“The streets of every city are thronged with men who would pay all their money they could get their hands on to be transformed – even for a day – into hairy, hard-fisted brutes who walk over cops, extort free drinks from terrified bar tenders and thunder out on motorcycles after raping the banker’s daughter.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966)
Blood soaked, violent encounters at the Twin Peaks Sports Bar and Grill in Waco, Texas. Territorial disputes between guerrilla sounding names – the Bandidos and the Cossacks. Gangland warfare over self-appointed and consecrated areas of interest. The lethal encounters on May 18 have again propelled bike gangs to front print. On this occasion, there was reason to worry. Nine corpses, 18 wounded and 170 arrests is no mild distraction in the field of domestic law enforcement.
The use of fists quickly turned to weapons, the police claiming to have found over a hundred of them with shell casings. A the height of the mayhem, as many as 30 gang members were blazing at each other in the parking lot.
The mythmaking of the biker culture was not something that began with Hunter S. Thompson, though he examined it with his pen and that interest which, in his own words, “borders on psychic masturbation.” Cooking it up from a range of ingredients, he saw in these violent adventurists “the hundred-carat headline”, a lawless phenomenon stretching through country and imagination.
Marlon Brando’s The Wild One similarly added a glistening gloss to the tales of the outlaws – in Thompson’s own words, giving them “ a lasting, romance-glazed image of themselves, a coherent reflection that only a very few had been able to find a mirror.” The reflections facing many former combatants coming back from what was supposedly the good war were decidedly unpleasant. It demonstrated, if nothing else, that radicalisation is not a new phenomenon, that it need not be issue from religious fundamentalism.
It was adventure in a dance with deracinated desperation. Not recognised till 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had its various manifestations. “Thus,” poses William L. Dulaney in 2005, “it seems logical that the horrors of war and the hell of combat may have melted down the pre-war personalities of these men only to recast them forever in new form, a form that didn’t fit well with the post-World War II American culture.” 
Wars, in short, are the most radical of distortions for the human, an incessant infliction of trauma long past the event. Those returning back to the dreariness of domestic life baulked. In the words of Dulaney, “Many found the transition back to a peaceful civilian life a more monotonous chore than they could handle. Some combat vets were trained in riding motorcycles, especially Harleys and Indians, while serving overseas.”
In the United States, rampant dysfunction met mobile technology. The motorcycle was wedded to the adventuring, law defiant bikers. Production lines featuring Hendee and Hedstrom’s Indian Motorcycle Company and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company sprang up in the early 1900s, less than a decade after historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the sacred transformation inherent in the frontier. In time, the biker culture would become a money earner and a drug racket, true capitalist traditions of the darker variety. Counter-cultural values became more orthodox criminal ones.
Biker mystique, with its violent fraternal calling, has continued to attract its infiltrating scribblers and commentators. Eye-witness accounts read like shabby anthropology and ritual gazing. They tend to feature titles such as Charles Falco’s Vagos, Mongols, and Outlaws: My Infiltration of America’s Deadliest Biker Gangs.
The reaction of authorities has, however, varied. “The Menace,” as it has been termed in various circles, varies. Where freedom of assembly laws are strong, activities are less of an issue than in societies where they do not exist. The US frontier of violence neatly dovetailed into the urbanised violence of biker warfare. In some cases, even police dreamed of violent escapism – the biker life as freedom.
Other countries have not been so accommodating of this law and disorder phenomenon. Australian states have, over the years, passed a range of laws targeting biker gangs with authoritarian specificity. This response has effectively channelled social fears into convenient targets, while enlarging police powers in arrest and surveillance. The result is a perversion of some proportion, the emancipatory appeal of biker gangs in the name of civil liberties. Even the rotten can save the law.
That is the logical consequence of authoritarian control and those milking the agenda of law and order populism. The Hells Angels’ pool of notoriety was well fed by such rough figures as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. It was bound to happen: the compromised, power hungry head of a police entity marshalled against the legally estranged cowboys on wheels. He proved a defining catalyst, and they provided the muscular counter mythology. Freedom can be vicious.
The outlaw image also given a popular cultural padding as well, with such staged acts as the shots of Barney Peterson of the San Francisco Chronicle, who is said to have contrived the photo of a drunken biker, Eddie Davenport, astride a Harley-Davidson bedded by the detritus of smashed bottles even as he sported beers in each hand with displayed club insignia. That was the occasion of the somewhat inflated Hollister riot, starring the rowdy antics of those attending the Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally in early July 1947.
Despite the blood, the impressive array of corpses, and the carnage, the bikers remain carriers of mythology. Plain vicious criminality and syndication tend to be papered over by the glory of an escapist life. But escapism eventually catches up. In one sense, the American frontier, with its symbolic and actual acts of violence, never closed.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org