Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Angels of a Lesser God
They roll like thunder into town. They park their custom motorcycles like the outlaws of a wild west drama. Though they appear as ordinary bikers, the local and federal law enforcement agencies call them outlaws. Much like their wild west ancestors, the iron horse riding outlaws are gun slingers, often crossing the line that separate the good, from the bad and the ugly. Outlaw bikers, such as the Hell’s Angels, are a counter-culture that lives by its own rules. Closer than many families, the Hell’s Angels live the life that many long for, or fear with the very fiber of their being.

The Hell’s Angels were founded in 1949 in Fontana, CA. Many of the original members were prior military looking for an outlet for pent up frustration at the government, rules and laws. Starting as an innocent motorcycle club, the Hell’s Angels quickly rose into the limelight as alcohol and drugs began bringing an infamous reputation to the group. Early chapters of the club sprang up in Oakland, San Francisco, and Gardena. As the organization grew, so did the reputation. The “club” became a “gang” in the media, and the lines between myth and fact became blurred (Barger, 2000, pp. 25-35).

In July of 1946, an American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) sanctioned motorcycle rally in Hollister, California started like any other motorcycle event. There were organized races and some partying, as well as games and events for people to show off their bikes and skills. A motorcycle club by the name of The Boozefighters became notorious for racing their motorcycles down the streets of Hollister and causing fights. There were 60 reported injuries, three of which were serious. The national media, particularly Life Magazine, told the story with pictures of the folly, bringing the biker image to the forefront. The AMA claimed the outlaw biker as being only one percent of the motorcycling population. Thus, the outlaw biker began referring to themselves and “1%er’s”. In 1953 the movie The Wild One staring Marlin Brando and Lee Marvin chronicled the event in typical Hollywood fashion. The image of what a biker was became common knowledge, though the true secrets of these secret societies were far from public view (Gardiner, n.d.).

The Hell’s Angels didn’t start out by being an outlaw biker gang, but they just seemed to fit into that roll. Once having grown outside the boundaries of California by opening charters further east, the club began gaining national recognition on it’s own. As with all groups, there will always be members that cause trouble. Once the club had started gaining a reputation for roughhousing and illegal activity, the whole group was labeled as bad, and it seemed to attract members of this nature.

Movies started filling the theaters glamorizing the biker lifestyle, a few even included members of the Hell’s Angles themselves. Hell’s Angels ’69 included the Oakland Chapter President, Ralph “Sonny” Barger and several other members of the Oakland Chapter. Another movie, Hell’s Angels on Wheels, and a book by Hunter Thompson called Hell's Angel, the Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, both added to the mystique. By the mid 1970’s, dozens of movies have been released on the subject of motorcycle gangs, many with the name “Angels” in the title. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s outlaw bikers started becoming folk heroes, much like Jesse James or Billy the Kid.

Sonny Barger, who founded the Oakland Chapter of the Hell’s Angels, is probably the most famous member of the group. Though many believe that he is the overall leader of the organization, Sonny claims that he was only the Oakland Chapter President and nothing more (Barger, 2000, p.247). The group claims to be completely separated clubs with the same name, all functioning as one though a process “more democratic that the U.S. Government” (Winter, n.d.).

The Hell’s Angels have many rules for membership, though only a few are allowed to be made public. The rules are taken very seriously, and infractions could cost the offending member his membership within the club. One of the most ominous rules revolves around the “Death’s Head” patch that all full members wear. The patch, or “Colors,” is worn by all members, but does not belong to the individual. It belongs to the club and once an individual is no longer a member it must be returned to the club. The club has been known to even sue prior members to get the colors back. The patch is a symbol of the club, and is even a registered trademark. Members never allow another to wear their patch, and the members must retain positive control of their patch at all times. In the early years of the club it was allowed that members could have their female partners wear the patch while riding on the back of a members bike in order to show the colors on the road, but this rule has been changed and only members can wear their patches (Barger, 2002, p.43).

If a member lays his colors down somewhere, and a ranking member of the organization picks it up, the offending member will be fined heavily. This is probably one of the strongest rules in the club. Members cannot take the patch from another member, as if removing his membership. Only officers within the organization can take the patch from a member, and this action must be voted on. To do so without authority is a serious offense within the club (Barger, 2000, pp. 45-46).

Though it is not disputed that members of the Hell’s Angels deal drugs and firearms, they do argue that it done as an organized unit. In 1978, an infiltrator within the Hell’s Angels gathered evidence that the Hell’s Angels functioned much like organized crime. The RICO law, short for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, allowed law enforcement to prosecute entire organizations for the actions of individuals within the organization on the belief that they functioned as a unit. This federal statute was part of the Organized Crime Control Act package passed by congress in 1970 (Barger, 2000, p.209). Though some members of the club did serve time because of this act, including Sonny Barger himself, the club has never been found guilty of racketeering, and after a lengthy trial, none of the Hell’s Angels were found guilty (Barger, 2000, pp. 226-227).

The Hell’s Angels, good or bad, are certainly a representation of a counter-culture within the major cultures of the world. They live by their own rules, and govern their own members through, what they claim, a democratic process that rivals that of the United States Government. Love them or hate them, they are most likely here to stay. Though no longer in the limelight, they are certainly out there and stronger than ever.

Barger, R. (2000). Hell’s Angel. New York: Sonny Barger Productions.
Barger, R. (2002). Ridin’ High, Living Free. New York: Sonny Barger Productions.
Gardiner, M., (n.d.)The Real Wild Ones – The 1947 Motorcycle Riot. Retrieved on May 16, 2008 from

Hell’s Angels. (n.a.)(n.d.) Retrieved on May 18, 2008 from

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