Biker Lifestyle

Hells Angels vs. Allen Ginsberg: The unlikely Vietnam War-era confrontation

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It would be an understatement to say the Hells Angels and Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg had differing world views. In the Vietnam War era, those views came into conflict in the Bay Area.

A recent trip to The Chronicle’s basement archive turned up a pack of negatives labeled “Hells Angels Debate.” It’s likely that no one had looked through these negatives in decades, and upon closer inspection Ginsberg appeared in the batch. It was obvious this was a moment from the past that required retelling.

The story begins Oct. 16, 1965, in Berkeley as a Vietnam Day Committee protest march approached the Oakland-Berkeley border. Sixteen Hells Angels broke through a police line and attacked the anti-war demonstrators. Soon, about 250 police officers were trying to break up the brawl. Six Angels were arrested, and one police officer suffered a broken leg. It was bedlam.

Members of the Hells Angels were quoted as yelling “America first” and “America for Americans” as they surged through the police lines. According to San Francisco Examiner reporter William O’Brien, “The bewildered marchers appeared uniformly grateful for police protection.”

With another large anti-war march planned for the East Bay a month later, on Nov. 20, members of the Vietnam Day Committee — a collection of students, left-wing political groups and labor unions — met with motorcycle club representatives in the cafeteria at what was then San Jose State College. About 1,000 students crammed into the space, curious about what sort of “discussion” would take place.

Ginsberg and anti-war activist Jerry Rubin were at the meeting representing the committee, while the main speaker for the bikers was a Hells Angel Sacramento chapter leader named Louis. There to support him were members of the Gypsy Jokers and Night Riders clubs, who used the names Scotty, Indian and Hutch.

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Ginsberg got things started by ringing a tiny Buddhist bell and chanting, “To protect everybody from evil.” He then addressed the bikers, “We have fears the Angels will attack us on our march, and we wonder: Why?”

Louis was quoted as saying: “We have no plans to do anything against the law. I got my guts shot at in Okinawa and Korea. … They used to call me Crazy Jim. If Uncle Sam wants me again, I’m ready to go. … I’ve got a lot of respect for Uncle Sam, and for my mother, my brothers, and my two little kids. … If I ever catch my little kids marching, I’ll break their heads in.”

The bearded poet responded that he was sure “you don’t want the blood of pacifists and old ladies on your hands.” Rubin suggested the bikers volunteer for the armed services, and when asked what the anti-war marchers would do if attacked during the march, he responded, “If we’re attacked, all we’re going to do is bleed.”

Ginsberg summed up the proceedings: “The big problem for us now is how we can start to groove with the Hells Angels instead of getting into fights with them.”

Five Hells Angels led by Oakland chapter President Ralph “Sonny” Barger held a news conference the day before the planned march, announcing they would stay away in the interest of public safety. “Any physical encounter would only produce sympathy for this mob of traitors,” Barger said.

The Angels-less protest was a tame affair, O’Brien reported. He went on to observe that Vietnam War-era protests without the Hells Angels weren’t all that exciting.

Bill Van Niekerken is the library director of The San Francisco Chronicle, where he has worked since 1985. In his weekly column, From the Archive, he explores the depths of The Chronicle’s vast photography archive in search of interesting historical tales related to the city by the bay.

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