Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Motorcycle Clubs--An Intro

This is a short discussion with a little additional reading. It's really just a start.
(Slightly updated, May 18, 2010).

They come roaring through your town in a tight formation of custom-modified bikes, wearing jeans, extreme hair, and insignia. Are they a threat to your neighborhood or a group out for a weekend's amusement?
Or is it even that cut and dried?
"Saturday Night, Sunday Morning"
Painting by David Mann, available at Segal Fine Art/Motorcycle Art
No helmets, no road grit, no hangovers. Looks like fun.
David Mann's art frequently compares bikers to Vikings, knights, free-booting pirates, mountain men, cowboys, war veterans, and independent truckers. He captures the biker myth: a combination warrior, outsider, loner, and self-sufficient man.

Other artists focus on the tradition, American craftsmanship, or the family aspects of this lifestyle, American scenery, and the romance of the open road.

Motorcycle Clubs (MCs)
Any group of people interested in talking about motorcycles and riding together, planning activities and meetings around motorcycling may be called a motorcycle club. Many of them are enthusiasts of certain brands of bike, a group built around their profession, or the clientele of a particular motorcycle shop.

Further Reading:
--The Blue Knights Official Web site. (a law enforcement motorcycle club).
--Patriot Guard Riders will, at the request of a military, firefighter, or law enforcement family, attend a funeral or memorial service in order to guard the family and service itself from demonstrators. F8 and Be There blog has photos  of them safeguarding a firefighter's funeral in Missouri.
--An article on the Red Knights (a fire fighter's motorcycle club) The founding Massachusetts chapter is shown below. They had originally gathered around a particular motorcycle shop.
--A guide to finding a registered MC in your area at the American Motorcyclist Association
(The 99-percenters)
--Wikipedia, 'Motorcycle Clubs'



Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMGs)
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Gang Unit, motorcycle gangs are a significant security threat:
Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMGs) are organizations whose members use their motorcycle clubs as conduits for criminal enterprises.

"OMGs are highly structured criminal organizations whose members engage in criminal activities such as violent crime, weapons trafficking, and drug trafficking. There are more than 300 active OMGs within the United States, ranging in size from single chapters with five or six members to hundreds of chapters with thousands of members worldwide. They pose a serious national domestic threat and conduct the majority of criminal activity linked to OMGs, especially activity relating to drug-trafficking and, more specifically, to cross-border drug smuggling. Because of their transnational scope, these OMGs are able to coordinate drug smuggling operations in partnership with major international drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs)."

They are transnational, mobile, and have affiliates in most localities.

USDOJ lists the following seven as Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. They are considered a threat to national security, and may have other, smaller gangs affiliated with them. 

The Bandidos
The Black Pistons
The Hell's Angels
The Mongols
The Outlaws
The Pagans
The Sons of Silence
The Vagos

Further reading:
Wikipedia, Outlaw Motorcycle Club. The footnotes are fantastic on this article.
Dulaney, William. (2005, November).A Brief History of "Outlaw" Motorcycle Clubs. International Journal of Motorcycle Studies.
Blog post on the Las Vegas Bike Fest where Vagos and Hell's Angels were there to be consumers, not warriors, at Anneli Adolfsson's blog. Several pictures of motorcycle painting as well.

Back to the Mystique
Thompson, Hunter. "The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders." The Nation, May 17, 1965.
From this article, Thompson went on to write his book The Hell's Angels. Some of his points are:
a. the Department of Justice grossly overestimated the number of motorcyclists involved;
b. that police and press over-reaction served to popularize and consolidate the gangs, the Hell's Angels first;
c. that motorcycle gang members were too independent to organize into strict hierarchies and in fact, could just ride away any time they wanted,
d. Motorcycle gangs are about a certain lifestyle. Criminal activity was not the lifestyle, but crimes were sometimes committed (randomly by random members) to pay for the lifestyle;
d. crimes committed by motorcycle gangs were not committed as a 'gang activity', but the network of individuals (many of them young, ex-cons, and with few job skills) allowed them to find others who would commit crimes with them. In short, one or more gang member might be involved in a crime without it having gang sanction.

What is particularly interesting about this set of claims is that it forms the bulk of an unchanged apologist literature today. The 'bumbling loser' tag has been dropped, but the 'outsider' label lives on in the American imagination. Further, it forms the basis for claims in modern criminal trials for the defense. Thompson's article perfectly describes the theme against which modern law enforcement and prosecution must contend.

The 1947 Hollister Riot / The One-Percenter Motorcycle Club
Both Hunter Thompson and all of the Wikipedia articles refer to a sensationalized bike rally in Hollister, California, during the 4th of July Weekend in 1947. The small town was overwhelmed by the large number of bikers who turned up, but the riot appears to be a product of sensationalized journalism from Time, Newsweek, and Life magazine. The American Motorcyclist Association ostensibly put out a press release saying that "99% of all motorcyclists are law-abiding". Although there is no record of this press release, the term "One-Percenter" has passed into legend. It signifies outlawry and occasionally, the failure to register one's MC with the AMA.

The 'pro bro' refers of course to loyalty within the OMG. It can also stand for the subordinate place for women in the OMG, extending to criminal practices.

Further reading:
Wikipedia, List of motorcycle club patches. Actually this has no illustrations. It is more a dictionary of slogans and terms often found on motorcycle club insignia.

Legal Case, 2010: The Difficulties for Law Enforcement
People v. Memory, (California Court of Appeals, Third District, San Joaquin, CO54422, 2010, March 5 filing) where it was argued that prosecutors had said the Jus Brothers Motorcycle Club was a gang, and introduced gang paraphernalia into the trial. The original conviction was overturned because the word 'gang' and the 'gang-type evidence' was viewed as prejudicial.  Although I do not have legal training, it looks like the prosecutor would have had to prove them a gang first, instead of 'gang-like.'  Of course it is crime that makes the difference between the two, and that the crime be 'organized' by the gang. When does association create organization?

The appeal presentation includes the narrative of the crime. Most importantly, the relationship of smaller gangs to a dominant gang (in this case, the Hell's Angels) is explored. According to the defendants, smaller MCs are supposed to interact with larger ones, network with them, and assist if ordered to do so. In my view, that sounds like organized crime rather than diminished responsibility, but the appeal judges didn't see it that way.

So the language of motorcycling as a sport, industry, or recreation is irretrievably mixed into many of the distinctions between an MC (legal) and an MC (outlaw). Even if the distinction is crystal-clear in reality, its romantic ethos has apparently made it far more complicated.


Transnational association, below: Three thousand bikers (these from Holland) from across Europe show up for 'Gentleman Gerry' Tobin's funeral in September of 2007 in the UK. He was shot in Stratford-on-Avon. Three men were charged.  BBC photo essay
Photos: Segal Fine Art, Motorcycle Shows . com, Billy Hell RC blog, BBC.

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