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Ethnographic Research on Motorcycle Gangs

EthnographicResearch on Motorcycle Gangs

Cladin leather jackets, leather pants and bandanas on their heads, thegroup of bikers appears like a menacing congregation of mercenarieswhose goal is to create chaos and mayhem. As they approached, I sawthat they had various tattoos with various colors and patterns ontheir necks and arms. There was one tattoo design that was common forall members of the group, which, I assumed was the sign that the gangused for identification. My 4 hour camp at a dive bar that was likelyto host such a gang had finally been rewarded. The group thatconsisted of 35 individuals rode in with ease and the confidence ofseasoned riders. It was obvious that every person in the group was askilled motorcycle rider. The first indication that they wereapproaching the establishment came from the deafening roars of theirmachines. The chilly autumn evening was thrust into chaos once thosemonsters that the gang rode in begun to be heard. The experience wasoverwhelming since I had never experienced such an entrance,especially with a different mindset. Motorcycle gangs have alwaysbeen seen as people that lacked any respect or rationality towardsthe laws or regulations decreed by any society. Their quest forfreedom had earned them the brand of rebels and outcasts (Miller,354). These gangs have been linked to various incidences of feloniessuch as racketeering, drug trafficking and the sale of illegalweapons. Many films and movies that have showcased the gang havealways presented them as outlaws and individuals who have no concernfor the wellbeing of the community (Miller, 354). This paper is ananalysis of the biker groups that expounds on their philosophies,principles, and way of life. Most of the information is gottenthrough interviews while scholarly articles will be used as evidencefor the interview results, or they can offer conflicting facts aboutthe culture of motorcycle gangs.


BeforeI could venture out into the field, I had to scour through vastamounts of materials that contained any information about the bikers.I scoured through various journals, books, and newspapers to try andfind details about the organization that has been largely treated asviolent lawbreakers. The first group of motorcyclist began in 1948(Gottschalk, 2016). They called themselves “Hells Angels.” Thegroup began as a way of declaring independence and freedom from theadministration that was in power at that time. Their dressing stylesand general demeanor made people fear them and treat them as outlaws(Gottschalk, 2016). The traditions of that time led to biker gangs tobe seen as people that were against the society since their generalappearance was unacceptable within the community. I found out thatthese motorcycle groups have been around for a long time. The justicedepartment even has an acronym for them, OMGs. The acronym stands forOutlawed Motorcycle Gangs (Lauchs et al., 38-52). The FBI assumesthat there are roughly 500 large organizations of this type. HellsAngels is an example of one such large group that begun around 1948.If the smaller, more organized groups are counted, the number ofthese OMGs turns to about 2, 500. All these groups have around 48,000 American citizens, according to the FBI (Lauchs et al., 38-52).Their activities have been linked to various atrocities against thesociety since the first noted incident in 1947 at a rural town calledHollister. The problem started in the 1930s after several ralliesthat celebrated motorcycles were hosted within the town. Theresidents were happy with the events since they brought revenue forthe community. However, after the Second World War, more people,especially war veterans, turned up for the same rallies. They wereattracted by the carefree lifestyle that was associated withmotorbikes (Miller, 354). The region was overrun by thousands ofbikers who did what they felt like because they had greatlyoutnumbered the law officers. Reinforcement had to be gotten from thestate police that managed to remove the rowdy gang from the town.Since that incident, bikers were then classified as unrulyindividuals who had no concern for the set laws of the society. Theywere also associated with the purchase and supply of illegal drugsthat was used to fund their activities. A movie released in 1953called “The Wild One” clearly depicted the events that took placeat Hollister (Miller, 354). The violence and chaos that themotorcycle gangs have instigated over half a century have created anegative image for the group.


Apartfrom being a public nuisance, OMGs are known to participate in moreserious felonies. Top of the list is the trafficking of narcotics,especially methamphetamines. They have an elaborate network thatdevelops and distributes the narcotic (Bunker, 284). Even withnumerous arrests and convictions, the system has never been disruptedfor several decades. They are also known to possess and sell illegalweapons. The weapons include automatic rifles and explosives. Theysell this paraphernalia to other dubious groups who use them whilecarrying out various crimes. They are involved in cases of moneylaundering, prostitution, and even murder (Bunker, 284). The murderincidences occur only when rival gangs go to war or when theleadership of a group is punishing its disloyal members.


Oncethe group that I was to interview reached their local joint, they alldismounted and approached me. They had already known who I wasbecause they rarely tolerated strangers around their area ofoperation. I was the only welcomed stranger for the duration of myinterview. I noted that their favorite color was black and whitesince every item of clothing they wore had those colors. The majorityof the members of the group had long hair that was tied back into aponytail. They were all white, and I observed that they had a fewfemale members of the group. In total, they were 35 members. I waslater told that two members of the group had been arrested recently.I was not told the reason for their arrest.


AsI begun to speak to the select members of the group, I started to seehow they pictured their organization. The leader claimed that none ofthem chose the path that leads to them becoming a part of themotorcycle group. He stated that the path itself selected eachmember. They were individuals that wanted to be free from all rules,requirements, and expectations that the society places upon everyperson once they are born. Joining a biker gang gave them thisfreedom (Mindich, 38). One of the members said that their type ofattire and general appearance was made to instill fear in the generalpopulation since they did not feel the need to associate withcommoners. They wanted to present themselves as an antisocial groupbecause that is what they believed is their true destiny in life.Most of the members had felt out of place before their initiationinto the organization. The group gave them a sense of purpose,acceptance, and freedom (Mindich, 38).

SocialStatus and Connections

Eventhough they refused to give me the name of their organization, theytold me that they were a chapter of a larger group that had its mainleader in the West Coast. The entire group met at least once a yearfor interaction and exchange of information. The leader of the bikergang indicated that the entire organization had various connectionswith some powerful people both in the private and public sector. Hesaid that those individuals were their “inside men” who helpedthem finance their activities. They also provided lawyers when thehigh-level members of the organization were charged with a crime. Thelead member said that the group was somewhere in the middle and thatthere were other more advanced gangs with more experience indifferent states in the country (Mindich, 38).


Thegroup, in general, claimed to run various operations such asnightclubs and gambling dens. The leader said that a certainpercentage of the profit generated from those enterprises was sent tothe main leadership and the rest was divided among the members inrelation to their position. The leader ultimately received thelargest cut. On a personal level, the most prized possession wastheir motorcycle. Every member treasured their bikes and always madesure that they were well maintained. This passion for their machineswas so strict that no member was allowed to ride along if their bikewas dirty (Mindich, 38). The members that ignored this rule ended upreceiving severe punishments such as beatings and some had theircolors stripped off (Mindich, 38). The system of the colors wasanother important possession that the members of the bikerorganization had. The color system involved various tattoo marks thatimplied the position that each member in the group enjoyed. A newmember did not have any marking on them until they could accomplishvarious milestones that are set by the group’s pre-existing rules(Mindich, 38).

GroupValues and Beliefs

Thebelief and value system for the group was very profound. Every memberkeenly followed the protocols and regulations that they had taken anoath to uphold. They usually refer to each other as brothers, andthey termed the organization as a brotherhood. No single member couldlet their fellow brother suffer from any problem while they werepresent (Shields, 1-33). Even if one of the members is wrong in theiractions, each member of the organization has to offer their support.This belief was meant to scare their enemies and the society ingeneral. The message that they try to pass across is that their unityis very strong and no situation can break it up. They also believe incommitment, once a person has pledged to be a member of the group,they cannot leave. Their service is meant to last for their entirelifetime (Shields, 1-33). The strict adherence to the rules of theorganization is part of the reason why the motorcycle gangs are verysuccessful and powerful. Members that break any of the rules receiveretribution that relates to the significance their error.

Locationsand Structure of their Meetings

Themost popular meeting point for the members of the group was the pubwhere I met them. One of the members said that most of their meetingstook place in the establishment. They started by talking aboutserious issues before they could relax and enjoy the services thatwere provided in the place. Other meetings were held at the residenceof the group’s leader due to the nature of the issues that were tobe addressed. Whenever they needed more privacy, the latter optionwas a good alternative. I could not get the details about the natureof those meetings because I was not a sworn member of the group.However, I was told that the meetings were carried out with respectand discipline. Their meetings were always started by the leader ofthe group. He expounded on the issues that should be resolved beforehe gave the opportunity to the other members to voice their opinionsand suggestions. The manner of communication followed a strictpattern where the influential individuals spoke first before theothers could speak (Shields, 1-33). After every major item had beendiscussed, there was an open forum for any member that needed toraise an issue. The leader of the group said that this practicehelped give every person the feeling that they were an important partof the group and that their input was appreciated. The language thatwas used in their communication was American English. They also hadsome slang words that they used to refer to illegal items andactivities that I was not told about.


Iwas informed that the recruitment process for new members is a longand detailed process. During the period when a potential recruit isbeing evaluated, they are not allowed to be unavailable for anyreason. They are told to be reachable at any time of the day ornight. Another requirement is that they should let go of any familyties (Shields, 1-33). The commitment and loyalty of each recruitshould be to the gang that they attempt to join. Once they take theoath and become members, they have to start at the lowest levels. Thenew members are the ones that are given risky and dangerousassignments. Those people that prove their capabilities through suchactivities continue to rise in their ranks. The mark that shows theirposition in the group is a tattoo with different numbers. The morethe numbers on the tattoo of the person, the higher the rank of theindividual in the organization. The leader of the group is always theone with the most experience and figures on their tattoo mark. Theleader is also a person that can make difficult decisions and canalso enforce the most strict rules such as execution of members thathave been treacherous to the organization. The same leader has toearn the respect of the other members. Thus, whenever there is achange of leadership, the second in command usually has a toughbattle in trying to convince the group to support him. Women arerarely given high leadership positions in the group. Nevertheless,the system is expected to change with time (Blankenship, 2014).


Mindich,Brad. &quotBikers: A Sustainable Subculture Model.&quot&nbspMasterof Arts in Liberal Studies&nbsp(2014):38.

Inthis article, Mundich speaks about the culture of the biker gangs andhow the members relate to the leadership of the groups. The text alsobrings out the belief system of the motorcycle gang followers and howthey view themselves in relation to the society. Even though theiropinions vary with what the community understands, it becomes clearin the article that the motorcycle gangs also have their own conceptsabout how the world should function.


Barker,Thomas. &quotOutlaw Motorcycle Gang Violence.&quot&nbspOutlawMotorcycle Gangs as Organized Crime Groups.Springer International Publishing, 2014. 45-52.

Barker,Tom. &quotMassacre at Waco: Biker Violence and PoliceOverreaction.&quot&nbspAmericanJournal of Criminal Justice&nbsp(2016):1-14.

Blankenship,Paul Dean. &quotGender, Style, Technology: The Changing Landscape ofMotorcycle Culture.&quot (2014).

Bunker,Robert J. &quotTom Barker (ed): North American Criminal Gangs:Street, Prison, Outlaw Motorcycle, and Drug TraffickingOrganizations.&quot&nbspTrendsin Organized Crime&nbsp17.3(2014): 218.

Gottschalk,Petter. &quotMaturity Levels for Outlaw Groups: The Case of HellsAngels MC.&quot (2016).

Lauchs,Mark, Andy Bain, and Peter Bell. &quotGang Theory and OutlawMotorcycle Gangs.&quot&nbspOutlawMotorcycle Gangs: A Theoretical Perspective.Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015. 38-52.

Miller,Jacqui. &quotThe early films of Robert Altman and the politics ofanti-establishment.&quot&nbspTheRoutledge Companion to Cinema and Politics&nbsp(2016):354.

Mindich,Brad. &quotBikers: A Sustainable Subculture Model.&quot&nbspMasterof Arts in Liberal Studies&nbsp(2014):38.

Pieuchot,Maxim, and Dave Douglas. &quotSeeking A Cause To Rebel: Hollywood’sinspiration from, and it’s influence on 1950s teen culture.&quot(2013).

Shields,Danielle. &quotThe Infamous ‘One Percenters’: A Review of theCriminality, Subculture, and Structure of Modern BikerGangs.&quot&nbspJusticePolicy Journal&nbsp(2012):1-33.