Uneasy Rider: The Origins Of Motorcycle Gangs And How They Remain A Force

May 22, 2015
Originally published on May 22, 2015 10:52 am

Updated at 10 a.m. ET

The shootout involving motorcycle gangs last weekend in Waco, Texas, resulted in 170 arrests and put a spotlight on the gangs' history, which dates back to the 1940s.

Steve Cook, who heads the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that soldiers returning from World War II formed gangs with names like the Market Street Commandos. A riot involving these and other biker groups in Hollister, Calif., in 1947 resulted in national attention and the bikers' "outlaw image."

At the time, Cook says, a mainstream motorcycle group dismissed the troublemakers as "1 percent" of the law-abiding biker community. That 1 percent, he says, had a lasting influence.

Indeed, the FBI's National Gang Intelligence Center notes that outlaw motorcycle gangs represent approximately 2.5 percent of all gang members in the U.S. But "law enforcement officials in the US Southwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northwest regions indicate that [they] present a significant threat.

"However, when asked to identify the top 10 worst or most problematic gangs in their respective jurisdictions, survey respondents identified [outlaw motorcycle gangs] first over street and prison gangs higher than their membership numbers would indicate."

Cook credits a man named Sonny Barger for making the outlaw motorcycle gang movement what it is today. Barger organized the Hells Angels early, got the group into crime and gave them rules and a structure. Cook says Barger formatted "this into almost like a business."

"Other groups formatted their own gangs after them," Cook says, "and I think that's why this has continued to flourish even this many years later."

Cook says motorcycle gangs are involved in the manufacture and distribution of drugs, as well as motorcycle theft, prostitution and weapons trafficking.

"It pretty much runs the gamut," he says.

Cook, who is himself an active motorcycle rider, also tells Inskeep the gangs are predominantly white, but not as gray as they used to be. That has changed, he says, because many members are veterans who are able to recruit at times of war.

"For a long time, it was a lot of older people, but they have recognized that if they didn't start recruiting they were going to die off," he says. "And so they have started huge youth movements. And of course you know any time we have any kind of military conflict, you have an explosion in motorcycle gang activity because you have a lot of individuals that are affiliated with these groups that are active duty, they get deployed, they meet like-minded people, and they recruit."

The FBI also notes that several gangs "are actively recruiting from the military for new members."

Cook says he has two Harleys and regularly goes to motorcycle rallies like Sturgis. He says it's important to keep in mind that there are thousands of legitimate motorcycle enthusiasts.

Inskeep also asks whether Cook ever encounters bikers at motorcycle events who he knows from his day job — much like the old cartoon about the wolf and the sheepdog who greet each other as they clock in in the morning and then go after each other.

Cook laughs and says, "That's pretty accurate."

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A different form of transportation is at the heart of this next story. Last weekend's brawl involving biker gangs in Waco, Texas, has us thinking about motorcycle gang history. Steve Cook has learned it. He's a law enforcement officer who leads an association tracking motorcycle gangs. He traces them back to World War II veterans who staged a famous event in 1947.

STEVE COOK: What they called a gypsy tour, which was a combination of a drag race and a hill climb that was being held at the San Benito racetrack in Hollister, Calif.

INSKEEP: The event led to a small riot. The riot inspired news coverage and a Marlon Brando movie, "The Wild One." Legitimate bikers tried to denounce the culprits as an outlaw 1 percent of bikers.

COOK: They said, hey, we like being the 1 percent, not only of the biker community, but of society that operates outside the laws and rules.

INSKEEP: Although this is all happening generations ago. Most Americans weren't even alive at the time. How is it that these groups have persisted all these years?

COOK: I think, you know, Sonny Barger gets a great deal of credit.

INSKEEP: Who's that?

COOK: Well, Sonny's kind of an important person in the Hells Angels. He got them into the crime aspect of the group. But also, Sonny was the person that organized the Hells Angels early on as far as, you know, how members were able to join, how individuals charters were set up. And other groups formatted their own gangs after them, and I think that's why this has continued to flourish even this many years later.

INSKEEP: Well, setting aside the Waco incident for a moment, what makes this a problem across the country? By which I mean, what are the kinds of things that gangs are involved in across the United States?

COOK: Drug manufacturing and distribution - that's a staple - motorcycle theft, prostitution, weapons trafficking. It pretty much runs the gamut. And although race is still somewhat of an issue, it's not the issue that it used to be. Now, most of your traditional motorcycle gangs, they still don't want to let African-Americans into the gang. But their support clubs, their underlings if you will, they will let them into those organizations, and they will conduct business with street-gang members, prison-gang members, members of drug cartels, regardless of race.

INSKEEP: From what you just said, I'm presuming that these groups are still overwhelmingly white. Do they tend to be older people, younger people, what?

COOK: For a long time, it was a lot of older people. But they have recognized that if they didn't start recruiting, they were going to die off. And so they have started huge youth movements. And, you know, know anytime we have any kind of military conflict, you have an explosion in motorcycle gang activity because you have a lot of individuals that are affiliated with these groups that are active duty. They get deployed; they meet like-minded people, and they recruit.

INSKEEP: Is it some kind of symptom of post-traumatic stress?

COOK: You know, I think that is definitely part of it. And I think what happens is, you've had all this true camaraderie in the military. Then you get home and everything that you knew previously has kind of been turned on its ear. And so they go around these guys, and they see, hey, you know, they wear a uniform; they wear colors; they have a rank structure; they have rules. And I think for a lot of them, it's like this is what I need.

INSKEEP: So are you a motorcycle rider?

COOK: Absolutely. Yeah, I've got two Harleys. You know, I do the rallies. You know, I go to Sturgis. I do a lot of the same stuff that legitimate motorcycle enthusiasts do. And I think that's important to comment on is there are thousands and thousands of legitimate motorcyclists out there. And legitimate motorcycle enthusiasts don't like these people either.

INSKEEP: When you've been at motorcycle events and around a lot of other motorcyclists, have you ever looked around and recognized a face of someone that you have encountered in your day job?

COOK: Yeah. You know, and that happens pretty frequently, and I get recognized a lot. You know, I've been approached before. You know, one thing that I will give these individuals the, you know, credit where credit is due, they are very respect-based.

INSKEEP: I'm having an image in my head of the old, old cartoon where there's a wolf and a sheepdog, and they are very friendly in the morning on their way to work and say hello and everything. And then they both clock in and go after each other.

COOK: (Laughter) Yeah, that's pretty accurate.

INSKEEP: Well, Steve Cook, thanks very much.

COOK: Yeah, thank you.

INSKEEP: He's executive director of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.