Biker Gangs

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Editors: Craig J. Forsyth and Heith Copes
Date: 2014
Encyclopedia of Social Deviance
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 54

Biker Gangs

Outlaw biker groups began as a counterculture in the blue-collar taverns and general saloon society of California just after World War II but did not become a coherent entity until the late 1950s. Their “one-percent” label refers to the most extreme of the outlaw bikers who do not fit into mainstream society and are fearless enough to defend their elite status against all challengers. The one-percent appellation was coined in the late 1940s but was not formally adopted until 1969. Encased by a diamond, the 1% symbol is worn proudly by members of a few clubs.

These early motorcycle clubs (MCs) were loosely organized near-groups that served members’ emotional needs. Their members were largely barroom brawlers given to theft, prostitution, and drug dealing as opportunity and need dictated. Impulsivity, hedonism, violence, and power seeking typified their countercultural orientation. The alienation of some Vietnam veterans and other working-class whites threatened by the civil rights and antiwar movements encouraged the proliferation of these clubs, leading to territorial competition among a multitude of clubs. Interclub violence attracted increasing police attention and encouraged the growth of sophistication in the organized crime rings within most one-percent clubs as they became vital to financing interclub warfare. Internecine warfare also encouraged the development of extensive intelligence-gathering methods targeting both underworld rivals and law enforcement.

Counterculture members deliberately create a distinctive appearance and demeanor that attract mainstream rejection. This status grants some power in saloon society and similar settings, but the resulting visibility undermines criminal enterprises. Within the biker culture, there are subcultures that blend in more readily and can claim to share some values, such as rational planning and normative appearance, with the mainstream, which better facilitates instrumental criminality. This shift reflects the adaptability of outlaw biker clubs to the surrounding society that evolved in a dialogue of threat, response, and counterresponse between clubs and the legal system as well as between rival clubs. It also reflects the aging of club members, an important dynamic in the current biker scene.

The Clubs

The Big Four clubs emerged in the 1970s: The Hells Angels dominated the East and West coasts, the Bandidos spread from Texas to Washington State and the western Gulf Coast, the Outlaws dominated the area between Chicago and Florida, while the Pagans claimed the mid-Atlantic region. These clubs methodically absorbed smaller groups as they expanded across the nation, vied for territories, challenged one another with ever-greater determination, and refined their organizations to deal with both rivals and prosecutorial threats. The Sons of Silence, Warlocks, Vagos, and a few other groups held their own as regionally powerful MCs. The uniquely Hispanic dominated Mongols were among the last one-percent clubs to form but have held their own against the Hells Angels in California and elsewhere.

There are now thousands of one-percenters in North America, Europe, and Australia as well as in South America, South Africa, and Thailand; most have ties to one of the larger American clubs named above. They constitute a subculture with distinctive values focused on Harley-Davidson ownership, toughness, mechanical skills, masculine camaraderie, and hedonism.

Club Organization and Customs

These clubs are composed of geographically dispersed chapters of at least six adult men who form regional, national, and international networks with limited guidance from a set of national officers and their appointees. Each local chapter, as well as state/ provincial and national networks, elects a slate of officers similar to those of more conventional groups (president, vice president, secretary-treasurer, and enforcer or sergeant at arms).

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Club life and the desire for power dominate one-percenters’ lives. All other concerns must be clearly and consistently secondary to membership. Bikers pay weekly dues at chapter meetings, known as church because of the absolute mandate to consistently attend. Bikers who are out of town on church day must attend the nearest chapter meeting or explain themselves to officers on their return. Clubs often impose fees to finance special projects, usually the legal defense of members in a chapter or region thought to be under siege by law enforcement or an interclub war. Minor rule violations, such as missing a meeting, are punished with fines. Being a one-percenter can be an expensive lifestyle.

All levels of a club organize and participate in runs or trips in which the group rides together to a specified location for a gathering that may last several days. Some runs are optional, but most are mandatory. Failure to have one’s bike operable for a run usually results in a fine, although distance forces some members to fly to larger international runs. Runs were originally debauches typified by wild excesses of drug and alcohol use, the sharing of women, daredevil riding competitions, and tests of strength and courage. Modern runs are increasingly seen as networking opportunities that unite men and cliques from far-flung chapters in both camaraderie and profit seeking. Many bikers also choose to marry in club ceremonies, and most arrange for the club to bury them in their colors after a motorcycle procession to the graveside.

Full club members (full patch members) wear a top rocker identifying the club, a bottom rocker with their state, city, or nation noted as a territorial claim, and the club insignia. Men in the process of joining a club wear only a top rocker labeling them as probationary members or prospects until their membership is approved by the chapter, a process lasting 1 to 3 years. All club associates and prospective members are thoroughly vetted prior to being granted access to the club house or any chapter activities.

Each club has distinctive qualities and symbols. The Hells Angels are famous for their extremism and elitism and fly a red and white death’s head as their insignia or patch. The Outlaws are known for their exuberance and almost fetishistic adoration of their patch, a skull with crossed pistons beneath it known as Charlie. The Pagans are symbolized by the Norse god Surt and maintain the most nomadic lifestyle in the subculture. They pride themselves on the ruthless speed with which they disappear after attacking foes (i.e., “hit hard, split fast”). Use of Spanish terms, especially to designate officers and other roles (e.g., el Presidente, abogado for lawyer), distinguishes the Bandidos whose patch features a sombrero-clad Mexican bandit in red and gold. These personas reflect the different clubs’ interpretations and applications of the subculture’s values. Their patches are their most valued possessions even though they technically belong to the club not the wearer. Bikers often attempt to seize rivals’ patches and will go to great lengths to protect or retrieve their own colors.

Only men of legal age may join a one-percent club. Their regular female companions, or ol’ ladies, may not attend club meetings or even be informed of club business (a term that can denote anything from warfare plans to criminal enterprise issues or security precautions for runs). Most ol’ ladies wear property patches or vests with top and bottom rockers (but never club insignia) labeling them the property of the club or a member. These patches protect the woman from unwanted advances from other bikers. Women nonetheless play a critical role in these clubs. In the subculture’s early days, many bikers relied on their ol’ ladies for financial support as they tended to club business. At this time, many bikers’ ladies worked in the sex industry, giving chapters entry to all manner of sexually oriented businesses. Modern ol’ ladies take a variety of roles—some are deeply involved in the social aspects of the club, drive pick-me-up trucks to assist anyone whose bike fails during a run, and carry contraband. Others devote themselves to home and family as they raise the next generation of club members. A few are career women who generally distance themselves from the club.

Evolutionary Dynamics

Many aspects of this subculture’s norm system have derived from various American subcultures as well as the mainstream trends. The violent, hard-drinking chauvinism of blue-collar tavern habitués was the base from which these norms evolved. Even in the subculture’s formative era, biker appeals to the frontier ethos of rugged individualism and libertarianism of mainstream America were common. The hedonistic, rebellious, and nomadic lifestyle that characterized the early one-percent clubs used beatnik-hippie themes while rejecting the aesthetic, peaceful, and tolerant aspects of those subcultures. More recently, the ruthless rationalism of corporate globalization and the savagery of Latin American drug lords provided models for one-percent-led enterprises ranging from drug distribution to securities fraud.

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The shift from the countercultural values of purist biker gangs to an entrepreneurial subculture has been the predominant dynamic in the subculture’s evolution. Gang-like purism and entrepreneurial rationality coexist in modern clubs, albeit in mixtures that vary across situations, chapters, and individuals. Purists value gang loyalty, raucousness, spontaneity, hedonism, opportunistic criminality, and masculine camaraderie. The entrepreneurial pole describes subcultural sensitivities that favor using the club as a base for profitable legitimate and criminal enterprises. This orientation values rational planning and low-profile crime as it seeks positive publicity or avoids the media entirely. The shift toward entrepreneurialism has led to more tolerance for bikers’ family obligations, greater respect for ol’ ladies, and a reduction in racism. Purism rarely conflicts with illegal enterprises but holds honor and brotherhood to be the fundamental biker values along with fighting, riding, and mechanical skills. Entrepreneurs give at least equal weight to self-control, skills that support profiteering, a positive public image, and interpersonal contacts that support successful enterprises. The subculture’s roots and imagery are grounded in purist values, but an increasing emphasis on entrepreneurialism led to the emergence of the subcultural superpowers and is shaping the subculture’s future. The desire for power in all imaginable forms dominates all aspects of the subculture.

The two ideologies are not incompatible: Most Big Four bikers concur with at least some aspects of each view. The difference is one of priorities. Purists prioritize prototypical biker values (as manifested in their club) and are willing to limit club and enterprise growth to protect these values. Entrepreneurs see the financial power attained through enterprises and growth as essential to the preservation of the club and subculture. Value conflicts occur mainly over the admission of new members with valued skills/contacts who are suspected to lack sufficient dedication to motorcycling and/or brawling. Decisions about when and how to attack rivals are also affected by the prevailing balance of purist and entrepreneurial sentiments.

With value orientations shifting between these poles and a chronic state of war enveloping most clubs, even the most crucial biker values are ignored if doing so serves the greater purpose of advancing the club’s power. Simultaneously, the extreme sense of masculine honor generated by purist values demands an annihilative response to any affront to the club or its members (one on all, all on one means that to offend one biker is to challenge his entire club). In the relative isolation of the criminal underworld, both hedonism and violence rapidly escalate to outrageous levels as bikers strive to outdo both friends and rivals in demonstrating their toughness and masculinity.

Biker Criminality

Long recognized for its extreme violence, the subculture was recognized as a burgeoning umbrella organization for organized crime in the 1980s, although this trend actually began in the late 1960s. The larger clubs are priority investigation targets for federal law enforcement and may be the best armed nonmilitary organizations in the nation. Many bikers specialize in drugs, weapons trafficking, extortion, and prostitution, and a few have ventured into gambling and stock fraud. The production and sale of methamphetamine was crucial in launching these clubs into the realm of true organized crime. Most crime rings organized by one-percenters link them with smaller clubs and/or associates—men approved by the chapter as reasonably trustworthy friends of the club who rarely aspire to membership. Early applications of organized crime laws to the Big Four had only limited success, but law enforcement has become more adept in infiltrating clubs and prosecuting these bikers.

Modern one-percent MCs are highly selective fraternities that have become a significant genre of organized crime on six continents. The one-percent club is the only form of organized crime to be exported from the United States. The Hells Angels and Bandidos were especially eager to establish international territories and have become the superpowers of the subculture. The Outlaws have a significant presence in Australia and Western Europe, and at least one chapter in Thailand but, like the Bandidos, only a weak presence in Canada due to the efforts of the Hells Angels and law enforcement. The Mongols and Sons of Silence have chapters in Mexico and Germany, respectively; the Pagans have Australian chapters and links to German clubs.

The one-percenters’ ascendency in the underworld is best explained with three interrelated themes that operate at all levels of analysis (i.e., from explaining personal acts to the interaction of the subculture with the mainstream). The transition from counter-culture to subculture reflected in the shift from the original biker values to a more entrepreneurial outlook is the most critical dynamic in biker evolution. Of almost equal import is the pervasiveness of the war mentality that drives norm change and violence within and between clubs, as well as relations with legal authorities. Finally, the incremental adaptation of one-percent MC organizational structure to attacks by rivals and law enforcement is also an important derivative of these transitions. Rational entrepreneurialism and observation of older forms of organized crime inspired many clubs to seek a more benign public image by sponsoring charitable and sporting events. Reduced raucousness is partly because of the aging of subculture members and the rational benefits it brings to clubs, members, and their families as well as the increasingly hierarchical control club officers exert.

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It is difficult to distinguish the acts of cliques within a club from those of the club itself, but the tendency is for the club to control warfare and manage conflicts between members, which includes mediating disputes over criminal enterprises run by members. The enterprises themselves, however, are generally run by cliques of bikers using the club as a foundation or network. The compartmentalization of information and activities within self-selected cliques and/or local chapters is a form of modal organization that loosely resembles other outcast stateless entities (e.g., white supremacists, gangs, crime syndicates, and terror cells). Cliques of bikers and associates operating under the umbrella of their club’s organization use their ferocious reputation and well-refined intelligence-gathering capacity to create rings that move drugs and stolen goods around the nation while controlling many prostitution fronts and legitimate businesses.

To describe these clubs as tattooed versions of more traditional crime syndicates (e.g., La Cosa Nostra) is a gross oversimplification at best. The mafia is a criminal organization, while one-percent clubs are organizations composed largely of felons. Outlaw MCs are fraternal organizations that drifted from impulsive to organized criminality, while La Cosa Nostra was a rational criminal organization that created a fraternal facade to protect its members. Traditional crime syndicates are united by family or ethnic ties, while MCs are interest based and often compete with families for their members’ time and resources. Crime syndicate members often use their power to enter the mainstream, while bikers generally use theirs to insulate themselves from the mainstream. (Bikers nonetheless enjoy some mainstream perquisites such as luxury cars or private schools for their children to insulate them from mainstream rejection.) The leaders of both types of organizations have nearly absolute authority in many situations, but biker leaders are elected under genuinely democratic auspices.


The libertine hedonism of the hippies, the rugged individualism of the American antihero, and the exclusive focus on profits and power of the transnational corporation have inspired this subculture over the past 65 years. Bikers provide a mirror through which society may glimpse its shadow side—the unacknowledged, morally unacceptable but latently powerful aspects of social institutions and structures—to show the savagery and value diminution that power seeking and a chronic state of war can create. Bikers are the shadow of U.S. culture that is exporting itself across the globe along with McDonalds, Walmart, and illegal stimulants.

James F. Quinn and Craig J. Forsyth

Further Readings

Barger, R. (with Zimmerman, K., & Zimmerman, K.). (2000). Hell’s angel: The life and times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Barker, T. (2007). Biker gangs and organized crime. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Queen, W. (2005). Under and alone. New York, NY: Random House.

Quinn, J. F. (2001). Angels, Outlaws, Bandidos and Pagans. Deviant Behavior, 22 (4), 379–400.

Quinn, J. F., & Forsyth, C. J. (2009). Leathers and Rolexs: The symbolism and values of the motorcycle club. Deviant Behavior, 30 (3), 1–31.

Quinn, J. F., & Forsyth, C. J. (2012). Coordinated chaos: The psychology and structure of organized crime among one percent bikers. In T. Barker (Ed.), North American criminal gangs (pp. 174–187). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Quinn, J. F., & Koch, D. S. (2003). The nature of criminality within one-percent motorcycle clubs. Deviant Behavior, 24 (1), 1–25.

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Veno, A. (2007). The mammoth book of bikers. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf.

Veno, A. (2009). The brotherhoods: Inside the outlaw motorcycle clubs. Sydney, New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Winterhalder, E. (2005). Out in bad standings: Inside the Bandidos Motorcycle Club. Owasso, OK: Blockhead City Press.

Wolf, D. R. (1991). The Rebels: A brotherhood of outlaw bikers. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6501000035