“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet for life” — West Side Story
In “Sons of Anarchy,” the highly entertaining (if improbable) TV series on FX, the codes of biker gangs are examined as if watched through a prism of a sociology experiment. Some of it is very close to the truths of SOME bike gangs.
Often, if a member of an outlaw biker gang elects to leave the gang, his tattoo is removed; forcibly, if need be. the choices are not pleasant. The tat is cut or burned off. I used to think this was bullshit until a friend of mine from England showed me his scar from leaving the Road Rats. It was cut off of him.
Outlaw gangs usually stipulate that you’re in for life. The Hell’s Angels, The Outlaws, The Pagans, The Mongols. . .these are lifetime affiliations.
Outlaw Bikers consider themselves “One-Percenters,” the oen percent that doesn’t fit in and doesn’t want to.
The best known of these gangs, the Angels, started after World War II. Most of the guys were Air Force veterans that came back to San Bernadino after the war, only to find unemployment and a culture that had little to offer them. They drove big American motorcycles, wore boots and leather and started their own tribe. One cannot separate the crucible of warfare from the formation of this fraternity. This was years before post-traumatic stress syndrome even had a name.
The first generation of Hell’s Angels were young men who had no real way of explaining the effects of warfare on themselves. It’s not an accident that a great many bike gangs are full of military veterans. The outlaw biker structure is not unlike the military in that it is fraternal, tribal and run by order of rank. There is a Sargent at Arms, there is an established pecking order in which the prospects, (new members who’ve not earned their colors, or patch yet) and there is a deeply tribal caste system.
The white gangs are only white. Black bangs, the same way. Hispanics, as well. There are very few mixed-race outlaw biker gangs; in fact, almost none.
Outlaw gangs started for the same reasons every other outlaw organization has. Protection. Safety in numbers. There was no American mafia until newly-arrived Italian immigrants fell victim to the Irish gangs in New York in the 1850’s. Italians formed the mob here to protect themselves from Irish and Jewish gangs on the lower east side, as well as from the cops.
The Knight Riders of Toledo are an African American gang. One can surmise from their very existence that they probably formed to protect themselves from white motorcycle gangs such as the Outlaws, who are all over the Midwest.
The Black gangs are a bit different in that they ride many different kinds of bikes, whereas the white gangs are almost exclusively Harley Davidson riders. Lots of Kawasakis and Suzukis (“rice burners,” in the parlance of white bikers). Like white bikers, African American bike gangs are largely comprised of working class guys, as well as veterans of the military. Some of the California black bike gangs also have former Black Panthers as members.
In Ohio, the Knight Riders are a chapter of the Slim Goody gangs which are also found in D.C. and the Carolinas. The gang “colors” have always fascinated me because they speak to a tradition that dates back to the oldest heraldic designs. Hell, the armies of the Crusades, the Romans and the Spartans wore colors and carried their “patch” on staffs into battle.
In other words, bands of warriors are nothing new. Today’s gang is tomorrow’s army.