Welcome back to Anthropology Friday: No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels, by Jay Dobyns and Nils J
“For those who don’t know, [Ralph “Sonny” Barger] was the man–the legend, really–who molded the Hells Angels into what they are. it’s not a stretch to say that Sonny Barger is a visionary who essentially created the image of the outlaw biker as we know it. He had help, to be sure, and the names of his cohorts dating back to the late fifties through the present are legendary in the biker world… these men created the image–the leather, the hair, the grime, the hardness, the silence, the impenetrability, the bikes–everything that constitute an outlaw biker. …
“Without the Hells Angels we wouldn’t have floor-model Harleys that look like stripped-down scream machines. No ape hangers… no bitch bar, no spool wheels, no front-end extenders. … The HA were obsessed with going fast, and without this obsession bikes would be slower. They were relentless in stripping their bikes of all but the barest essentials. The formula was simple: less weight plus bigger engines equaled more speed. Every pound they shed gained them two miles per hour. Thus “choppers”–chopped-down motorcycles. What they did was mimicked by everyone who wanted to be a Hells Angel but couldn’t be.”
EvX: When you get down to it, the motorcycle is a machine. A car is also a machine, but a car is a machine with a lot of metal between you and the engine. A chopper is a machine that has minimized the amount of metal between you and the engine. The motorcycle is about the closest you can get to just riding on an engine, riding straight down the highway on pure power.
Wikipedia has an interesting account of the HAs:
The club became prominent within, and established its notoriety as part of the 1960s counterculture movement in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene, playing a part at many of the movement’s seminal events. Members were directly connected to many of the counterculture’s primary leaders, such as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Mick Farren and Tom Wolfe. The club launched the career of “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Hells Angels International:
“[Berger] saw that the Angels could go international, that though American in origin, they needn’t be limited to America’s borders. As I’ve said before, I believe that the Hells Angels, and to a lesser extent all American-style biker gangs, are this country’s only organized-crime export.”
According to Wikipedia:
Numerous police and international intelligence agencies classify the Hells Angels as one of the “big four” motorcycle gangs, along with the Pagans, Outlaws, and Bandidos, and contend that members carry out widespread violent crime and organized crime, including drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion, and are involved in prostitution. Members of the organization have continuously asserted that they are only a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who have joined to ride motorcycles together, to organize social events such as group road trips, fundraisers, parties, and motorcycle rallies, and that any crimes are the responsibility of the individuals who carried them out and not the club as a whole. …
The HAMC acknowledges more than one hundred chapters spread over 29 countries. The Hells Angels motorcycle club founded a chapter in Auckland, New Zealand in 1961 and has since taken over gangs in Wanganui. New Zealand had the first chapter of the Hells Angels outside the United States. Europe did not become widely home to the Hells Angels until 1969 when two London chapters were formed. The Beatles‘ George Harrison invited some members of the HAMC San Francisco to stay at Apple Records in London in 1968. … Two charters were issued on July 30, 1969; one for “South London”—the re-imagined chapter renewing the already existing 1950 South London chapter—and the other for “East London” …The London Angels provided security at a number of UK Underground festivals including Phun City in 1970 organized by Mick Farren. They awarded Farren an “approval patch” in 1970 for use on his first solo album Mona, which also featured Steve Peregrin Took (who was credited as “Shagrat the Vagrant”).
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major expansion of the club into Canada. The Quebec Biker war was a violent turf war that began in 1994 and continued until late 2002 in Montreal. The war began as the Hells Angels in Quebec began to make a push to establish a monopoly on street-level drug sales in the province. A number of drug dealers and crime families resisted and established groups such as the “Alliance to fight the Angels”. The war resulted in the bombings of many establishments and murders on both sides. It has claimed more than 150 lives and led to the incarceration of over 100 bikers. …
A list of acknowledged chapters can be found on the HAMC’s official website.
“These contradictions fascinate me. The Hells Angels are separate from society, but they’re rooted in it. They’re nonconformists, but they all look the same; they’re a secret society, but also flamboyant exhibitionists; they flout the laws of the land, but they’re governed by a strict code; their name and their Death Head logo represent freedom, individualism, toughness, and lawlessness, but both name and logo are protected by legal trademarks.”
EvX: It sounds to me like they aren’t so much “non conformists” in the abstract as “non conformists” relative to a particular society. How many of these guys would succeed and be happy in the corporate world? People who think cars–which I regard as terrifying 2-ton death traps hurtling at 60 miles an hour down the road–as “cages” and want to take their chances with getting their flesh grounds straight onto the road do not strike me as people who’d be inclined to sit still in a cubicle all day.
Rather, the HAs and similar groups have opted out of mainstream society and formed their own, alternative society–a tribe of their own, replete with its own initiation rituals, tribal dress, symbolic brotherhood (the members of real tribes are usually quite closely related,) their own history and lore, and even their own army. By doing so, they leave the world in which they are at the bottom, and create a world where they are at the top.
But they still live in our society, and ironically, they definitely will sue you if you use their logos:
In March 2007 the Hells Angels filed suit against the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group alleging that the film entitled Wild Hogs used both the name and distinctive logo of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation without permission. …
In October 2010 the Hells Angels filed a lawsuit against Alexander McQueen for “misusing its trademark winged death heads symbol” in several items from its Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. The lawsuit is also aimed at Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com, which stock the jacquard box dress and knuckle duster ring that bear the symbol, which has been used since at least 1948 and is protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. … “This isn’t just about money, it’s about membership. If you’ve got one of these rings on, a member might get really upset that you’re an impostor.” …
In fall 2012 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, Hells Angels sued Toys “R” Us for trademark infringement, unfair competition, and dilution in relation to the sale of yo-yos manufactured by Yomega Corporation, a co-defendant, which allegedly bear the “Death Head” logo…
As of December 2013, the Hells Angels sells its branded merchandise at a retail store in Toronto, Canada.
Some final notes from Wikipedia on who can and can’t become a Hells Angel:
In order to become a Hells Angels prospect, candidates must have a valid driver’s license, a motorcycle over 750cc, and have the right combination of personal qualities. It is said the club excludes child molesters and individuals who have applied to become police or prison officers.
They might be outlaws, but they have standards.
To become a full member, the prospect must be voted on unanimously by the rest of the full club members. Prior to votes being cast, a prospect usually travels to every chapter in the sponsoring chapter’s geographic jurisdiction (state/province/territory) and introduces himself to every Full-Patch member. This process allows each voting member to become familiar with the subject and to ask any questions of concern prior to the vote. Some form of formal induction follows, wherein the prospect affirms his loyalty to the club and its members. The final logo patch (top “Hells Angels” rocker) is then awarded at this initiation ceremony. The step of attaining full membership can be referred to as “being patched”. …
The club claims not to be a racially segregated organization, although at least one chapter allegedly requires that a candidate be a white male, and Sonny Barger stated in a BBC interview in 2000 that “The club, as a whole, is not racist but we probably have enough racist members that no black guy is going to get in it”. At that time the club had no black members.
In another interview with leader Sonny Barger in 2000 he remarked “if you’re a motorcycle rider and you’re white, you want to join the Hell’s Angels. If you black, you want to join the Dragons. …We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.” …Tobie Levingston who formed the black motorcycle club East Bay Dragons MC wrote in his book that he and Sonny Barger have a long-lasting friendship and that the Hells Angels and Dragons have a mutual friendship and hang out and ride together.
In a 1966 article about motorcycle rebels in the African-American community magazine Ebony, the Chosen Few MC stated that they see no racial animosity in the Hells Angels and that when they come into Chosen Few territory they all get together and just party. A Hells Angel member interviewed for the magazine insisted there was no racial prejudice in any of their clubs and stated “we don’t have any negro members” but maintained there have not been any blacks who have sought membership. At one point in the 1970s the Hells Angels were looking to consolidate the different motorcycle clubs and offered every member of the Chosen Few MC a Hells Angel badge, but the Chosen Few turned down the offer.
We should of course be skeptical about what people tell reporters–people don’t always want to admit in writing that they hate other people and might want to kill them. But we can contrast this against the HA’s attitude toward the Mongols, who are frequent subjects of ire in the book and whom the HA got in a shootout with back in 2002.
Meanwhile, Dobyns’ undercover persona is so good, the local police go after him:
“On the way home, on a dark side street deliberately taken to avoid a confrontation, we were pulled over for a traffic stop. …
Typically, when a mixed-club group of bikers is stopped, and Hells Angel are among those present, they get the most thorough attention. Everyone knows the Angels are the ones to be wary of, and that given an inch they will take it a mile. They must be attended to first.
“But they weren’t….
“An officer approached JJ and me from behind. When he got about ten feet from us, he racked a shell into the chamber of his shotgun…
“I didn’t appreciate the sound of that shotgun…
“Over the bullhorn a young, angry voice said, “Bird, [Dobyns’ undercover name] do not let go of your handlebars until ordered to do so. Do you understand?” I nodded yes. I held the bars with a death grip….
“The Angels were told to remain on their bikes. …
“I was led to the curb and told to kneel. I was led at the barrel of a loaded and charged shotgun. …
“The guys were cuffed and lined up curbside. No one but me had to kneel. No one but me had a gun drawn on them. The Angels couldn’t believe it, but as far as these cops were concerned, I was more dangerous than they were. …
“Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me. … He said, “You gotta move on, Bird, you gotta get the fuck out of my town.” “Meanwhile, Officer Shotgun talked to me.
“I said, ‘You can arrest me or lecture me, but I won’t take both, so make up your mind.’ “
EvX: Note Dobyns’s persona is demanding respect. He doesn’t get it from the police, but it was important for the observing Angels.
“He didn’t like that. He put his boot in between my shoulder blades and pushed me to the ground. Since I was cuffed I caught the pavement with my cheek. He kneeled, leaned in close, and whispered into my ear: “Motherfucker, if I ever see you in this town again I will fucking bury you in the desert where no one will ever fucking find you.”
“My recorder was going. I thought, Not good, dude. Not good for you. I knew this guy desperately wanted me out of his town and I knew he wasn’t using approved methods. I wanted to tell him what I was, but I couldn’t. It would be months until he learned how close he’d come to ruining his career that night.”
EvX: I once took a self-defense class taught by a retired police officer who claimed to have taken criminals out to the Everglades Swamp and left them for the alligators.
On the one hand, sometimes the justice system has trouble getting convictions against people who are actually violent criminals, and then you wonder if things wouldn’t be better if the police did more vigilante violence.
And then there are cases like this, where the police are dead wrong.
Respect, body language, and some interesting characters:
“On the thirty-first we waltzed into the Pioneer Saloon in Cave Creek and got a full introduction over the PA. …
“Everyone was there, and I mean everyone. Sonny, Johnny Angel, Hoover, Smitty, Joby, Bob, Fang–every guy who had any kind of influence in the state.
“Sonny came up and greeted each one of us, and in one of the greatest moments in bike investigator history, we got a group shot with him: Just Sonny Barger and Johnny Angel in the middle of a row of Sol Angeles, aka cops…
“As we left the side room I bumped into a short, roided out live wire with a shaved head. He looked like my shorter, wider twin. …
“The live wire asked, ‘What the fuck? You’re fucking Bird, aren’t you?’ He stabbed his finger at me, tapping me hard right were the bullet had come out of my chest.
“‘Yeah. that’s right.’
“‘Shit! I’m fucking Dirty Dan. And I need to talk to you. Come with me.’ … ‘I heard all about you, Bird. You’re some kind of crazy fucking cowboy, ain’t you? Shit, brother, I love that.’ …
“He asked about Mexico. I said I went to Mexico often. He said he’d heard there were Mongols down there. I said there were, but not too many. He said that as soon as his parole was up, he’d like to come with me, see if we could find some. I said great. He said find some and then kill ’em. I said awesome. He said we’d be a two-man massacre crew. I said, “Dirty Dan, you’re the kind of Hell Angel I’ve been waiting to meet.” He said that he liked the way I carried myself, that the club needed more guys like me. …
“After several minutes we parted company just as abruptly as we’d come together. We agreed to met and work out at the gym. He yelled, ‘All right! Later, Bird.’
“I yelled, ‘Later, Dirty Dan.’
“We’d been in a complete bubble. Hours after that, when were were winding down at the UC house, Gundo told me that when Dan and I started talking, all eyes turned to us. Our body language looked overly confrontational. Gundo said, ‘Man, I thought you two were gonna hit the deck. I was leaning against the bar with my hand on my gun… I thought we were about to be in the middle of an ass-beating shoot-out.’
“I laughed and said, ‘You kidding me? … I fucking loved that guy.’ …”
EvX: For the most part, the talk about killing Mongols sounds like a lot of talk, except during the 2002 River Run Riot, which occurred near the beginning of the book. Wikipedia summarizes:
The River Run Riot was a violent confrontation between the Hells Angels and the Mongols motorcycle clubs that occurred on April 27, 2002, in Laughlin, Nevada during the Laughlin River Run. The conflict began when members of the Hells Angels went to Harrah’s Laughlin to confront members of the Mongols who had allegedly harassed vendors that sold Hells Angels related merchandise. Mongol Anthony Barrera, 43, was stabbed to death, and two Hells Angels, Jeramie Bell, 27, and Robert Tumelty, 50, were shot to death.
Even by the end of the book, it was not clear what the essential nature of the Hells Angels really is. 1% clubs are ostensibly composed of criminals–that’s what the 1% means–but are they actually criminal organizations, or just organized criminals? The Angola Prison in in Louisiana, for example, publishes a newspaper, The Angolite, written by the prisoners. Obviously everyone who work on the paper is a criminal, but The Angolite isn’t a criminal organization, it’s just a newspaper. By contrast, the Mafia, while run by a set of related families from a particular ethnic background, obeying particular cultural codes, exists for the sole reason of committing crime. The Angolite is organized criminals; the Mafia is a criminal organization.
This may sound a bit existential, but for the police (and the HAs) it’s essential. If the HAs are just like-minded guys who want to ride motorcycles together, support their incarcerated brothers, hand out toys and bicycles to poor kids, and sell t-shirts, then they have every right to do that. Having once committed a crime does not preclude your right to hang out with other guys and ride motorcycles together. It doesn’t preclude your right to have a logo, copyright it, and sue Toys R Us if they violate it.
By contrast, if the HAs are actually using their organization to commit crimes, then the police can shut them down and seize their assets (logos included.)
This distinction is essential for Dobyns. The police can prove that plenty of individual people have committed crimes. He’s purchased plenty of illegal guns, for example. The River Run Riot was caught on surveillance cameras, and at least some of the perpetrators were arrested and convicted of murder. But it takes more than that to prove that an organization is actively conspiring to commit crimes.
The government tried to charge the Hells Angels under RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) back in 1979, but couldn’t make it stick:
In 1979 the United States Federal Government went after Sonny Barger and several members and associates of the Oakland charter of the Hells Angels using RICO. In United States vs. Barger, the prosecution team attempted to demonstrate a pattern of behavior to convict Barger and other members of the club of RICO offenses related to guns and illegal drugs. The jury acquitted Barger on the RICO charges with a hung jury on the predicate acts: “There was no proof it was part of club policy, and as much as they tried, the government could not come up with any incriminating minutes from any of our meetings mentioning drugs and guns.“
More on this next Friday.