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Motorcycle Clubs and Gangs – What’s the difference?

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “biker gang?” This conjures in most people an image of tattoos, beards, and leather motorcycle vests. Now, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “biker club?” Does that sound different? It should. There is a big difference between the host of motorcycle clubs that exist around the world and the small, frightening world of biker gangs.

Here are a few things everyone should know about biker gangs. Motorcycle clubs are benign groups of motorcycle enthusiasts who meet and plan their activities around these vehicles. They are harmless hobby clubs that like to ride.

Outlaw motorcycle gangs are a different thing. They are well-structured units of organized crime whose motorcycles are a part of their criminal activities. They are involved in violent crime including weapons and drug trafficking.

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Biker gangs started in the 1930s, but really took off after World War II. Motorcycles, for some, were an adrenaline-soaked outlet that helped many returning servicemen adjust to life after the war, providing both excitement and camaraderie. They are international, but many trace their birth to a drunken riot in Hollister, California, in 1947 where a substantial amount of property damage occurred. Today, they are populated mostly by aging men, but originally the biker gangs were dominated by youth and became a symbol of rebellion. Think James Dean (Rebel without a Cause), Marlon Brando (The Wild One), Easy Rider, and Fonzi.

The three most well-known biker gangs are the Hell’s Angels, the Outlaws, and the Bandidos. All three began in the US but have chapters internationally. The most infamous biker gangs refer to themselves as the “one percenters” because at one time the American Motorcyclist Association went on record saying, “99% of motorcyclists are law-abiding.”

The rival biker gangs are indeed rivals. Hell’s Angels and the Outlaws have been at warfor decades. It all started in 1969 when an Outlaw gang member is alleged to have raped the wife of a Hell’s Angles member. They retaliated, killing the Outlaw, and a war ensued which continues to this day.

Bikers wear mostly leather, but what is on the leather is what’s important. Every gang has a logo or “patch.” The gang gives new members a patch to wear, but it remains the property of the club. Rival gangs try to count coup by capturing the patches of their enemies. To lose one’s patch is a major disgrace and grounds for expulsion from the gang. Or worse.

Don’t look for political correctness in biker gangs. Most are dominated by men. Women are treated like property, even sold or forced into prostitution.

It may surprise you that Hell’s Angels is incorporated, protects its logo against copyright infringement, and maintains a website. But it is not easy to get in. It can take months, even years. You don’t submit a resume through LinkedIn after college and hope for an interview. You have to hang out around a group and gain their trust, which can carry its own set of risks. Can you say “narc?”

If you do something that impresses the group, you may be voted in as a “prospect,” or potential member. Then you have to prove your dedication by performing some task they give you, which will probably be both dangerous and illegal. But hey, every male-dominated tribal gang from the Marines to Skull & Bones plays some variation on that theme. And they’ve been doing it since the world began. Consider yourself lucky if they only want you to steal a cop’s helmet. At least you won’t have to spear a lion or scalp a Comanche.