Sunday, August 25, 2013

Of Motorcycles and Men

"The Outlaws – One Man’s Rise Through the Savage World of Renegade Bikers, Hell’s Angels and Global Crime,” by Tony Thompson, 2013

I am a motorcyclist.  33 years.  I started with a little Honda, then some fast or big Yamahas, now a touring Triumph.  I once attended a Marxist internal party meeting in Chicago where we chatted about ‘gangs.’  Somehow the topic came up, and it’s a good thing.  One of the black comrades said his gang in the ‘hood’ was a young group that hung together, protected each other and was dedicated to ‘camaraderie.’  Well, some gangs are like that.  And then there are other gangs – like Chicago’s Black P-Stone Rangers – who eventually had an economic and political rationale.  And others, who are purely criminal.  

This book by Thompson, a British ‘crime reporter,’ looks at some motorcycles clubs and their evolution into mostly criminal organizations.  At first, motor-cycle clubs were formed by working-class men who were probably tired of just being wages slaves.  A few business owners also joined the clubs.  What evolved over time is that the big clubs became businesses selling drugs or weapons, practicing extortion, running prostitution rings or engaging in motorcycle theft, with a veneer of ‘anti-establishment’ PR and love of motorcycles and male bonding as their ostensible reason for existence.  Not all members are in criminal activities – and can selling and transporting weed even be considered ‘criminal’ at this point?  But those members can still be called upon to defend those who do things far worse than selling weed.  And the numbers are what count many times. 

Thompson covers the motorcycle club world (“MC”) of working-class ex-soldiers fresh from World War II looking for booze, drugs, sex and fights, to young bikers (and even non-bikers) now invested in gang warfare and criminal activities.  To do this, Thompson interviews Daniel ‘Snake Dog” Boone.  Boone describes his origins in the British Midlands MC club, the Pagans, to his membership in the international MC club, the Outlaws - covering the period 1986 to around 2010.

Its pretty fucking amazing.  The first book to cover the biker world, in 1966 by Hunter Thompson, “Hell’s Angels – A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” gave the Angels and Sonny Barger the most massive PR lift any bunch could get.  It covers many of their founding myths – like the ‘rape’ in Monterey, and the confrontational run to a small town in California in the mid-60s.  This book actually catapulted the Angels into believing they could dominate the whole world of motorcycle clubs.   And they have tried, which is part of the story of this book.  Barger followed with his own pretty good book, 2012’s “Hell’s Angel – The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels MC,” which incidentally made fun of Harley-Davidsons as crap bikes the Angels were stuck with.  Barger and many Angels were excellent mechanics, and there is a reason why.  

So some facts that you might not know, from this book.  An “MC” is a motorcycle club with a geographic presence.  Two MCs cannot inhabit the same space without eventually fighting or killing each other.  Groups like our local “West Bank Motor Cycle Club” are MCCs – just groups of guys (and women) who like to go on runs and drink.  An MC and an MCC are not in competition normally.  The goal of every newbie MC biker – a ‘prospect’ – is to gain an MC patch.  Clubs that join other clubs are ‘patched over.”  The patch is very important, evidently.  If you have your patches torn off – and everyone in your club does too – your MC is over.  You have to protect your colors, sort of like in the Civil War, protecting your flag.  However, the patch allows other clubs to identify hostile bikers – and so to keep geographic dominance.  MC’s are organized on a military basis, and the colors are a key part of the uniform.  This ‘band of brothers’ calls themselves ‘one-percenters’ – they are the one out of 100 who has given up on society, not the one out of 100 who rules the other 99%.  No women are gang members from what I could tell, only ‘old ladies’ of the formal members.  So it is a completely sexist and macho world.

MC’s started out somewhat like MCCs – but they liked to fight, to have gang-bangs, to have tighter loyalty – and eventually, to bring in money by any means necessary.  In England, the different gangs would initially host large biker rallies and even music concerts to raise money.  Boone traces the path of a group of bikers, the Warwickshire Pagans in the Midlands of England, who got into bloody and sometimes deadly scrapes with gangs from other parts of the Midlands.  However, with the arrival of the Hell’s Angels in England, every group in the Midlands combined into a group called the Midland Outlaws to prevent the Angels from controlling their turf and the whole country.  This ultimately led the Midlands Outlaws to joining an American-based club, the Outlaws, who were in direct competition with the Angels on a world-wide scale. 

Four MCs now dominate world motorcycle gangs – the Angels, the Outlaws, the Bandidos and the Mongols.  Just like world capitalism, the biker oligarchy forces other gangs to merge or die, or at least cooperate.  The Angels are sort of the premier corporation, the Microsoft – or should I say Apple – of this underground economy.  The unintentionally funniest parts of this book are stories of hostile groups of bikers stuck on the same planes together as they jet-set around the world making contacts and partying – and then fighting it out in airports when they arrive together.  Executives in leather jackets and knives, so to speak.

One of the most interesting stories was how the Angels tried to take over the indigenous clubs in Ireland in the late 80s.  When the IRA Provo’s got wind of that scheme – as the Angels had been intimidating local MCs – they told them to get out of Ireland or they would all die.  The Angels left…though now they have made a somewhat of a comeback. 

Violence, of course, is how drug gangs control territory, whether they ride motorcycles or not.  Not that much different from capitalist corporations using capitalist states to do their bloody work.  The Outlaws have an “SS” patch that identifies a member who has killed someone for the gang.  Members would be backed up, no matter what they did – rape, assault, kill – because they were a member.  Now some newer chapters in Europe made up of Turkish or Middle-Eastern members don’t even ride motorcycles, because evidently they have too many accidents.  Don’t laugh.  They drive cars instead – something most bikers consider a retirement vehicle.  Boone, who enjoyed the drinking and cocaine, punch ups and sex with clueless young women, eventually got tired of the constant violence and vigilance, as the war with the Angels and the police got more severe.  Guns were rare in the 1980s in England, but now all the large gangs are heavily armed – with rocket launchers, bombs, hollow-point ammo and sub-machine guns, and high-tech, armored ‘clubhouses.’ 

Boone knew his chapter would not let him go easily.  In order to get thrown out of the Outlaws, Boone had to point a gun at the chapter president’s head, and the club members beat him up, tearing off his patches.  They might have killed a guy who had been in the group for less years, but he’d spent 23.  Not easy to exit this bunch.  Sort of like the Cosa Nostra on 2 wheels.  At least he lived to tell the tale - so far.  

Of course, the interesting question is, what do you do with MC clubs?  Like the major gangs, the majority of members are part of illegal business operations that use violence to protect their ability to make money in illegal ways.  In Cuba, the revolutionaries chased the Mob out of Havana, and jailed or shot those who they knew were criminals.  Many had collaborated with Batista, just as MC gangs in the U.S. would collaborate with the police.  Much as they hate the cops, if there was something in it for them like immunity, they would do it.  Winning them to a revolutionary movement would be almost impossible.

However, the vast majority of motorcyclists are not in MCs.  MC clubs perhaps can count in the mid-thousands world-wide.  Independent bikers are mostly working class - and some middle-class people who enjoy the ride.  These bikers can be our allies.  Middle-class people usually shy away from cycles because for the most part they shy away from anything they perceive as ‘dangerous.’  Since they have few mechanical or physical skills or experience, ‘danger’ in their sensitive view is carrying heavy objects, using power tools or chainsaws, shooting guns, cutting trees, walking through alleys, working with electricity or gas - and riding the iron horse.  Even participating in picket lines, demonstrations, occupations and confrontations of any kind is foreign to their outlook, but not so much for working-class people.

During one of the rallies for the Austin P-9 Meatpackers strike in the ‘80s, about 75 motorcycles formed an honor guard at the front of the rally, all ridden by strikers and at least one supporter – me.  Unlike the prescribed roar of a Harley pack, the meatpackers were all driving quiet Japanese bikes, which was pretty funny.  But they still ‘roared’ because they stood for something – the old Wobbly slogan, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All!”  There is, as you may know, a variant used by the English MCs – “Its one in, All in.”    

And I bought it at Cheapo Books!
Red Frog
August 25, 2013

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