters and bartenders. But the element which draws the notoriety, the “1%ers,” have captured the public imagination as the last cowboys, men and women broken loose from the tight strictures and controls of a society which measures success and acceptability via a system which needs “losers” as a benchmark as much as it celebrates “winners.”
What makes a hardcore biker turn to a gang for companionship and protection? A need for family, it’s often that simple, but where it goes from there is shrouded in mystery and a nearly Masonic secrecy.
We’re talking true Outlaws here, men who, though they may cling to the trappings of society and respectability, have a true need to run fast and loose and don’t need your damn help deciding how they ought to live.
It all began with the end of WWII in 1945 when thousands of war veterans filtered back home trying to recover their normal lives and fit back into a society that had essentially left them behind and were more than willing to ignore what they’d been through. As a way to regain some of the adrenaline-inducing thrills of living every day near death, vets began mounting up on high-powered Harley Davidson or Indian bikes and seeking thrills you don’t get from adding up figures or fitting crown moulding in someone’s dining room all day. The bike gangs of the 50′s were more or less loosely knit groups of bored rowdies who loved bikes, high speed and the thrill of racing them with a few beers under their belts.
In an article for The Nation, Hunter Thompson summed up what outlaw motorcycle gangs are all about in a way that made him – and his subject, the Hell’s Angels, famous:
“We’re bastards to the world and they’re bastards to us,” one of the Oakland Angels told a Newsweek reporter. “When you walk into a place where people can see you, you want to look as repulsive and repugnant as possible. We are complete social outcasts–outsiders against society.”
A lot of this is a pose, but anyone who believes that’s all it is has been on thin ice since the death of Jay Gatsby. The vast majority of motorcycle outlaws are uneducated, unskilled men between 20 and 30, and most have no credentials except a police record. So at the root of their sad stance is a lot more than a wistful yearning for acceptance in a world they never made; their real motivation is an instinctive certainty as to what the score really is. They are out of the ball game and they know it–and that is their meaning; for unlike most losers in today’s society, the Hell’s Angels not only know but spitefully proclaim exactly where they stand.
I went to one of their meetings recently, and half-way through the night I thought of Joe Hill on his way to face a Utah firing squad and saying his final words: “Don’t mourn, organize.” It is safe to say that no Hell’s Angel has ever heard of Joe Hill or would know a Wobbly from a Bushmaster, but nevertheless they are somehow related. The I.W.W. had serious plans for running the world, while the Hell’s Angels mean only to defy the world’s machinery. But instead of losing quietly, one by one, they have banded together with a mindless kind of loyalty and moved outside the framework, for good or ill. There is nothing particularly romantic or admirable about it; that’s just the way it is, strength in unity. They don’t mind telling you that running fast and loud on their customized Harley 74s gives them a power and a purpose that nothing else seems to offer.
Hunter S Thompson
From The Motorcyle Gangs in The Nation
Shortly after Thompson wrote that piece for The Nation and then finished his book on the gang, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, several members of the gang stomped Thompson after he upbraided a gang member known as Junkie George for beating his wife.
Thompson told him: “Only a punk beats his wife,” and that led to a vicious thumping which effectively ended Thompson’s association with the Angels.
Thompson did say he enjoyed the company of club president Sonny Barger and others in the club following the incident, though not surprisingly none of the club members who attacked him.
That sort of outsider without a cause stance stood true from most of the 70′s and into the 80′s, but the Hell’s Angels slowly morphed into the more sophisticated enterprise which the group represents today. Along with them, only four “motorcycle gangs” seem to have the kind of following and engage in the sort of activities which have warranted investigations by concerned authorities. Those groups? The Hell’s Angels, the Outlaws, the Pagans and the Bandidos. Often referred to as the “Big Four,” these motorcycle clubs have chapters in multiple states and zealously guard their secrets, their economic spheres and their territories.
The Vagos Motorcycle Club, like the Hell’s Angels, first came together in San Bernardino, CA in the 1960’s. Club members generally wear green and represent themselves with a patch featuring the Norse god Loki riding a motorcycle. The Vagos have something like 24 chapters, mostly chartered in the western United States, and three in Mexico.
The Vagos came onto the radar of the FBI and the ATF for allegedly producing vast quantities of methamphetamine, and engaging in such frowned-upon activities as murder, money laundering and weapons violations to protect their operations.
Investigations which began in March of 2006 culminated in the arrests of 25 Vagos members and their “known associates” in what was called at the time as “the largest investigation in Southern California’s history.”
The Free Souls
Originally formed in Oregon in the late 1960’s, the Free Souls identified themselves with a patch featuring an Ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol in the shape of a cross, which floats in the center of a motorcycle rim and tire.
All the club’s chapters, outside of one in Vancouver, B.C., are located within the state of Oregon.
During May of 2007, three members of The Free Souls Motorcycle Club were arrested and charged with various crimes which included possession of illegal drugs, weapons violations possession of stolen motorcycles. All the booty was seized as part of that investigation.
Founded by a Vietnam Marine veteran in San Antonio, TX in 1966, The Bandidos are among the more notorious of American Motorcycle Clubs. With some 90 chapters spread across the U.S. alone, The Bandidos have branched out to Asia, Germany and Australia.
Back in 2006, a member of The Bandidos was arrested, tried and convicted of the 2006 murder of Robert Quiroga, the IBF super flyweight champion who held the title from 1990 to 1993. Quiroga was playing cards with a member of the Bandidos when the pair got in an altercation over a poster of Scarface, and Quiroga was stabbed to death as a result.
Formed in Detroit, MI in 1954 chapters of The Highwaymen are spread across the state of Michigan and other U.S. states. Their number have grown to countries like Norway and the U.K. Identified by their insignia which features a winged skeleton wearing a motorcycle cap and a leather jacket, The Highwaymen also are also notorious for their motto: “Yea, though we ride the highways in the shadows of death, we fear no evil, for we are the most evil mother f****** on the highway.”
In May 2007, following two year’s of scrutiny into the club’s activities, the FBI raided clubhouses belonging to the group and those raids resulted in the arrest of forty club members and associates on charges ranging from insurance and mortgage fraud, murder for hire, cocaine dealing, attempts to bribe police and racketeering.
Founded in 1967 in Philadelphia, PA, The Warlocks numbers swelled after the end of the Vietnam War. Limited by charter to white males only, The Warlocks hold sway in the state of Pennsylvania and large sections of the northeastern United States. The club boasts chapters in the southeastern United States, and overseas in Germany and the U.K.
The former President of the Bucks County, PA chapter,Tommy Zaroff, a was arrested on suspicion of being in possession of up to ten pounds of methamphetamine which was allegedly manufactured by the gang. That same year, four members of The Warlocks were arrested and charged with producing, transporting and distributing methamphetamine. Authorities says the club is responsible for selling some five hundred pounds of the drug in total.