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An outlaw motorcycle club (sometimes known as a motorcycle gang or biker gang) is a motorcycle subculture which has its roots in the immediate post-World War II era of American society. It is generally centered around the use of cruiser motorcycles, particularly Harley-Davidsons and choppers, and a set of ideals which celebrate freedom, nonconformity to mainstream culture and loyalty to the biker group.
In the United States, such motorcycle clubs are considered "outlaw" as they are not sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) and do not adhere to the AMA's rules. Instead the clubs have their own set of bylaws from which the values of the outlaw biker culture arise.
While organizations may vary, the typical internal organization of a motorcycle club consists of a president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, road captain, and sergeant-at-arms. Localized groups of a single, large MC are called chapters or charters, and the first chapter established for an MC is referred to as the mother chapter. The president of the mother chapter serves as the president of the entire MC, and sets club policy on a variety of issues.
Larger motorcycle clubs often acquire real estate for use as a clubhouse or private compound.
In some "biker" clubs, as part of becoming a full member, an individual must pass a vote of the membership and swear some level of allegiance to the club. Some clubs have a unique club patch (or patches) adorned with the term MC that are worn on the rider's vest, known as colors.
In these clubs, some amount of hazing may occur during the prospecting period, ranging from the mandatory performance of menial labor tasks for full patch members to sophomoric pranks, and, in rare cases with some outlaw motorcycle clubs, acts of violence. During this time, the prospect may wear the club name on the back of their vest, but not the full logo, though this practice may vary from club to club. To become a full member, the prospect or probate must be voted on by the rest of the full club members. Successful admission usually requires more than a simple majority, and some clubs may reject a prospect or a probate for a single dissenting vote. A formal induction follows, in which the new member affirms his loyalty to the club and its members. The final logo patch is then awarded. Full members are often referred to as "full patch members" or "patchholders" and the step of attaining full membership can be referred to as "being patched".
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Outlaw motorcycle clubs who identify with this subculture are not necessarily criminals, with members expressing their outlaw status on a social level, and not necessarily equating the word outlaw with criminal activity.
There are also non-outlaw motorcycle clubs, such as the Harley Owners Group and women's motorcycle clubs, who adopt similar insignia, colors, organizational structure and trappings, such as leather outfits typical of outlaw clubs, and, in the case of men, beards, making it difficult for outsiders to tell the difference between the two. It has been said that these other groups are attracted by the mystique of the outlaw image while objecting to the suggestion that they are outlaws.
Outlaw clubs are often prominent at charity events, such as toy runs. Charitable giving is frequently cited as evidence that these clubs do not deserve their negative media image. Outlaw clubs have, however, been accused of using charity rides to mask their criminal nature. The American Motorcyclist Association has frequently complained of the bad publicity for motorcycling in general caused by outlaw clubs, and they have said that the presence of outlaw clubs at charity events has actually harmed the needy by driving down public participation and reducing donations. Events such as a 2005 shootout between rival outlaw clubs in the midst of a charity toy drive in California have raised fears around the participation of outlaw biker clubs in charity events. Authorities have attempted to ban outlaw clubs from charity events, or to restrict the wearing of colors at events in order to avert the sort of inter-club violence that has happened at previous charity runs. In 2002 the Warlocks MC of Pennsylvania sued over their exclusion from a charity event.
The primary visual identification of a member of an outlaw motorcycle club is the vest adorned with a large club-specific patch or patches, predominantly located in the middle of the back. The patch(es) will contain a club logo, the name of the club, and the letters MC, and a possible state, province, or other chapter identification. This garment and the patches themselves are referred to as the colors or cut (a term taken from the early practice of cutting the collars and/or sleeves from a denim or leather jacket). However, many non-outlaw motorcycle riding clubs such as the Harley Owners Group also wear patches on the back of their vests, with or without including the letters MC.
The club patches always remain property of the club itself, not the member, and only members are allowed to wear the club's patches. Hang-arounds and/or support clubs wear support patches with the club's colors. A member must closely guard their colors, for allowing one's colors to fall into the hands of an outsider is an act of disgrace and may result in loss of membership in a club, or some other punishment.
The colors worn by members of some motorcycle clubs will sometimes follow a convention of using either a one-piece patch for nonconformist social clubs, two-piece patch for clubs paying dues, a three-piece patch for outlaw clubs or side patches. The three-piece patch consists of the club logo and the top and bottom patches, usually crescent shaped, which are referred to as rockers. The number and arrangement of patches is somewhat indicative of the nature of the club. Though many motorcycle clubs wear the three-piece patch arrangement, this is not necessarily an indication that a club is an outlaw motorcycle club.
Law enforcement agencies have confiscated colors and other club paraphernalia of these types of clubs when they raid a clubhouse or the home of an MC member, and they often display these items at press conferences. These items are then used at trial to support prosecution assertions that MC members perform criminal acts on behalf of their club. Courts have found that the probative value of such items is far outweighed by their prejudicial effects on the defense.
Some outlaw motorcycle clubs can be distinguished by a 1% patch worn on the colors. This is claimed to be a reference to a comment made by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) in which they stated that 99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens, implying that the last one percent were outlaws.
The reference to the AMA comment is supposedly a response to the Hollister riot in 1947, is denied by the AMA—who claim to have no record of such a statement to the press, and that the story is a misquote.
Other patches may be worn by members, including phrases and symbols. The style or meaning of these other patches can vary between clubs. Some, such as a skull and crossbones patch, or the motto "Respect Few, Fear None", are worn in some clubs by members who commit murder or other acts of violence on behalf of the club.
There are also wings or biker's wings which are earned something like jump wings or pilot's wings, but with various color-coded meanings, e.g. in some clubs, it is said that a member who has had sex with a woman with venereal disease can wear green wings. However, it has also been suggested that these definitions are a hoax, intended to make fools of those outside the outlaw biker world, and also to serve the purpose of provoking outrage among the square public and authorities.
Frequently, additional patches may involve the use of Nazi symbols, such as swastikas or the SS death's head. These generally do not indicate Nazi sympathies, but serve to express the outlaw biker's total rejection of social constraints, and desire for the shock value among those who fail to understand the biker way.
Most outlaw motorcycle clubs do not allow women to become full-patch members. Rather, in some 1%er clubs, women have in the past been portrayed as submissive or victims to the men, treated as property, forced into prostitution or street-level drug trafficking, and often physically and sexually abused, their roles as being those of obedient followers and their status as objects. These women are claimed to pass over any pay they receive to their partners or sometimes to the entire club. This appears to make these groups extremely gender segregated, however, this has not always been the case as, for example, during the 1950s and 60s some Hells Angels chapters had women members.
Recent academic research has criticized the methodology of such previous studies as being "vague and hazy", and lacking in participant demographics. Such reports may have made clear statements and authoritative analyses about the role of women associated with outlaw motorcycle clubs, but few state how they have come to such conclusions; one admitting that, "[his] interviews with biker women were limited lest [his] intentions were misinterpreted" by their male companions and that the such views of women are mythic and "sexist research" in itself, using deeply flawed methodologies and serve two highly political purposes of maintaining a dominance myth of women by men and amplifying the deviance of the male club members.
These myths about the women being that they are subservient working class women, used as objects for club sexual rituals, are hard bitten, unattractive, and politically conservative, and 'money makers' for the biker men and clubs, i.e. prostitutes, topless barmaids or strippers who are forced to hand over their money to the club. A recent paper notes the changing role of women within outlaw motorcycle gangs in recent times and another states that they now have agency, political savvy and have reframed the narratives of their lives. "We did it. We showed them we are real women dealing with real men. I'd much prefer to be living with an OMC member than some dork who is a pawn in the system" stated one woman who felt she and her peers had "set the record straight". One such woman even went as far as to describe the previous work done by men about women in the outlaw motorcycle club world as "the men that wrote that must be meatheads". They are part of the scene because they want to be and enjoy it. These women have broken from society's stereotypically defined roles and find freedom with the biker world.
Outlaw motorcycle clubs reflect their social roots and the demographics of motorcyclists in general. High profile outlaw bikers have historically been white and their clubs are typically but not exclusively racially homogeneous. It is claimed that racial discrimination within clubs has led to creation of rival clubs in past, such as the Mongols Motorcycle Club after members were rejected by the local Hells Angels chapter, although many clubs or individual chapters are now multi-racial.
Some members of outlaw motorcycle clubs engage in criminal activities and organized crime. Besides their connection with motorcycles and the one percenter subculture, such individuals and motorcycle clubs are seen by law enforcement agencies as being unique among groups carrying out crimes because they maintain websites, identify themselves through patches and tattoos, have written constitutions and bylaws, trademark their club names and logos, even carry out publicity campaigns aimed at cleaning up their public image.
There exists on an international level an ongoing conflictual environment between OMCs and the states of the nations in which they reside within which many unhelpful misconceptions and falsehoods are propagated for political purposes. These are used to amplify the deviance of the whole subculture and help define such motorcyclists as 'Outsiders', 'evil doers' and deviants rather than permitting diversity within society.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines "outlaw motorcycle gangs" (OMG) as "organizations whose members use their motorcycle clubs as conduits for criminal enterprises". Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Criminal Intelligence Service Canada have designated four MCs as "outlaw motorcycle gangs"; the Hells Angels, the Pagans, the Outlaws, and the Bandidos, known as the "Big Four". These four have a large enough national impact to be prosecuted under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. The California Attorney General also lists the Mongols and the Vagos Motorcycle Club as outlaw motorcycle gangs.
The FBI asserts that OMGs support themselves primarily through drug dealing, trafficking in stolen goods, and extortion, and that they fight over territory and the illegal drug trade and collect $1 billion in illegal income annually. In 1985 a three-year, eleven-state FBI operation named Roughrider culminated in the largest OMG bust in history, with the confiscation of $2 million worth of illegal drugs, as well as an illegal arsenal of weapons, ranging from Uzi submachine guns to antitank weapons. In October, 2008, the FBI announced the end of a 6-month undercover operation by agents into the narcotics trafficking by the Mongols Motorcycle Club. The bust went down with 160 search warrants and 110 arrest warrants
Canada, especially, has in the past two decades experienced a significant upsurge in crime involving outlaw motorcycle clubs, most notably in what has been dubbed the Quebec Biker war, which has involved more than 150 murders (plus a young bystander killed by an exploding car bomb), 84 bombings, and 130 cases of arson. The increased violence in Canada has been attributed to turf wars over the illegal drug trafficking business, specifically relating to access to the Port of Montreal, but also as the Hells Angels have sought to obtain control of the street level trade from other rival and/or independent gangs in various regions of Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Gazette, quoting from the Provincial Court of Manitoba, defines these groups as: "Any group of motorcycle enthusiasts who have voluntarily made a commitment to band together and abide by their organizations' rigorous rules enforced by violence, who engage in activities that bring them and their club into serious conflict with society and the law".
Members and supporters of these clubs insist that illegal activities are isolated occurrences and that they, as a whole, are not criminal organizations. They often compare themselves to police departments, wherein the occasional "bad cop" does not make a police department a criminal organization and the Hells Angels sponsors charitable events for Toys for Tots in an attempt to legitimize themselves with public opinion.
Contrary to other criminal organizations, OMGs operate on an individual basis instead of top-down, which is how supporters can claim that only some members are committing crimes. Belonging guarantees to each member the option of running criminal activity, using other members as support - the main characteristic of OMGs being "amoral individualism" in contrast to the hierarchical orders and bonds of "amoral familism" of other criminal organizations such as the Mafia. ATF agent William Queen, who infiltrated the Mongols, wrote that what makes a group like them different from the Mafia is that crime and violence are not used as expedients in pursuit of profit, but that the priorities are reversed. Mayhem and lawlessness are inherent in living "The Life" and the money they obtain by illegal means is only wanted as a way to perpetuate that lifestyle.
Recently, authorities have tried tactics aimed at undermining the gang identity and breaking up the membership. But in June 2011 the High Court of Australia overturned a law that outlawed crime focused motorcycle clubs and required members to avoid contact with one another. In the US, a Federal judge rejected a prosecutor's request to seize ownership of the Mongols Motorcycle Club logo and name, saying the government had no right to the trademarks. Federal prosecutors had requested, as part of a larger criminal indictment, a court order giving the government ownership of the logo in order to prevent members from wearing the gang's colors.
Certain large one-percent MCs have rivalry between each other and will fight over territory and other issues. Sometimes smaller clubs are forced into or willingly accept supportive roles for a larger one-percent club and are sometimes required to wear a "support patch" on their vests that shows their affiliation with the dominant regional club. Smaller clubs are often allowed to form with the permission of the dominant regional club. Clubs which resist have been forcibly disbanded by being told to hand over their colors or the threat of aggression. This is although the coalition is supposed to be a voluntary thing.
In Australia and the United States, many MCs have established state-wide MC coalitions. These coalitions are composed of MCs who have chapters in the state, and the occasional interested third party organization, and hold periodic meetings on neutral ground where representatives from each club meet in closed session to resolve disputes between clubs and discuss issues of common interest. Local coalitions or confederations of clubs have eliminated some of the inter-club rivalry and together they have acted to hire legal and PR representation.
Outlaw motorcyclists and their clubs have been frequently portrayed and parodied to the point of victimization in movies and the media generally, giving rise to an "outlaw biker film" genre. It generally exists as a negative stereotype in the public's subconscious and yet has inspired fashion trends for both males and females, as "biker babes". The appearance has even been exploited by the fashion industry bringing it into legal conflict with some clubs. A fetishistic look which conveys sex, danger, rebelliousness, masculinity and working class values.
The biker style has influenced the look of other sub-cultures such as punk, heavy metal, leather subculture and cybergoth fashion, and, initially as an American subculture, has had an international influence. Bikers, their clothing and motorcycles have become cultural icons of mythic status, their portrayal generally exaggerating a criminal or deviant association exploited by the media for their own often financial interests.
On television, the series Sons of Anarchy portrays a fictional outlaw motorcycle club, founded mainly by Vietnam War veterans, which is involved in various crimes, its interactions within their community and with underworld gangs. The show's creator thought it was too obvious to have them be methamphetamine dealers, and so instead they deal in illegal guns.
Charity rides, toy donations... Cook has learned these are part of the disguise.
'What they don't tell you is what they're doing the rest of the year. They're selling drugs. They're stealing motorcycles. They're beating people up. They're committing a laundry list of crimes.'"
Witnesses say a fight between two rival biker clubs at the event led to the shooting in which at least three people where injured, including a Norco firefighter."
'You can't say that to our members...these guys live for their patches.'
He said bikies would never, ever ride without patches as a cardinal rule."
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