A Brief History of “Outlaw” Motorcycle Clubs
Little scholarly research exists which addresses outlaw motorcycle clubs. These works attempt to explore warring factions of outlaw clubs, provide club members’ perspectives about media portrayal, expose myths, and elucidate motorcycle club culture.*1 The literature reveals gaps which leave many unanswered questions: Where do outlaw motorcycle clubs come from? How did they start? How or why did they evolve into alleged international crime organizations? The few histories of outlaw motorcycle organizations date the origins of such clubs to around 1947 and tend to oversimplify the issues of why these clubs formed and who actually joined them. Histories such as these are built on foundations of weak evidence, rendering inconsequential the origins of the subculture and relegating members of early organizations to the marginal status of “malcontents on the edge of society, and other antisocial types who just wanted to raise hell” (Valentine 147). This article extends current research by reaching back nearly half a century before 1947 to link the dawn of motorcycle organizations with the present reality of outlaw motorcycle clubs. The overarching goal of the article is to offer a more comprehensive history, an evolutionary history that may allow for a better understanding of contemporary motorcycle subculture.
What follows is a taxonomy of social and historical factors affecting group formation of motorcycle clubs according to the following temporal classification:
1. Preformative period: 1901-1944, the genesis of social organization around motorcycling
2. Formative period: 1945-1957, social and historical events of the post-World War II era coalesced in the formation of outlaw motorcycle clubs, and
3. Transformative period: 1958-present.
Underpinning the primary and secondary historical data cited in this essay are in-depth interviews with and personal histories of long-time members of outlaw motorcycle clubs, both one-percent and non-one-percent organizations. This ethnographic study, conducted by the author, took place primarily in the southeastern United States (e.g., Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia) from June 2000 through May 2004, but extensive participant observations took place in Texas, New York, Indiana, Ohio, Arkansas, Utah, Arizona, and California while attending regional and national motorcycle club gatherings. *2
Finally, a point of clarification is in order. For the purposes of this essay the term outlaw is used to describe motorcycling organizations that are not affiliated with the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), and the name of a specific motorcycling organization (i.e. the Outlaws Motorcycle Club). It is important to note that for the purposes of this essay the term outlaw does not, in and of itself, refer to the breaking of law. However, when used in the context of describing “one-percent” motorcycle clubs, which are defined in detail below, the term takes on a more ominous tone. It is not my intention to suggest that the term outlaw is synonymous with illegal endeavor; rather, I wish to outline important differences and commonalities between one-percent and outlaw motorcycle clubs.
Preformative Period: 1901-1944
Motorcycling, something of a Darwinian variation in the evolution of bicycling, originates with the widespread diffusion of motorized transportation in the United States. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw an international bicycle diffusion bonanza. These relatively cheap vehicles were marketed for a wide variety of uses, such as business delivery vehicles and leisurely activities, as well as being a prime answer to inner-city mass transportation problems. While bicycle companies had been experimenting with motorized versions of their cycles since at least as early as 1894, the first large-scale introduction of what was to become the motorcycle was introduced to the American public via bicycle racing after the turn of the twentieth century (Sucher). In fact, well into the 1920s bicycle racing was America’s most popular and well-attended sport, with races drawing more spectators than any other professional sport including baseball (Nye). In Europe, velodromes housed indoor wooden board tracks where world championships were held as early as 1893 and the first Tour de France was run in 1903 (Perry). American bicycle racing was championed by bike manufacturers such as George Hendee, a former bicycle-racing champion, who staged events throughout New England and other areas (Sucher).
In the early 1900s bicycle design and manufacture, as well as athletes’ physical abilities, had reached a point where aerodynamics were a major factor in bicycle racing (Page). So it was that tandem (two-person) bicycles were fitted with French DeDion-Buton single-cylinder, air-cooled internal combustion engines in order to propel the cycles at regulated speeds just ahead of the racers. These pacers, as they were called, provided the means by which racers were able to draft due to the motorbike splitting the wind and creating a small vacuum just behind the pace vehicle (Nye, Sucher). The pacers were rather complicated to operate and required two people to run: the front rider was a pilot who steered the vehicle and the rear rider was an engineer who constantly adjusted the flow of fuel to the primitive carburetor in order to maintain a constant speed. The engines used in powering the pacers were inherently unreliable and often broke down during races, largely due to the inadequate fuel delivery of the French carburetors. This, of course, was a serious cause for concern as it was frustrating for both paying spectators and for the athletes whose performance was hindered, as well as embarrassing for race promoters such as Hendee. An answer to the frustrating reliability problems came from a small-time machinist and self-taught bicycle designer/fabricator named Oscar Hedstrom. Hedstrom began modifying single-cylinder engines and carburetors used in pacers and soon earned a reputation for producing reliable cycles. Hendee partnered with Hedstrom and the two staged successful, relatively uninterrupted bicycle races throughout the New England area.
The Hendee/Hedstrom relationship soon evolved into a professional association that culminated in the production of what can be seen as America’s first reliable, mass-produced motorcycles. Thus, the Preformative period of outlaw motorcycle clubs begins in 1901 when Hendee and Hedstrom founded the Indian Motocycle (sic) Company and began selling motorized bicycles to the general public. (The Harley-Davidson Motor Company was formed two years later.) Trailing just behind the rear wheel of American motorcycle diffusion was the formation of motorcycling associations and clubs. One of the earliest known clubs was the New York Motorcycle Club that, in partnership with the Alpha Motorcycle Club of Brooklyn, formed the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) in 1903 (AMA). FAM focused on improving the driving conditions under which motorcyclists operated their machines. In fact, Article I, section 2 of the FAM constitution read:
[The Federation’s] objects shall be to encourage the use of motorcycles and to promote the general interests of motorcycling; to ascertain, defend and protect the rights of motorcyclists; to facilitate touring; to assist in the good roads movement; and to advise and assist in the regulation of motorcycle racing and other competition in which motorcycles engage. (AMA)
Other motorcycle companies such as Excelsior, Henderson, Ace, and Pope enjoyed great sales success in the American motorcycle market from the early 1900s through the late 1920s.
Motorcycles, originally little more than motorized bicycles, were initially relatively affordable vehicles for most Americans, especially when compared with the astronomical costs of pre-Ford automobiles. Vast improvements in engine and carburetor design, along with the development of multi-speed transmissions, lighting systems, mechanical drum/leading-link braking systems, frame, and suspension designs very quickly ushered in an era that saw motorcycles as much more sophisticated and better-performing machines that were beginning to carry a hefty price tag as well. Just over two decades into the twentieth century, motorcycles could no longer be considered particularly affordable modes of transportation for the average American consumer. By the mid-1920s the cost of a small Harley or Indian was around $275, a full size or big-twin model was roughly $375, and the price of a Model T Ford was only $545 (Cuff 229). Motorcycle manufacturers of the time couldn’t know that careening down the backstretch of the 1920s was a stock market crash, the wreckage of which was to send manufacturers reeling worldwide. The Great Depression, which drafted effortlessly behind the crash of 1929, had a devastating effect on American motorcycle companies (Dregni); only two American marques survived the Great Depression: The Indian Motocycle Company and The Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
Perhaps the first emergence of an enduring motorcycle club, one that still exists as of this writing, appeared in 1936. This group was called the McCook Outlaws, hailing from Cook County, Illinois, which encompasses the city of Chicago. The McCook Outlaws were later to become the Chicago Outlaws, now known as the Outlaws Motorcycle Club (Outlaws Motorcycle Club or Outlaws MC). According to a member of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club for more than twenty five years who currently resides in northern Florida, older members of his organization related to him that they congregated for the purposes of long distance touring—which was quite an adventure aboard a foot-operated clutch and hand-shifted motorcycle traveling largely on unpaved dirt roads—and racing, which included hill-climbing, flat quarter-mile dirt tracks, and oval wooden board tracks. A secondary but enduring biker pastime was the massive consumption of alcohol and general good-natured debauchery. Organizational symbols of the McCook Outlaws were stenciled on the back of mechanics overalls, which consisted simply of the club’s name; leather vests and jackets, as well as club-specific logos and symbols were yet to make their debut. It is interesting to note that according to the Outlaws Motorcycle Club History webpage, the club’s organizational logo (i.e. “Charlie,” a skull centered over two crossed pistons and connecting rods, similar to a Jolly Roger pirate’s flag) was heavily influenced by the attire worn by Marlon Brando’s character “Johnny” in the 1954 film The Wild One. *3
An all-female motorcycle club called The Motormaids has maintained an American Motorcyclist Association club charter for more than 60 years (the AMA granted their charter in 1940). While the Outlaws Motorcycle Club may arguably lay claim to a slightly longer lineage, they have experienced at least two organizational identity permutations during their tenure. The Motormaids, however, has maintained a singular identity and overall governing structure since their inception and thus may well be the oldest established motorcycle club in the world, older even than the world famous Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, which formed in 1947, who also maintain their original organizational identity (Barger, Zimmerman and Zimmerman).
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which kick-started American involvement in World War II and the resultant compulsory military service of young American men, clamped the brakes down hard on the acceleration of motorcycle club diffusion across the country. However, the sound of Japanese bombs exploding in Pearl Harbor was to be anything but the death knell of motorcycle clubs.
Formative Period: 1945-1947
The end of World War II saw young men returning from combat in droves. Many found the transition back to a peaceful civilian life a more monotonous chore than they could handle. Some combat vets were trained in riding motorcycles, specifically Harleys and Indians, while serving overseas. Other servicemen who weren’t officially trained in the operation of military motorcycles would simply commandeer motorcycles and ride them about in order to facilitate much needed relief from the stress of armed conflict. Some who didn’t have experience with motorcycles during the war did manage to work their way up to master-level partiers (Ciacchi, Reynolds). Be they Army Air Corps flight crews, Seamen, Infantrymen, Airborne or Marines, the one constant thread that was sewn throughout their uniforms was the ubiquitous post-mission celebration. Many WWII veterans formed strong bonds with one another, relationships that transcended wartime, which likely began during basic training where men were forced into seemingly impossible and highly stressful situations in order to expedite the formation of an exceptionally high degree of interdependence. During actual combat, men became brothers-in-arms through the horrific experiences of witnessing members of their unit being killed and wounded, they themselves being wounded, killing enemy soldiers, and other atrocities of war (Ciacchi; Barger, et al; Reynolds).
Upon their successful return from combat missions, marines, airmen, soldiers and sailors retired to the nearest drinking establishment in an attempt to drown the memories of battle with booze, to heal the scars of armed conflict with laughter, and to try and feel human again, if only for a short while. These men became brothers born of warfare, atrocity, and death, a kinship that runs deeper than blood relations. It is also important to consider the ages of these men: the average age of WWII servicemen was only 26 (Kolb). Many returning combat vets reported feelings of restlessness and a general malaise (Kolb); their pre-war personalities had been forever changed. These men were likely experiencing varying degrees of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a psychological diagnosis that wasn’t officially recognized until 1980 (APA). The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD) defines the disorder as:
a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.
Researchers have found that for some combat veterans, relief from the effects of PTSD can be found by engaging in interpersonal and leisure activities such as those involved with motorcycling (Hill& Langholtz, Orford, Kanas, Ouimette, Humphreys, Moos, Finney, Cronkite, & Federman). Thus, it seems logical that the horrors of war and the hell of combat may have melted down the pre-war personalities of these men only to recast them forever in a new form, a form that didn’t fit well with the post-World War II American culture.
It should come as no surprise that when these men returned stateside and resumed their jobs punching time clocks, dressing in suits, reporting to managers, swinging hammers, or repairing automobiles, that very soon they started searching for “leisure” activities that could get their blood pumping once again. Veterans, searching for relief from the residual effects of their wartime experiences, started seeking out one another just to be around kindred spirits and perhaps relive some of the better, wilder social aspects of their times during the war. Soon enough American motorcycles became part of the equation, largely due to the high level of performance and excitement the cycles offered a rider, as well as for the relatively antisocial characteristic of loud exhaust pipes and the large, imposing size of the bikes. Add to this a post-war economic boon and a July 4th, 1947 Hollister, California incident as reported by Life magazine, and it seems that all the ingredients necessary, which were missing during the previous era, are now present and sufficient for a specific type of motorcycling organization to emerge.
As stated above, only members of AMA chartered motorcycle clubs were permitted to race, and professional racing with its world-class competition was a prime factor in the formation and diffusion of motorcycle clubs. The AMA imposed strict rules on its members in the interests of racing safety as well as for public image, specifically to promote an image of a family-friendly and wholesome sport.
An organizational rift within the AMA apparently occurred in reaction to media coverage of a minor incident in Hollister, California, on July 4th, 1947 (Hollister, Reynolds, Thompson). This particular Fourth of July weekend found members of various motorcycle clubs, including the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington (POBOB) *4 and the Boozefighters Motorcycle Clubs, in attendance at an annual Gypsy Tour race held outside Hollister. Gypsy Tours were AMA-sanctioned racing events staged at various locations across America and, like modern-day NASCAR events, were considered to be the premier motorcycle racing events of the time (AMA). The exuberance of the racing event, fueled by a number of drunken non-motorcycle club members, spilled over into the town of Hollister, where the bikers, motorcycle club members as well as nonmembers, indulged in racing their bikes through the streets of the small town and consuming massive amounts of beer, much to the local merchants’ delight (Hollister). The ruckus did result in some minor storefront damage and at least one misdemeanor arrest for public indecency, but did not begin to approach the siege that Life magazine portrayed.
Due largely to the paucity of surviving individuals able to serve as primary historical sources, a “true” account of what actually happened in Hollister that Fourth of July weekend has yet to be told, and most likely will never be. Indeed, most accounts of this infamous weekend (e.g., Valentine, Watson, Thompson) fail to include important contextual information such as the fact that Hollister had previously hosted a Gypsy Tour in 1936, and that Bolado Racetrack, located just outside town, regularly held hill climbing and other motorcycle races (Hollister, Reynolds 46). Indeed, historical accounts of Hollister that fail to include the town’s long time relationship with racing and bikers read as though Hollister was the site of a terrible and unsuspected onslaught.*5 As Tom Reynolds aptly notes, the allure of the myth is far more tantalizing than any facts waiting to be culled from primary sources (46). In fact, the town of Hollister went to great expense to host a 1997 50th Anniversary biker rally in order to commemorate the event.
The myth of July Fourth, 1947 Hollister can be attributed to a single person. According to eye-witnesses, Barney Peterson, a photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle staged the now-infamous photograph of a drunken biker leaning precariously atop a Harley-Davidson motorcycle surrounded with broken beer bottles, holding a beer in each hand with club insignia prominently displayed for the camera’s (and thus, America’s) eye (Reynolds 50, Ciacchi). The San Francisco Chronicle also ladled up a rather generous helping of literary license when reporting the affair. While the Chronicle story includes the facts that bikers were racing up and down the streets of Hollister, as well as riding their bikes through restaurants and bars, words such as “terrorism” and “pandemonium” were used to an exaggerated extent, and the women accompanying the bikers portrayed as less than wholesome American young ladies (Reynolds 54). It is important to note here that the Chronicle article did not include any photos from Hollister. All in all, the Chronicle article did little to stir up citizens of the region; this, at a time when local labor strikes were resulting in deaths, simply wasn’t news. A major American periodical picked up the Hollister story and Barney Peterson’s staged photograph of the drunken biker appeared in the July 21, 1947 edition of Life magazine under the title “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and Friends Terrorize Town.” Further, the Life article claimed that four thousand members of a motorcycle club were responsible for the melee, an immoderate exaggeration. According to most estimates there is yet to exist a motorcycle club able to boast anywhere near half this number (Southeast Gang Activities Group, Detroit).
The article, a mere 115 words placed beneath the gargantuan image of an apparently drunken motorcyclist teetering atop a bobbed-and-beer-bottle-festooned Harley-Davison Knucklehead, was published in a recurring section of the magazine titled “The Week’s Events.” This section of Life magazine, which highlighted events from around the nation and the world, relied heavily on visual images rather than text to “tell the stories,” as each article in the series employs massive graphic images and precious little explanatory text. The Life story caused something of a tumult around the country (Yates), and some authors have asserted that the AMA subsequently released a press statement disclaiming involvement in the Hollister event, stating that 99% of motorcyclists are good, decent, law-abiding citizens, and that the AMA’s ranks of motorcycle clubs were not involved in the debacle (e.g., Reynolds, Thompson). However, the American Motorcyclist Association has no record of ever releasing such as statement. Tom Lindsay, the AMA’s Public Information Director, states “We [the American Motorcyclist Association] acknowledge that the term ‘one-percenter’ has long been (and likely will continue to be) attributed to the American Motorcyclist Association, but we’ve been unable to attribute its original use to an AMA official or published statement—so it’s apocryphal.”
The Life article did elicit written responses from at least three individuals, one of whom was Paul Brokaw, a prominent editor of a leading cycling periodical, Motorcyclist. Brokaw chastised Life for its less than authentic portrayal of the Hollister event. It seems prudent to provide Brokaw’s entire August 11, 1947 letter to the editors of Life:
Words are difficult to express my shock in discovering that motorcyclist picture [see Life July 21, 1947: 31]. It was very obviously arranged and posed by an enterprising and unscrupulous photographer.
We regretfully acknowledge that there was disorder in Hollister – not the acts of 4,000 motorcyclists, but rather of a small percentage of that number, aided by a much larger group of non-motorcycling hell-raisers and mercenary-minded barkeepers. We in no manner defend the culprits – in fact drastic action is under way to avoid recurrences of such antics.
You have, however, in presentation of this obnoxious picture, seared a pitiful brand on the character of tens of thousands of innocent, clean-cut, respectable, law-abiding young men and women who are the true representatives of an admirable sport.
Los Angeles, Calf.
In the letter above, Brokaw indicates clearly that he and some unnamed others are addressing what happened in Hollister. It is important to note that Brokaw does not state who those others may be, let alone does he claim that he is speaking for the AMA. Interestingly, Brokaw declares that any wrongdoing at Hollister was not the work of 4,000 motorcyclists, “but rather a small percentage of that number.” It seems logical, in the absence of any documented statement released by the AMA, that this comment may be the origins of the term “one percent.” Further, another letter published in the same edition of Life, written by Charles A. Addams, speciously defines half of the Hollister motorcyclist population as members of the AMA. According to Addams, “The four thousand [motorcyclists] in attendance were not members of one club but were probably composed of 50% American Motorcycle Association members and 50% mere motorcyclists out for a three-day holiday. About 500 [motorcyclists] made the event the debacle it was.” The third and final letter published the July 21st, 1947 edition of Life was submitted by Keenan Wynn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and was apparently written in an attempt to underscore the actuality that the Hollister events were not consistent with his and other motorcyclists’ experience; the other cyclists enjoying significant contemporary celebrity (e.g., Clark Gable, Larry Parks, Randolph Scott, Ward Bond, Andy Devine, and Bob Stack). When combined, Addams and Brokaw letters may explain why many believe that the AMA released a statement in response to the Life article. The Addams letter establishes the possibility of a considerable AMA Hollister presence, and Brokaw seems to be speaking for a motorcycling organization whose reputation has been marred by Life’s portrayal. It therefore seems logical to conclude that these two letters to the editor represent the origin of the “AMA Hollister condemnation” myth. Brokaw’s comments in his letter to the editor were not offered explicitly on behalf of the AMA, but over time people may have interpreted his comments as such.
While mainstream motorcyclists and motorcycling organizations were attempting to distance themselves from the myth of Hollister, clubs such as the Boozefighters were basking in it. So it was that the birth of outlaw motorcycle clubs was the result of a siege that never took place and the expatriation from an organization to which they never belonged, and not much notice was taken outside the biker subculture (Reynolds).
Transformative Period: 1948-present
During the period between 1948 and the early 1960s, motorcycle clubs spread out from California with new outlaw (i.e. non-AMA affiliated) motorcycling organizations establishing chapters across the United States. Outlaw clubs such as the Sons of Silence Motorcycle Club began in the mid-West, the Bandidos Motorcycle Club in Texas, the Pagans Motorcycle Club in Pennsylvania, among others. Early during this period, certain members of the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington split from their club and formed the first charter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC). Also during this period, the Boozefighters, one of the original outlaw motorcycle clubs, began a rapid decline in the numbers of members and eventually disbanded.*6 The American-Vietnam Conflict era (1958-1975) can be seen as the most recent period during which significant and pervading social factors affected group formation of outlaw motorcycle clubs. Just as after the Second World War returning veterans seemed to flock to motorcycle clubs. Returning American-Vietnam Conflict veterans interviewed during my field research feel that all too often they became targets against whom many Americans lashed out. Indeed, for many in this country and others (e.g., Australia) the war and the atrocities being committed in the name of Americans and against Americans in Southeast Asia was unconscionable (Pigot). Vietnam veterans reported being labeled “baby killers”; some were spat upon in airports, beaten at demonstrations, and refused gainful employment, all of which after “doing their duty” for their country (Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club; Barger, et al; Pigot).
Among other experiences, returning veterans brought back from the jungles of Southeast Asia journeymen’s knowledge of and experience with illegal drugs, which, given a relatively widespread American drug culture of the 1960s, went largely unnoticed or unrecognized by the mainstream citizenry. Whereas WWII servicemen were on average 26 years old, the average age of Vietnam servicemen was only 19 (Crawford). Teenagers barely out of puberty were now experiencing one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in American history. As with combat veterans of World War II, the hell fires of war once again raged and found young Americans on foreign soil fighting, dying, killing, and being injured. As before, these men would be forever changed by their combat experience, their innocence scorched from their being, their pre-war personalities reduced to little more than charred remains to be swept under the carpet, so to speak, by a nation eager to put the experience quickly behind them (Pigot; Crawford; Barger, et al).
It is during this era that the notorious “one percenters” emerged on a national scale from the outlaw biker subculture. The dominant motorcycle clubs of the time took the secession a step further and turned the AMA’s declaration back on itself, claiming the remaining 1% as a badge of honor and forming themselves into a loose association of truly outlaw motorcycle clubs known as One Percenters (Barger, et al; Pigot). The original one percenters agreed on a diamond-shaped symbol to denote their marginal-but-exclusive social status, and agreed to establish geographic boundaries—primarily in California—in which each motorcycle club would operate independently. Although this loose association had been around for some time before the American-Vietnam Conflict, the one percenters were not to make the national media scene until the mid-1960s (Posnansky, Reynolds, Seate, Thompson).
A significant point in the evolution of one percenters was evident in California during the summer of 1964. At this time two members of the Oakland Hells Angels Motorcycle Club attending a club rally were arrested and charged with raping two women in Monterey, California. The charges were dropped due to lack of evidence and the two Hells Angels were released, but it seems that the media coverage of the incident caught the attention of certain California state government officials. California State Senator Fred Farr demanded an immediate investigation into “outlaw motorcycle clubs” and two weeks later California State Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch launched a statewide law enforcement information gathering initiative (Syder). The year following the Monterey incident, Attorney General Lynch released to the public the internal report, which was prepared ostensibly for the purpose of outlining activities of California motorcycle clubs such as the Hells Angels. The Lynch Report, as it has come to be known, can be seen as the first large-scale bureaucratic attempt to portray motorcycle clubs as a clear and present danger to local, state and ultimately international constituencies. The report consists of what can be interpreted as little more than law enforcement urban legends: unsubstantiated absurdities such as gang raping of innocent young women and the plundering of small California townships, all of which fall under the heading “Hoodlum Activities.” Investigators such as Hunter Thompson debunked the Lynch report as early as 1966. Thompson perhaps describes best the credibility of the Lynch report when he writes, “As a historical document, it read like a plot synopsis of Mickey Spillane’s worst dreams” (524). The questionable social validity of the Lynch Report notwithstanding, “facts” from the report continue to find their way into government and law enforcement literature to this day (e.g., Southeast Gang Activity Center, 2005).
News media were quick to pick up on the negative portrayal of the Hells Angels, and many notable periodicals began running stories with alarmingly biased titles. Perhaps Andrew Syder outlines best how the Lynch Report framed the dominant American culture’s conceptualization of motorcycle clubs. Syder traces citations of the report in mainstream American news media, noting that most media took the “condemnatory Lynch Report at face value, using it as their primary source of information” (3). Most notable among publications citing the report are:
The New York Times: “California Takes Steps to Curb Terrorism of Ruffian Cyclists,” 16 March 1965,
The Los Angeles Times: “Hell’s Angels Called Threat on Wheels,” 16 March 1965,
Time: “The Wilder Ones,” 26 March 1965,
Newsweek: “The Wild Ones,” 29 March 1965,
The Nation: “Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders,” 17 May 1965,
The New York Times: “10,000 in Beach Riot in New Hampshire,” 20 June 1965,
Life: “Come to the Riot,” 2 July 1965,
Newsweek: “Bikies’ Fun,” 5 July 1965,
The Saturday Evening Post: “The Hell’s Angels,” 20 November 1965.
This media coverage had the effect of casting a pall that encompassed not only the charters of the Hells Angels MC, but the outlaw motorcycle club subculture as a whole. Hollywood moviemakers were quick to cash in on the disturbing image of outlaw motorcycle clubs. Wild Angels and Hells Angels on Wheels were released as early as 1967, each of which distort further the reality of what it meant to be a member of an outlaw motorcycle club.*7 It appears that certain members of the California state government were responsible for casting an unrealistic image of the outlaw motorcycle club subculture, that certain prominent news media were responsible for “validating” that distorted image, and that Hollywood has perpetuated that image over time (Syder, Seate).
It is not intended that the Hells Angels MC was (or is) an innocent victim of negative government and news media coverage. To be sure, the Hells Angels have played their role well in the crafting of their image. For example, members of the Hells Angels MC seemed to enjoy media attention by allowing Hunter Thompson to associate with them, by gladly participating in the making of certain biker gang exploitation films (e.g., Hells Angels on Wheels and Hell’s Angels ’69), by calling in to local California radio broadcast talk shows. Further, the Oakland charter of the Hells Angels MC fanned the flames of media attention through antics such as attacking a group of anti-Vietnam War protestors in Berkeley. Perhaps all this was simply an attempt on the part of the Hells Angels MC to capitalize on hyperbole and solidify something of a renegade image in the eyes of the dominant culture. However, an incident in late 1969 served to solidify the outrageous image of the outlaw motorcycle club subculture–no matter how valid or invalid it may have been–in the eyes of American citizens. An HAMC member was charged with the murder of an 18-year-old named Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed to death at the free December 6, 1969 Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” concert at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California.
Details of the incident remain unclear: (1) the Hells Angels MC may or may not have been employed as security for the Rolling Stones; (2) the deceased, Meredith Hunter, may or may not have attacked a member of the Hells Angels MC; and (3) Hunter may or may not have intended to attack Mick Jagger rather than a Hells Angel in order to instigate the melee. According to Sonny Barger, Hells Angels MC Oakland charter president at the time, Hunter shot one HAMC member: “Meredith had shot a Hell’s Angel. Since the guy he shot was a fugitive at the time, we couldn’t take him to a doctor or an emergency ward. It was just a flesh wound anyway” (166). Of course, Barger’s account must be considered in the light of absolute lack of corroborating information; indeed, even Barger admits that he didn’t actually see the alleged shooting (165). The Hells Angel who was supposedly shot remains nameless due to his “fugitive” status, which also conveniently explains why no medical records are available to verify Barger’s claim. One may look to the amount of contextual detail surrounding the Altamont stabbing as evidence for credibility, which Barger seems to provide, but nonetheless his account must be examined critically.
It is still possible today to view some of what happened at Altamont. In a 1970 documentary titled Gimme Shelter (directed by David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin), viewers are able to see multiple filmed replays of significant aspects of the Hunter stabbing. As Nick Aretakis describes, “And then we see the murder itself: A member of the Hells Angels stabs a man holding a gun in front of the stage. Or, that is, we see it twice. It happens during the performance of ‘Under My Thumb,’ but unless you’re closely looking, it’s hard to spot. Not so in the editing room, where the filmmakers show it to us and to Jagger, rolling it back and forth on their editing machine. Clearly stunned by the images, Jagger walks out of the room toward the camera, a blank look on his face, offering us no guidance, no verdict on what happened, how, or why.” While the film does lack context surrounding the stabbing (i.e. it fails to capture any causes or antecedents to the shooting/stabbing), it is important to view the film footage in addition to reading accounts of the incident in order to make plausible inferences. What can be verified is that the HAMC member charged with the murder was found not guilty. As with the Hells Angels MC members charged in Monterey five years earlier, the Hells Angel charged with murder at Altamont went free; however, the outlaw motorcycle club subculture was handed down a life sentence of negative public opinion.
During the 1960s and 1970s, newer clubs joined the one percent ranks. While smaller in membership than older clubs such as the Hells Angels MC, they were considerably more aggressive when it came to carving out geographic areas in which to operate. Outlaw motorcycle clubs joining the elite ranks of the one percenters during this time include the Bandidos MC from Galveston Texas, the Pagans MC, the Sons of Silence MC, the Mongols MC, the Vagos MC of southern California, and the Warriors MC in Florida. Accelerating to contemporary times, a hierarchy of motorcycle clubs has been firmly established among the one percenters: “the big three” as they are known to state and federal law enforcement agencies (Southeast Gang Activity Group; Barger, et al; Valentine). The big three in order of sociocultural power are the Hells Angels MC, the Outlaws MC, and the Bandidos MC. There dwell other one-percent motorcycle clubs in the subculture, including among others the POBOBs MC, Gypsy Jokers MC, Galloping Gooses MC, and Henchman MC.
Since the beginning of the Transformative period in 1948 the number and types of outlaw motorcycle clubs have swollen the ranks of the subculture; some clubs meet the criteria to wear the one-percenter emblem but most do not (Dulaney; Barger, et al; Wolf). With due respect to Mark Watson and Daniel Wolf, who have reported that all outlaw clubs are one percenters, it is important to draw a sharp distinction between outlaw motorcycle clubs and one percenters. Outlaw motorcycle clubs are simply motorcycling organizations that do not hold American Motorcyclist Association charters, and represent the vast majority of motorcycle clubs in America (Dulaney). The reality is that all one-percent clubs are outlaw motorcycle clubs, but not all outlaw motorcycle clubs are one-percent clubs. The original meaning of the term “outlaw,” which denotes a lack of an organizational AMA charter and nothing more, still holds in motorcycle clubs that do not define themselves as one percenters.
The one-percenter ethos can be summarized as follows: the demands of the organization are superior to the needs of the individual, which includes the individual’s family and occupation. While it is no secret that certain members of one-percent motorcycle clubs have been convicted of illegal acts such as methamphetamine production, distribution and sales; prostitution; contract violence; racketeering; and motorcycle theft (Paradis, Southeast Gang Activity Group, Barger, Lavigne, Watson, Wolf, Posnansky, and Thompson), my field research suggests strongly that those members who engage in such behavior represent the vast minority of the one-percent clubs. Further, of the outlaw motorcycle clubs observed, illegal behavior such as those listed above was non-existent.
The dominant symbol of the one percenter is the diamond, and a motorcycle club that does not display this symbol on their colors is most definitely not a one-percent organization. This diamond-shaped patch, with either the text “one percenter” or the alpha-numeric symbol “1%er” embroidered in the center, is usually displayed on the wearer’s left vest lapel, over the heart; however, at least one club places the one-percent symbol on the back-patch (e.g., the Bandidos MC). The one-percent symbol utilizes the two dominant colors in the club’s color scheme (e.g., the Hells Angels MC incorporates a white background with red letters and border, the Outlaws MC places white lettering on a black background, the Bandidos MC uses red lettering and borders on a gold background). As an interesting aside, recently certain American charters of the Hells Angels MC have ceased displaying the one percenter diamond signifier. According to Sonny Barger, the Hells Angels MC standards for membership are higher than those of any other motorcycle club, one percent or not. Barger states, “we’re not One-Percenters—we’re Hell’s Angels first and foremost” (42). During my field research this was certainly the case of Oakland, California; Cave Creek, Arizona; and Charlotte, North Carolina charters; however, the Hells Angels MC website still proclaims “Hells Angels is the oldest, and biggest original 1 % motorcycle club in the world” (Hells Angels Motorcycle Club).
Through the selling of particular Hells Angels MC organizational support merchandise, it can be seen that these Hells Angels MC charters are taking steps to deride the status of the diamond signifier. These support items include T-shirts, hats, belt buckles, patches, and key chains that display the diamond signifier, inside of which is displayed the script “81 %er”. The number 81 represents the Hells Angels (e.g., the eighth letter of the alphabet is “H” and the first letter is “A,” thus 81 = HA). These support items are easily purchased via Hells Angels MC websites and even the online auction house eBay.
During my research compelling evidence emerged that suggests the existence of non-one-percent outlaw clubs that do have factions of members who espouse a one-percenter philosophy: individuals I will call “quasi-one percenters.” Quasi-one percenters aside, the outlaw motorcycle club organizational ethic, in and of itself, can be a harsh one to live by at times. This ethic, colloquially referred to as “motorcycle club etiquette,” outlines acceptable member behavior given a wide variety of social contexts and dictates the deliverance of swift and severe sanctions to those who violate group and individual roles and responsibilities. Generally speaking, quasi-one percenters hold positions such as sergeants-at-arms, special enforcers, or bodyguards. These members display a diamond-shaped patch identical to those described above, usually on the front of their vest, but inside the patch one usually finds the letters of the motorcycle club rather than a “one percenter” or “1%er” signifier. Sergeants-at-arms are elected positions within a motorcycle club whose primary function is the maintenance of club discipline during official functions, to act as the enforcement arm of the local leadership, and to monitor the behavior of “problem children” (i.e. individuals, both within and outside the club who are known troublemakers or who seem to be displaying signs that point to possible, imminent trouble) during club social events. Special enforcers are not elected positions within a motorcycle club, but rather are appointed positions based on special training, skills and abilities that certain members possess. Very often special enforcers have U.S. Special Forces training and are proficient with a number of weapons and hand-to-hand combat techniques. Bodyguards are also appointed positions and those who hold such positions are similar to special enforcers in their military training, but they serve as the personal security detail for state and regional presidents of motorcycle clubs.
The taxonomy offered above is useful in understanding certain social and cultural factors that influenced the origins and evolution of motorcycle clubs in the United States. A common thread that runs through each of these eras is that of American involvement in military conflicts and subsequent social organizing around the sport of motorcycling. What seems clear is that neither the American government nor society is attending to the effects of war on such individuals. Indeed, it appears that no process exists by which combat veterans are able to resume their roles as citizens, as people. Because of this lack of structured re-assimilation into American society certain combat veterans have created over time a culture in which they are accepted as the people they have become. The outlaw motorcycle club subculture can be seen as a society built along militaristic, hierarchical lines, a highly ordered, controlled, and black-and-white world in which individuals may understand implicitly their role, their identity, their place in a society.
What I and other outlaw motorcycle club researchers have failed to examine is the effect that the current American “War on Terror” may have on the continued evolution of the subculture. Once again a handful of Americans find themselves on foreign fields of battle, waging an increasingly unpopular war for unclear reasons. Given the overwhelming influence armed conflict has had on the formation and evolution of the outlaw motorcycle club subculture, it seems appropriate to examine if and how the role of women in combat units in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hostile zones fighting the War on Terror changes the perception of women as full members in outlaw and one-percent motorcycle clubs.
Perhaps an additional period is unfolding in the outlaw motorcycle club subculture even as one reads this article: a post-transformative period that begins sometime in the 1980s and includes the effects of popular culture on the biker subculture. Future research may reveal that certain members of the subculture seem to have attained something of an iconic status. American society may well regard members of the Hells Angels MC more as pulp fiction characters than as credible menaces to society. Indeed, the context in which many have come to know members of the subculture is that of cable television, with the History Channel, Discovery Channel, and The Learning Channel all cashing in on the appeal of outlaw biker documentaries, and with members of the Hells Angels MC appearing on television shows such as the Discovery Channel’s popular series Monster Garage. While certainly not all members of one-percent motorcycle clubs are talented mechanics and artisans, perhaps certain members of one-percent clubs are using these new media as venues to broadcast a more positive image of what it means to be an outlaw biker, or more specifically a one percenter. The image portrayed in cable television shows like Monster Garage is not that of a criminal element; indeed, the image is that of a craftsman. Whereas media coverage of the 1960s can be interpreted as casting an image of outlaw motorcycle clubs as destructive forces in society, certain outlets of modern mass media seem willing to broadcast an image that is very much that of creative individuals. And so the evolution of the outlaw motorcycle club subculture continues to unfold.
*1 Works exploring the warring factions include Paradis, Lavigne, Valentine, Mayson, and Wethern. On media portrayals see Barger, Zimmerman, & Zimmerman, and Thompson. On myths see Reynolds and Yates. See Watson, Wolf, and Posnansky on motorcycle club culture.
*2 The author is a lifelong motorcyclist who rides a 1953 Harley-Davidson FLE (a.k.a. Panhead) and has been an active member of an outlaw motorcycle club for the past eight years.
*3 See http://www.outlawsmc.com/history.
*4 Certain members of the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington were later to splinter off and form the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
*5 See Valentine as an exemplar of such incomplete histories.
*6 The Boozefighters reformed in 1995 with the consent of Wino Willie Forkner and other original members of the organization (Boozefighters).
*7 See Seate for a detailed analysis of these and other biker-related films.