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American Biker Clubs: The Past and the Present

For most people, the word biker is closely associated with gangs of long-haired hooligans on roaring motorcycles, ringing highways to the sounds of hard rock. In many ways, this image was formed thanks to American cinema. The biker theme is prominent in the culture of the United States. However, the real image of this movement is much more complex and diverse.

Who Are Bikers?

Biker is a derivative of the word ‘bike’, which is a motorcycle. However, a biker and a motorcyclist is not the same thing. Although both use a similar type of vehicle, if you call a real biker a motorcyclist, you risk causing him a very serious insult. Therefore, to determine who the bikers are, we should first figure out how they differ from regular motorcyclists.

People started riding motorcycles long before the biker subculture emerged. However, unlike an ordinary motorcyclist, a biker considers his steel horse to be more than just a two-wheeler. Being a biker is a philosophy that defines rider’ life, his values, and priorities. There is even such a thing as ‘easy reader’ philosophy. It received its name from the famous 1969 movie, in which it was first articulated.

This philosophy is based on four principles:

1) Freedom. A biker should not have any possessions. He is a free rider running the endless expanses of highways.

2) Honor. A true biker must comply with a biker code of honor. He will never hurt a beginner, he will help those who are in trouble; he will not humiliate or insult his counterparts, especially if strangers can see it.

3) Loyalty. A biker must respect the traditions of this movement. He is responsible for his actions. He should realize that whatever he does, it is not only on his own behalf but also on behalf of many thousands of like-minded people.

4) Individuality. Appreciating his inner freedom foremost, a biker cannot forget about his steel horse. A motorcycle for a biker is something he must take care of and worship. It must be treated with respect and cherished. A biker should seek ways to emphasize his motorcycle’s originality and individuality.

The birth of the first Motorcycle Clubs

The first motorcycles were built and patented by an Englishman Edward Butler (1884) and Germans Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach (1885). The new invention, being fairly affordable for people, quickly gained popularity among people. Soon a network of motor clubs appeared throughout America. For the most part, their members were from the lower strata of the society, who worked at American factories or did not have a certain type of occupation. The first known motorcycle clubs were "Yonkers MC", "San Francisco MC", and "Oakland MC".

The emergence of motorcycle clubs did not imply that biker subculture was originated. As such, it appeared only after the Second World War, in the second half of the 1940s. There is a legend that it was founded by American pilots from the 330 squadron who came home after the war and could not find their place in life. However, there are reasons to believe that this story is just a beautiful legend created by one of the most famous American biker gangs the Hells Angels.

In fact, the first real veteran from this squadron joined the club only 3 years after its foundation. Besides, the club's emblem - a skull with wings- never adorned the airplanes of the 330th Squadron, although it was found among the symbols of the US air force. For instance, it can be seen on the aircraft of the 85th fighter squadron and on the symbolism of the 552nd bomber squadron.

A turning point in the biker story

Soon after the origination of the biker movement, motorcycle riders earned an extremely negative reputation. It all started with an incident in July 1947 in the city of Hollister, California, which the media later named the “Hollister riot.” It is not known exactly whether the riot really took place. All we know for sure that from July 4 to July 6 Hollister hosted a motorcycle rally, which was attended by several thousand people.

According to media reports, a group of bikers started a riot. The articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and Life magazine (this material was illustrated with a staged photo of a drunken guy on a motorcycle) caused a considerable public outcry. A couple of years later, the movie The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, was filmed on the basis of these events. It painted a negative portrait of bikers as mobs and hooligans. The stereotype image of a biker began to take shape.

The American Motorcyclists Association (AMA) responded to the Hollister incident saying that of all motorcyclists, only one percent could be considered as Outlaw, and the remaining ninety-nine percent are law-abiding citizens. The idea of “one percent” immediately appealed to outlaw bikers, who despised the AMA, its events, and members, considering them too decent and soft. As a result, these bikers began to call themselves “one-percenters”, and all other motorcycle clubs became “99-percenters”. Some outlaws started wearing a "1%" sign on their jackets.

Despite the Hollister riot, the biker movement and motorcycle clubs were not prohibited. Moreover, in 1960, during the heyday of hippies, more and more people joined the ranks of bikers. In response to the public interest, Hollywood rolled out a series of films about the riders of iron horses: "Motor Psycho", "The Wild Angels", "Hells Angels On Wheels" (young Jack Nicholson played the main character, and the film starred the real Hells Angels including Sonny Barger himself), “Hell's Bloody Devils”, “Wild Rebels”, “Devils Angels”, “The Hell Cats”. Plots were pretty primitive: wild, dirty bikers drink, rape women, and fight with the police and each other. On the background of this trash, the Easy Rider (1969) shines like a bright star. This movie went far beyond the biker theme in an attempt to draw a picture of the rebellious generation of the 1960s. The image of a biker became very appealing to romantics, daredevils, and thrill-seekers. Biker clubs started spreading around the world like wildfire.

US civilians against bikers

Anyone who watched the Easy Rider remembers how the story of two main characters ends. They are killed by a farmer with a hunting rifle. He kills them, as it may seem, for no reason, and therefore many viewers hated him.

However, if you delve into the US history of the 1960’s, you will realize that this was an illustrative example of the war between civilians and bikers taking place in western and southern states of America. Farmers and residents of small towns wanted to destroy bikers as a class. However, the next forty years have shown that they were not destined to win this war.

To be fair, it was not farmers and small bar owners who started the conflict. The instigators of the riots, as a rule, were bikers. You should remember that in the 1960’s, we didn’t have satellites and surveillance cameras to maintain the order on the streets. The police didn’t even have good means of communication, and often the interaction of different police structures was carried out with a regular wired telephone. That’s why bikers often got away with breaking the law.

Moreover, the police did not own speedy bikes that could compete with fast Harley’s and custom-built choppers. According to the then existing rules, every sheriff had to buy a car for himself, which was then embellished with the state’s coat of arms. More often than not, those were heavy unwieldy vehicles that could not compete in speed and maneuverability with any, even the shabbiest, bike.

So, the confrontation between bikers and the civilian population began in the mid-1960s. Before that, there were very few bikers to pose any threat. In addition, most bikers were either 16-17-year-olds or clerks who were not particularly dangerous for anyone.

Everything changed in the 1960s, when real vagrants, hooligans, and criminals got into the saddles of bikes. While motorcycle clubs had only 10-20 members, the bikers behaved relatively quietly. They gathered outside big cities to set up camps in the middle of some picturesque field or near a lake. They spent several days consuming alcohol, amphetamines, or mild drugs, having sex, and amusing themselves with various bike-related activities (for instance, tug-of-war on bikes). Sometimes they went to the nearest town to buy some more alcohol or food. After a rally is over, bikers just went home.

But it was until the time when only 40-60 bikers attended such get-togethers. When biker clubs became widespread and some events gathered thousands of people, bikers started feeling their omnipotence multiplied by complete impunity. Numerous motorcycle gangs began to spread a real lawlessness and chaos. They captured small towns and farms, attacked police officers and sheriffs, robbed stores and bars, crushed churches, plundered people’s homes, etc.

The local population was not happy about such raids reminiscent of the dark times of the Middle Ages. At first, real skirmishes were rare, at least until bikers started committing serious crimes. Becoming real gangsters, bikers were increasingly involved in robberies and bank heists. They also often stopped trucks and took any valuable items from them, plundered and burned farms, raping and killing their dwellers.

However, in a country where everyone has the right to own firearms, residents of small towns were not going to be silent victims. They began to repulse bikers, which is why for almost 10 years life in the rural areas of some states resembled the Wild West times. Farmers and citizens caught bikers and literally lynched them. They shot at motorcyclists at every opportunity or rammed them with their cars.

According to the statistics of those times, every year in America about 1000 individuals died or was injured as a result of this war. But this statistic concerned only the civilian population. No one knows how many bikers were killed and buried in the marshes with their motorcycles. There is also no data regarding bikers killed in the wars among motorcycle gangs.

The police, in spite of all efforts, could not change the situation for the better. However, by the end of the 1970s, the war began to subside. There were several reasons for reducing aggressiveness between biker and locals.

First of all, bikers started riding only in numerous, well-armed groups. Secondly, they almost completely ceased to raid towns and mug people. Thirdly, they stopped robbing trucks belonging to individuals and switched their attention to vehicles owned by businesses. And most importantly, they realized that the police are not as useless as they used to think. For instance, if they informed cops about their rallies, the reinforced police units became an excellent protection from shooters among the population.

Gradually, the war of bikers and farmers almost came to an end. In recent years, it is less common to hear that groups of local residents put up armed resistance to members of motorcycle clubs. But this does not mean that rednecks abandoned the idea of revenge. Now they prefer guerrilla methods: they push bikers off roads with their trucks, fight with them at roadside eateries or bars, ram or set their parked motorcycles on fire, or, like in the Easy Rider movie, they shoot at passing-by bikers out of the windows of their cars.

And here's the result: in the late 2010s, only 20 bikers die at the hands of the US civilian population every year. At the same time, annually about 2000 bikers become die in accidents.

The basis of a Biker Club

Bikers’ philosophy is based on the principles adopted in the wolf pack. A wolf is considered to be a favorite animal of motorcycle buffs. A huge number of motorcycle clubs uses images of wolves in their emblems. A wolf is a strong, intelligent, obstinate, and independent animal that can live both in a pack and alone. In many cultures, wolves have ambiguous traits. On the one hand, it is an insidious, cruel, and voracious animal, the enemy of a man. On the other hand, he is considered to be a proud and noble lone predator. The biker community sticks, as you might guess, to the second opinion.

The vast majority of biker clubs is organized like a wolf pack. They simultaneously have a strict hierarchy and democracy, implying that each member possesses full and equal rights. At the same time, American biker clubs have a clear bias towards military structures, since there is a clear distinction between "officers" and "soldiers". It is probably due to the fact that war veterans formed the backbone of motorcycle clubs when they first appeared.

There is the other point of view. The first American bikers lived in the Southern states. It comes as no surprise that they took the infamous Ku Klux Klan as a model. Ku Klux Klan was originally founded by the Civil War veterans (1861-65) who were no strangers to rigid organizational structures. Building a club based on the principles of military formation helps to survive and develop under conditions of constant pressure from the state and society.

The majority of one-percent clubs does not give women full membership, but can assign them a “special status”. It is also believed that outlaw clubs often follow sexist and racist policies and do not admit to membership people who are not Caucasians.

The Biggest Biker Clubs in America

In the US, many biker gangs are registered legally. They have their own sites, sell merchandise with their ‘corporate’ colors, arrange various rallies and runs, and also accept donations. Newcomers sometimes do not even know about criminal activities a club is involved in. Often, large motorcycle clubs are hostile to each other, especially outlaw clubs.

For instance, in 2002, a clash between Mongols MC and the Hells Angel’s members took place in the city of Laughlin, Nevada. As a result, three bikers were killed. According to the police, the Mongols could provoke the firefight in order to raise their status in the biker community. Another major scrimmage happened the same year and the Hells Angels were involved again. This time they clashed with the Pagans, which were allegedly outraged by the fact that the Angels had a rally on their territory.

The last high-profile incident called the Waco Shootout happened in 2015. A massive brawl involving more than 200 bikers took place in the Twin Peaks bar in Waco, Texas. Members of three competing motorcycle gangs The Cossacks, The Bandidos, and The Scimitars gathered there to delineate their spheres of influence. The peaceful dialogue did not work out, and the meeting ended with a bloody massacre with the use of firearms and cold arms. As a result, 9 people died, 18 were injured, and 192 people were arrested by the police.

Below are the largest and most well-known American motorcycle clubs.

Bandidos MC

The gang emerged in the mid-1960s. It was founded by Vietnam War veterans who were dissatisfied with the government’s attitude. Riding around the country, these people spent their nights anywhere their bikes took them. They often committed petty crimes. Now the Bandidos consists of 2500 people and is engaged in the resale of marijuana and cocaine bought in Mexico. About 10 years ago, they started producing methamphetamine. The gang’s revenue equals several million dollars annually. Newcomers are often involved in the production and transportation of drugs while old members deal with organizational matters. The gang is mostly comprised of white Americans and Latinos.

The Hells Angels MC

This biker club has been around for more than 70 years and is known all over the world. They are officially engaged in sales and upgrades of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Unofficially, the Hells Angels produce and sell various drugs, involved in sex trafficking and thefts. The club’s image is heavily romanticized, but the truth about them is written in Hunter Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels (1967). You can read more about the history and current affairs of the Hells Angels in one of our posts.

Mongols MC

The gang was originated in 1969 in California. Now they have from 1000 to 1500 members. Mongols are the most aggressive motorcycle gang in the United States. They often commit rapes, mug, and even kill people. The Mongols members are very devoted to the gang and stop any manifestation of disrespect. They provoke fights, hector people in bars, pounce on unarmed civilians, etc. A few years ago, a gang member has shot a SWAT officer with a shotgun.

Outlaws MC

The gang was founded in Illinois 80 years ago. They do not shun any criminal activity that promises income. They sell drugs, control brothels, and extort money from businesses. Former club president Harry Bowman was considered one of the most wanted FBI criminals. In 1999, he was sentenced to 2 life imprisonments.

Pagans MC

Pagans are an influential gang that operates on the Atlantic coast. The gang has about 220 members who sell drugs, beat money out of debtors, set houses on fire, and take on any other dirty job in their state of Maryland or major cities such as New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.

Sons of Silence MC

The Colorado gang has a chapter in Germany. The Sons of Silence unite about 270 people from 12 states. They are engaged in various types of crimes, but the main income comes from the illegal drug trade. In 1999, several dozen members of the club were detained by federal security forces in Denver. 8.5 kg of methamphetamine and 35 weapons were seized during the search.

Vagos MC

The gang includes about 400 official members, plus they have about 3,000 hang-arounds. The gang operates on the territory of California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and even Mexico. A few years ago, they were caught red-handed when crafting booby-traps. Dozens of gang members were sentenced to prison. They are often arrested for illegal possession of firearms, drug trafficking, gunfire, shoplifting, and theft.

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