Today’s selection for Anthropology Friday is Jay Dobyns and Nils Shelton’s No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels. (If you aren’t familiar with American motorcycle culture, I recommend starting with my post, Do Biker Lives Matter? Harleys, Exit, and Thedic Signaling.)
From the Amazon blurb for No Angel:
Here, from Jay Dobyns, the first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, is the inside story of the twenty-one-month operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life.
Getting shot in the chest as a rookie agent, bartering for machine guns, throttling down the highway at 100 mph, and responding to a full-scale, bloody riot between the Hells Angels and their rivals, the Mongols…
Reminiscent of Donnie Brasco’s uncovering of the true Mafia, this is an eye-opening portrait of the world of bikers… one that fully describes the seductive lure criminal camaraderie has for men who would otherwise be powerless outsiders. Here is all the nihilism, hate, and intimidation, but also the freedom–and, yes, brotherhood–of the only truly American form of organized crime.
So what do all of these books on criminals have to do with anthropology? Traditional anthropology looks at pre-industrial societies such as Hadza hunter-gatherers or reindeer-herding Sami. With the rapid spread of industrialization, anthropologists feared that information about our own human past and the variety of forms societies can take would soon diseappear.
In more recent years, anthropologists have become interested in the forms different groups and sub-cultures take within industrialized societies. In Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and their Journey, for example, Isabella Fonseca writes about the not-so-nomadic Gypsies of modern Europe; in Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, Hugh Gusterson writes about nuclear scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
After our long look at Siberia, I wanted to find something different. If people can write about Gypsies, why not the poor of our own society?
I began this project thinking of criminals as aberrations, people in whom something had gone wrong or who had decided to abandon normal social norms. Now that I am at the end (typing up my notes,) I realize that many criminals as respected, integrated members of their societies whose behavior could be, under different circumstances, not only normal but beneficial. What is the difference, after all, between a criminal who sells illegal drugs and an honest business man who sells alcohol and tobacco? Between a gang member who kills a rival gangster for invading his turf and a soldier who kills an invading enemy?
Many thieves and violent criminals are kind and loving to their own families. Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord, had a devoted wife, loved his children, and gave away so much money to Colombia’s poor that 25,000 people attended his funeral. And even Mafia bosses, for all their crimes, have families and are treated with the respect in their own neighborhoods. (The fact that the locals often like or sympathize with the local criminals can interfere greatly in police efforts to track down and arrest those same criminals.)
Note: this is not all criminals. Drug dealers and serial killers have very different motives. Drug dealers want to make money. Serial killers want to kill people. Some criminals are, indeed, aberrant, psychotic people. Many are impulsive, low-IQ, or unable to succeed in life without resorting to crime. And most have a very low regard for the lives of others.
For obvious reasons, there aren’t a whole lot of ethnographies of criminals or criminal organizations, but Dobyns’s account of infiltrating the Hells Angels (no apostrophe) comes close.
Let’s begin with a bit of reflection about getting shot when he was a rookie cop (As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability):
“If anything, the shooting proved that my job, and therefore my life, was not glamorous in any way. Pathetically, I’d imagined that undercover life would be like Miami Vice–full of cigarette boats, fast cars, expensive clothe, and perfect tens in bikinis sitting in my lap while I negotiated with drug kingpins. Instead, I confronted toothless strippers and disgruntled Vietnam vets, and did deals with jonesing tweakers in trailer parks while getting shot by a broke-dick ex-con who lived with his mom. …
“In the years between the shooting and the summer of 2001, I’d done and seen things that citizen simply don’t do or see. I’d been in another shoot-out, I’d had an inhuman number of guns shoved in my face, I’d bought and sold tons of drugs, and I’d made hundreds of solid collars. I’d worked African-American gangbangers and Italian mobsters with Chris; the Aryan Brotherhood with Special Agent Louis Quinonez, and bikers from Georgia to Colorado with a bunch of different partners, including one of my ATF mentors, Vincent Cefalu.”
On to his next assignment, in a city worth describing:
“Bullhead City is near the southern tip of Nevada, ten hours from where I lived in Tucson. It’s a broken-down town full of semi-employed mechanics who’ve shacked up with women who are–or were–“dancers.” It’s a meth capital teeming with high-school dropouts, and it’s all set down in a brown and tan valley that looks more like Mars than Earth. Across the brown Colorado River is Laughlin, Nevada, Bullhead’s dusty twin sister, with her winkling strip and brand-name outfits: Flamingo, Golden Nugget, Harrah’s. …
“By the end of the following week I was holed up in Bullhead at Gretchen’s Inn, a contemptible riverside hideaway off Route 95. From the outside it looked harmless, but from the inside it was something else. A fleabag meth flophouse, busted locks on the doors and windows that wouldn’t close, people screwing all day and night. I slept with my arms folded over my chest and one of my beloved Glock 19s in my hand.”
EvX: I’ve been a bit afraid of very cheap hotels ever since reading about a horrible crime that happened in one that I’m not going to link to because I don’t want to look it up again. So far I’ve managed to structure my life so that I can avoid bad neighborhoods, pretending more or less that they aren’t there when I’m not looking at them. But of course they are there, broken-down places full of drugs and broken dreams.
According to Wikipedia’s climate data, Bullhead City’s average high temperatures (average, not record) from June through September are 107.7, 112, 110, and 103.7 degrees F.
But back to the story, where our undercover cop needs to buy some guns:
“Sugarbear’s informant, Chuck, would take me to Mohave Firearms for some introductions…
“Here’s what I said:
“What’s up? This’s a nice place you got here, looks like you know your business. Yeah, Jay’s my name, but everyone calls me Bird … Yeah, I ride. You see a patch on my back? Well, then I’m not a One Percenter*, so quit asking… But listen, I got another business, maybe you can help me out? I need guns. Small ones, big ones, fast ones, slow ones. No papers. …
“The next day he sold me two .45s, no papers, no forms. All cash. It was too easy.
“Through the years I was often amused by how quickly suspects decided to trust me.”
EvX: Note: I cut a lot from this conversation. This just gives you some of the flavor. Dobyns needs to convince these guys that he’s a genuine buyer of illegal guns, not, oh, an undercover cop. And he does.
*A 1%, if you aren’t familiar with the term, is a member of an outlaw motorcycle club such as the Hells Angels.
Back to the story: working class Americans like their guns. Some of them really like them:
“Varvil proceeded to let us into his gun vault, a fifteen-by-twenty-foot room off the cluttered garage. Every wall of the room was lined with guns of every kind from damn near every decade of the twentieth century and probably two dozen countries.”
The Prison Run:
“Thousands of bikers stage up and slowly ride out to the prison complex in a massive pack of chrome, steel, leather, and denim to pay their respects to those unfortunate enough to be doing hard time. As the ragged column crawls past the yard, orange jumpsuited inmates caged behind thousands of feet of curlicued razor wire stand at parade rest while the bikers file past, saluting, hooting and hollering. To establish some semblance of order, the law comes out in a show of force. Helicopters, interpersonnel vehicles, cruisers, motorcycles, SUVs, paddy wagons–the whole fleet.”
“They talk about rehabilitation. They call it a “justice” system. But in reality this place is designed to destroy a man. The system has been designed to break, not to better a person. A man’s most valuable possession is his freedom. In this place they take that away. …
“For the last 24 years the Florence Prison Run has been a show of support by the Brothers still on the outside for all of the Brothers who are unfortunately under the care of the state on the inside. … The inspiration for the run was the incarceration of a brother. Running the prison was a way for the locked up Brother to feel and hear the presence outside and know, without a doubt, that he was remembered.”
Some background on why ATF wanted to infiltrate the Angels:
“At the time ATF had some real interest in the Angels. … This kind of case is built around existing police reports, warrants, affidavits, arrests, convictions, financial document, and public records. Slats [one of the ATF agents] sought to prove that the Angels were a criminal organization, indictable under RICO …
“the Angels had been in Arizona for a little under five years… before them the state’s top One Percenters were the Dirty Dozen. The Dozen had been violent and well-established. …
“The Angels came onto their turf when Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the iconic godfather of the Hells Angels, “retired” his forty-year presidency in Oakland, California. He’d served a prison term in the Phoenix area and had fallen in love with the climate and the state. … The Dirty Dozen were in a hard spot… They were tough, but they lacked the resources… of the Hells Angels. The Dozen’s members were given a choice: Disappear or patch over to the Angels. Most enthusiastically chose the latter. …
“These facts were significant. For a club to go from nonexistent to the main show in town in under five years proved… that the Angels were wielding their influence ably and willfully. These are the types of bricks that RICO cases are built with.”
EvX: In other words, regardless of whatever else the Hells Angels were up to, if they used violence or the threat of violence to force the Dirty Dozen out of Arizona, then they could be indicted under RICO.
That “regardless,” though, haunted me throughout the book. What were the Hells Angels up to, besides controlling territory? Selling drugs? Buying guns? I have some answers, but we’ll get to them later.
A certain curious difficulty:
some biker investigators assimilate and sympathize with their adversaries. Some even form their own clubs. This has always been a mystery to me. Cops don’t mimic mafia dons or dress as Crips and Bloods and form up neighborhood sets, so why would some choose to create their own motorcycle clubs patterned after criminal syndicates? …
Instructions for riding with the Angels:
“We’ll be at the back, keeping up. We gotta keep up. They blow a light, we blow a light. They get traffic stopped, we get traffic stopped. Mesa rides like the Blue Angels on Memorial Day. Other charters hate riding with ’em ’cause they’re such fucking road Nazis. Stay eighteen inches off the wheel in front of you. And stay back. Never, ever cross the line of a full patch’s front wheel. You pass one of these guys and there will be hell to pay.”
Murder at the local Hells Angels clubhouse:
“There was a bar on one side with a small triangular stage wedged next to it. A twelve foot long Death Head painted on one wall, an adjacent wall covered with trophies and memorabilia. …
“At least on person had already been killed on the floor of the Mesa clubhouse. … On October 25, 2001, a forty-something woman named Cynthia Garcia was partying with the boys at Mesa. During the course of that night she had the drunken balls to insult the Angels on their home turf… she was beaten unconscious by patched members Mesa Mike and Keven Augustiniak and a prospect, Paul Eischeid…
“[They] hauled the body, which was still technically alive, into the carport and dumped it in the trunk of a car. They drove Garcia out to the desert. … They stabbed her repeatedly. They took turns trying to cut off her head, which they wanted to leave on a fencepost for the vultures. …
“Cynthia Garcia, a mother of two, had made a bad decision, and she was dead for it.”
EvX: one theme that comes up constantly in these books–here, in Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy, and eponymousy in Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio is respect.
Some people say that North West Europe has a Guilt Culture, while many Asian countries have a Shame Culture. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is, but in a guilt culture, people are told that God is watching them even when they are otherwise alone and will know if they have sinned. God knows if you pick your nose. God knows if you don’t wash your hands after using the toilet. And God definitely knows if you kill someone, even if no one else finds out.
By contrast, high-crime groups (including groups that hail from NW Europe) seem to have what I’m going to call Respect Cultures. In Respect Cultures, one’s social standing is of paramount importance, and disrespect can be grounds for murder.
The danger here is three-fold:
- People from Respect Cultures are often at the bottom of the American totem pole–cause and effect unclear, but this seems like a bad combination either way.
- People in Respect Cultures believe in rigid hierarchies in which they do not treat social inferiors as equals.
- People in Respect Cultures will not hesitate to use violence to secure or increase their position.
More hierarchical societies obviously lean toward Respect Cultures, while more egalitarian societies lean toward Guilt Cultures. In atomized, egalitarian cultures, individual behavior is kept in check via internalized norms that one should not violate the “social contract.” By contrast, in hierarchical societies, your behavior is dictated by your position within the social pecking order. You have certain obligations to the people above you (often monetary) and obligations to the people below you (such as organizing economic opportunities or providing for their safety.)
For criminals, respect is absolutely vital, because respect translates into other criminals staying out of your turf. You respect a criminal because he can kill you; you disrespect him if you think you can kill him.
More on riding motorcycles:
“The Mesa boys rode like fearless banshees on crack. Jesus Christ himself could not have ridden a motorcycle better, faster, or tighter than Mesa… they kept no more than eighteen inches off the wheel in front of them–and they were often closer than that. By the time the lead riders had banked into a turn, the guy three bikes back had already leaned his shoulder into the thin air. They moved like a snake chasing a rabbit through its burrow. They blew lights and ignored traffic. The rabbits–everyone who wasn’t on a chromed-out Harley-Davidson, everyone who was ensconced in the “cage” of a car or truck, everyone unfortunate enough to be a pedestrian, everyone who was not a Hells Angel–ran scared. …
“Hells Angels live for their club and their brothers. One of there credos is “Step down or aside for no man, no law, no God.” They are free men unto themselves. At the root of this liberty is the experience of riding a bike. Their Harley Davidsons are the vehicles of their emancipation. Emancipation from society’s rule and expectations; from a life of work and obligations, from other men, wives, girlfriends, and family. … The things that the rest of us depend on for safety and consistency were never there for these men. They’re outcasts. The way they see it is, why should they return any favors?
“For these men it is the smallest of steps from outcast to outlaw.”
EvX: I wish the book had gone into more detail on what made these men “outcasts” in the first place.
“The irony is that while their appearance and lifestyle are clearly set up in opposition to those of us who live straight lives, they are hardly distinguishable from one another. Their individuality is confined by a rigid conformity. All wear the same kind of clothing, ride the same brand of bike, adhere to the same set of club rules. All must report once a week to “church” meetings, and all must pay monthly dues. The cuts [biker vests] forever remain the property of the club, as do the “skin patches,” the tattoos that each new member must receive. If for whatever reason a brother quits the club, then the Hells Angels are bound to go to his residence and remove every article of clothing, furniture, and memorabilia that contain ay reference to the Hells Angel–not merely to punish and divest him, but because the stuff simply is not his. … if he leaves on bad terms, then those tattoos are carved off–in some cases taken back with a cheese grater, or with a clothes iron on the linen setting. …
“the Hells Angels’ rules were legion and covered damn near everything … The Hells Angels have rules that govern their bikes, their appearance, their behavior, their old ladies, their engagement in criminal activity, their handling of rivals.”
So what’s the whole point?
“If you become a Hells Angel, everything else about you becomes moot. You’re no longer John J. Johnson–you’re a brother. A soldier. A unit of fear. … Drinks become free, and pussy is never more than a dick’s length away. … You’re suddenly capital-R Respected. If you’re done wrong by someone, the whole club is duty-bound to do wrong back to that person.”
EvX: This, right here, I think is it.
Throughout the book, I kept asking, “but what is the point?” The contrast with Brasco’s description of the Mafia is stark. The Mafia has a point: to make money. Drug lord Frank Lucas, in Original Gangster, had an obvious goal: to make money. But the Hells Angels are not obviously making much money. Perhaps they are, but are being very careful about not showing it off. Or perhaps some of them are, just not the ones Dobyns hung out with.
No, I don’t think money is the main point, though they probably make money when the opportunity presents itself. Rather, the Hells Angels and other groups like them are in it to control resources and territory. Drinks, women, bikes, and highways. That’s what they want, and by being the biggest bad-asses around (and pushing out any competing bad-asses, like the Dirty Dozen,) that’s what they get.
This is good place to wrap up for the week. See you next Friday.