The cultural trope of the young black man as a fearsome criminal is almost as reductive and misleading as the trope about biker gangs in the US being American Ronin. Both are of course highly racialized perceptions, based on an imaginary reality. But they’ve come together in odd ways in the past few days.
When the average American thinks of a young black man in conflict with the police, it’s a safe bet the first image that comes to mind is a criminal element. It’s the result of insidious subtextual conditioning that pervades our culture from our news to our entertainment. Every day, Americans are inundated with a constant undercurrent of news media driven fearmongering setting black men up as the ever present prevalent threat to civil society. Every night, Americans see black men presented as the enemy on television and on film.
The image of the outlaw biker in America today is quite different. Due to the huge popularity of Kurt Sutter’s soap opera Sons of Anarchy, the American public now imagines a doe-eyed Leif Erikson type when they think of a biker. The noble white outlaw that Charlie Hunnam portrayed with vacant sincerity and earnest whispering over seven seasons has spawned a new love affair with the idea of motorcycle clubs.
As a practical matter, these two tropes don’t have too much to do with one another. Until recently.
On Thursday, May 20, at 1 AM, two men were accused of attempting to shoplift beer in Olympia, Washington. The police shot the perpetrators. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone that the victims were young black men. Although the incident is now being framed as a response to an assault with a skateboard, the facts don’t appear to back this up- and at the very least any “assault” had negligible effects on the officer in question and left the skateboard intact.
As anyone who has ever lived in Olympia can tell you, the shooting of two unarmed young black men in that city by a police officer was bound to provoke protest. Olympia’s beautiful, quirky, radical, leftist community loves nothing more than to stand up for justice. So it was no surprise that within twelve hours of the shooting, there was a movement on the streets of the city in support of the victims.
And, people being people, it was no surprise that there was a counter demonstration in support of the police officer who shot two unarmed young men in the chest for allegedly trying to steal a case of beer. The makeup of this counter demonstration is the point of interest. Observe.
The insignias on the backs of the shirts worn by the counter protesters (who are attacking the anti-police demonstrators with no repercussions) are modeled after motorcycle club patches. They read Black Top Demon and are not an MC but rather a rockabilly band local to the Olympia area.
A cursory glance at the band’s social media presence reveals the usual angry white guy rock band imagery. One picture shows the band’s leader burning his guitar, another involves the band’s skull insignia (blatantly ripped off from The Punisher comics), another still shows the frontman drinking and driving. Oblivious to privilege and full of their own self image, Black Top Demon fits the mold of every single big fish small pond rock band that will never go anywhere and never shut up about the big break right around the corner.
Where they’re different than most bands is in their appropriation of MC symbolism. The band members all wear a patch on their clothing representing their allegiance to Black Top Demon. This patch style, which is known as three piece, is generally used by outlaw motorcycle clubs. Interestingly, the appropriators of this style in Black Top Demon are using it to protect the police.
Obviously this band is just using the situation in Olympia for attention, and obviously it does a disservice to the demonstrators there in particular and to fans of music in general to bring them any more attention. But they do serve the purpose of showing the difference in our cultural understanding of symbolism and the representation of criminal elements in the zeitgeist.
When two unarmed young men are shot by police officers, our societal reaction should be to demand justice. When two unarmed young black men are shot by white police officers, the latest in a long line of such incidents, our societal reaction should be to not only demand justice but demand a cultural and social shift to address the deep problems with a system that perpetuates such actions in the name of the law.
As the people of Olympia make their voices heard to try and shake the institutionalized racism that pervades law enforcement and the culture as a whole, they should be supported. The counter actions of those who want to maintain the status quo are typical. And their appropriation of the symbols of actual criminality in the name of protecting the police from the consequences of murdering alleged criminals only shows how predicated on race our culture’s emblems of the outlaw have become.
Eoin Higgins has a master’s degree in history from Fordham University. He lives in New York.