Gunfight at the Waco Corral
Last weekend a shoot-out in a Texan town left nine dead and 18 wounded in a turf war between bikers. We explore the long, warped history of these easy rider gangs
In 1965, a reporter from Life magazine spent time hanging out with one of the long-haired biker gangs rampaging around small town America. One observer remarked coldly: "These guys should have been born 100 years ago. Then they would have been gunfighters."
Fully 50 years on, the world was given notice that nothing has changed when, last weekend, nine died, many more were wounded, and 192 were arrested after a shoot-out in the Texas town of Waco. Five gangs had converged there for a summit, which turned into a bloodbath. The precise incident that sparked the slaughter is disputed, but it seems that the underlying cause was a simmering turf war between The Bandidos, a major gang with affiliated groups in 13 countries including Britain, and an upstart band called The Cossacks.
A large force of police had assembled in Waco expecting trouble, but their intervention appears to have been minimal until they began mopping up after the killing spree. While the smaller Cossack gang had not appeared on the police radar, The Bandidos were known to be heavily involved in the hard drugs trade since their formation in 1969.
The first US biker gangs predated the Bandidos by more than three decades, although the groups founded in the 1930s were more like sports clubs that would set out for a ride in the countryside at weekends. Even then, however, there were exceptions. Groups who identified themselves as rebels, such as The Outlaws, took to the road during and after the Great Depression, when vast numbers of Americans displaced by unemployment and the eco-disaster of the Dust Bowl upped roots and headed west in search of a better life. The toughest of these gangs were essentially maverick cowboys on wheels and were branded outlaws by the prim and proper American Motorcycle Association which disowned them.
But it was in the years immediately following the end of World War II that these petrolhead gangs multiplied and began to gain a truly sinister character in the mind of Middle America.
The idealised official history of the US in the post-war years tells of smiling soldiers returning home to marry their sweethearts, settle down behind white picket fences in the new suburbs springing up all over, and bringing into the world a brood of children that would become the Baby Boom generation.
And for millions of Americans that's more or less how life did pan out, but it's not the full story. Not every returned trooper made the seamless transition from death and carnage to serene suburban conformity. All across the States, there were tens of thousands of restless war veterans shipped back from Europe and the Pacific, unfit for purpose as far as regular jobs went, but imbued by habit with a taste for guns and risky business. And, as it happened, at precisely the same time, the US was flooded with countless thousands of army surplus motorbikes. As in the pre-war years, the biker movement appears to have rebooted as a weekend sports-like activity. Bikers would congregate at weekends in their scores, sometimes hundreds, to speed along the open freeway. They'd invade some pre-arranged small town to trade war stories, get drunk and cheer on the occasional punch-up.
The locals may not have liked it, but for a short time tolerance was extended so long as the bikers contained the fisticuffs to their own.
At some point someone had the not-very-bright idea of incorporating Nazi insignia brought home as war trophies. The fashion fad caught on, both as a badge of group identity, and as a way of showing that these battle-scarred malcontents weren't buying into the conformist American Dream being pushed at them by Washington, the advertising industry, and that all-conquering newcomer, TV.
In common with the general rule for forming an Irish political party, the first item on the agenda for most of these biker groups was The Split. Since size was important to the fighting strength of these paramilitary gangs, the endless splits were often swiftly followed by amalgamations with other vagrant groups. Founded in 1948 in California by ex-army vets, the Hells Angels absorbed several smaller factions including The Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington.
The profile and notoriety of the self-styled outlaw gangs skyrocketed in 1947, the year before the Hells Angels formed, after a rampage through the Californian town of Hollister was given nationwide front page treatment. The Hollister ruckus formed the basis of the 1953 blockbuster, The Wild One, which made a star of Marlon Brando and glamorised life on the road, dissing the law in a leather jacket.
In several ways The Wild One was the making of the biker movement. The movie gave the biker a valued self-image as a sexy desperado, and it united the culture by giving it its uniform, the leather-clad look which has since gone global. Brando also provided a cop-out line that could make even the dumbest biker think he sounded smart: "What are you rebelling against?", "Whaddaya got?"
When the American Motorcycle Association asserted in the 1960s that 99pc of all motorcyclists were law abiding, the Hells Angels, The Bandidos and other outlaw gangs branded themselves "the one-percenters".
Not untypically, the gangs that went to war in Waco last weekend arranged to meet up at a venue called Twin Peaks. The name refers not to mountaineering, but to cleavage. The scantily clad setting fits with an unsavoury aspect of biker culture which slaps down women and non-whites who are deemed to get too uppity.
Embedded with the bikers in 1965, the Life reporter noted the utterly subservient role women played in the culture. He wrote: "The girls weren't there in chains, or against their will. They had to want that life if they were going to be accepted by the Angels. These guys were kings of the road. I don't think they ever felt they had to look around for girls. Girls came, and they had their pick. Then they'd tell them where to sit and what to do."
When the story was filed, the editor spiked it, stating he would not give space in his journal to "those smelly bastards".
Today, while groups including the Hells Angels are categorised as organised crime syndicates by the US authorities, they thrive around the globe as legitimate corporations. The major ones generate huge income from merchandising patches, T-shirts jackets and, in the case of the Angels, the Death's Head insignia which they have copyrighted.
A different sort of American dream.