Bad ass Biker

One of my favourite series has to be SOA (Sons of Anarchy) – “why”? Well if I am honest, I suppose that like many others that ride motorbikes I would in fact like to be an outlaw biker or a 1%er as they are also known by normal society. While the series itself probably does “glorify” the outlaw biker lifestyle and crime, I enjoy the story-line as well as the bikes and yeah I suppose you do imagine yourself as a Jax Teller or one of the other “men of mayhem”.

I suppose that when we “don” the gear and start up the bike we enter another persona, one that says “I am the man, don’t fuck with me”.  The leather cut  may have  your club patch on the back as well as other patches that show the bike you ride, your view on the world as well as pins that show what rally’s you have been to or band that you listen to, hell some guys even wear patches that show their political persuasion. This together with the half gloves, helmet, a pair of cammo pants and attitude are meant to make you look mean and tough, the dentist, nursery school teacher and accountant become “outlaws” for a few hours . Does it work? Well let’s be honest on some it does, but the majority of weekend warriors are about as scary as if you where to put Barney in all those accouterments.

So what or who should I say, are outlaw bikers and why do they wear the 1%er patch and are they really as bad assed as we and law enforcement think and they are?  
Around 1905 the first motorcycle clubs in the States were formed and in 1924 the American Motorcycle association (AMA) came into being and they branded any non-affiliated clubs ‘outlaws”, now we have to remember these “outlaws” between the 1920’s and 1940’s were in fact harmless groups of young girls and boys who just enjoyed riding bikes and wanted to escape the monotony of riding alone. This they did by riding in groups and taking part in motorbike races. If the 1920’s saw the birth of the outlaw Biker it was not until after world war two that the outlaw biker came of age and this occurred in 1947 in a sleepy little Californian town called Hollister that was forever immortalized by the movie “The wild One’s” with Marlon Brando playing the lead role of Johnny . One of this movies and cinema’s famous line’s is “So what are you rebelling against Johnny”?................. To which Johnny replies “Whadyya got”   

The image of the modern “outlaw biker” was formed in Hollister when a few bikers behaved badly, that compared to today’s standards would be seen as tame.  It reads like a normal weekend rally, burnouts, drags in the street, too much drinking, half naked women and a few broken windows. This weekend of “mayhem” was taken up by Life magazine and blown out of all proportion. The AMA also wanted to distance themselves from what had happened at Hollister and in statement said “’Ninety nine percent of motorcyclist are law-abiding citizens and
the actions at Hollister are a result of outlaw motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists”  

Those bikers that saw themselves as the “outlaws” quickly called themselves the “1 percenters” and it was between the late 40’s and 1960 that the main one percenter clubs formed namely the Hells Angels, The Bandidos and the Pagans.  

The photograph and story on Page 31 of the July 21 edition of Life magazine had middle class America gasping in shock at the large drunk biker sitting on his Harley with a beer in hand and dozens of empties littered around his bike on the pavement. The photo just out of interest sake as “staged” with the dozens of empty bottles placed around the biker’s feet to maximize effect (this was confirmed by 83 year old Gus DeSerpa). That single black and white photograph published in what at the time was America’s most respected magazine probably altered the image of biking as well as the Harley Davidson motorbike forever. From that instant motorbikes and those that rode them were associated with chaos and evil. The truth is that a minor incident was sensationalized and while petty incidents did occur it was not the “barbarians at the gate” scenario as it was and has been made out to be.

While many who attended the weekend probably did have plans to raise a little hell, we have to understand what “raising hell” meant in the late 1940’s. To give you an idea as to how a “prospect” (new recruit who wanted to join a bike club and earn his colours) would be initiated, here are the cruel and harsh tests that prospects of the Boozefighters (seen as a hard-core biker and Outlaw club in 1947) had to endure

·         Get drunk at a race meet or cycle dance
·         Throw lemon pie in each other’s faces
·         Bring out a douche bag  where it would embarrass all the women (then drink wine from it)
·         Get down and lay on the dance floor
·         Wash your socks in a coffee urn
·         Eat live goldfish
·         When drunk have the president of the club shoot beer bottles off you’re had with a .22
Not exactly rape and pillage type of acts that one would expect from an “outlaw gang” or that one would envisage a dangerous biker club making their prospects endure or commit to become a “patched member”, hell and apart from the shooting of bottles from one’s head, I think the initiation into the local rugby club is probably harsher than that these days.   

There are numerous accounts of what happened that weekend at Hollister, and depending on who’s account you have read you will either be aghast at the carnage of the bikers or say to yourself “seriously” . Sourcing information on the incident from numerous sources here are some of the myths, facts of that weekend as well as the  incident/s that coined the phrase “1 percenters” .

All accounts that I have read at least agree one vital point and that is, the incident occurred on 3-6 July 1947, after that some of the “facts” become a little blurred, sensationalized or adapted so as to influence the people that would be reading that specific magazine article, police report or  which politician was looking for re-election.

Probably the first Myth that needs to be addressed is that the “riot” was the doing of the Hells Angels, this is not true as the Hells Angels were only founded in 1950 in a dusty town called Fontana in San Bernadino - California.  The truth is that it was a local bike group called the Booze fighters who instigated the trouble.  
There are two stories as to how the name Hells Angels was chosen, the first is that they named themselves after a B-17 squadron the 358th – of the 303 USAF bomber group that had been based in the UK during the Second World War or that they named themselves from the 1930’s Howard Hughes movie “The Hells Angels” either way the Hells Angels would establish themselves as the ultimate Motorcycle club.

One of the first questions that I asked myself was how did thousands of bikers end up in Hollister anyway a little town of 4500 people 420 kms from Los-Angeles in the first place ?

Through the 1930s, Hollister, California hosted an annual 4 July gypsy tour event. Gypsy tours were AMA authorized racing events that took place all over America and were considered to be the best place for motorcyclists to converge, the annual event consisted of motorcycle races, social activities, and lots of partying, as is the norm at most motorcycling gatherings today. In Hollister, the event itself as well as the motorcyclists were always welcomed, especially because Hollister was a very small town (Who’s main claim to fame was garlic) and the rally became a major event in its yearly life, much like Daytona Bike Week or Sturgis in the USA Today and as such became an important part of the town's economy. Due to World War II, the rally was cancelled, but re-organized for 1947.

So why did the 1947 racing events in Hollister become a problem? What was the catalyst that brought this little town to the world’s attention?  Well one of the reasons was that the numbers of people attending rose dramatically with estimate’s ranging from 3500 - 4800, again depending on who’s information you believe. I don’t believe it was the numbers that was the problem, it was the attitude of certain attendees, as well as the popularity that the motorcycle had gained between 1941 and 1947 . What some people forget is that after WW II as was the case in subsequent wars the USA was involved in, those veterans returning found it difficult to re adjust to civilian life that they found monotonous and yearned for adventure and an adrenaline rush, they found it in the motorcycle and the camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts which probably also reminded them of their days in the service.

Many American men who may not have been exposed to the motorcycle prior to the war learnt to ride them during the war and this saw the popularity of motorcycling and its danger/excitement growing dramatically, with thousands of new members joining bike groups or clubs after their return home. 

Those 2 factors saw a record attendance at the 1947 event with enthusiast coming from all over California as well as the USA. Motorcycle groups that attended also included newly formed groups, such as the “pissed off bastards of Bloomington”, the Market street Commando’s and the Galloping Goose motorcycle club.

Also we need to remember that about this time young men and women were beginning to not only doubt but also question their elders, as well as challenge their values, morals and any established institutions of authority. Young people were looking for a reason, any reason to rebel.
While motorcycling today has become more popular with women, many owning their own bikes, back in the 40’s there were numerous women only clubs with the biggest being the Motormaids. In fact the Motormaids have maintained an AMA club charter for more than 60 years and while certain Outlaw motorcycle clubs may lay claim to a slightly longer lineage, they have experienced at least 2 organizational identity permutations during their tenure. The Motormaids have maintained a singular identity as well as an overall governing structure since their inception and can lay claim to be the oldest established motorcycle club In the world. It was reported that at least 200 leather clad Motormaids rode into Hollister to watch the races and participate in planned events.   

Initially all were welcomed into the town and its bars and restaurants but there were just too many people for the infrastructure and those that could not get food or drinks started to look for other amusements and started to cause trouble. Drag races in the main street, throwing empty beer bottles out of windows, as well as fighting, both inside and outside the bars became the order of the day. Accommodation became a problem with bikers having to sleep on the sidewalks, on people lawns and in some cases farmer’s haystacks.

The number and the unfamiliar behavior of the attendees was just too much for the 7 man Hollister police force to handle and even threatening to use teargas and arresting as many drunken men that they could did not deter the men and women from enjoying themselves.

So how bad was it? Here are accounts the event seen through the eyes of a journalist, the local police a city Councillor as well as the local bike group, the “Boozefighters”.

Shortly after the weekend 2 stories were published in the San Francisco Chronicle with titles “Havoc in Hollister” and Hollisters bad time”. Both stories described the events to readers as “pandemonium and “terrorism” and while in general the articles did not actually lie about the events in Hollister the perception that they portrayed to readers was one of negativity towards motorcyclists. Here is an extract from one of those reports. “State highway patrolmen were called in to assist in imposing an informal martial law in downtown Hollister to curb the riotous behavior of an estimated 4000. Almost 60 persons were injured, three of them seriously. Several more arrests were made and a special night court session was convenes to punish those charged with reckless driving and drunkenness”. It was however the article published in life magazine (a major American publication) that brought the “riot” to the nation’s attention.  

A report from a city councilman to a newspaper reporter states the following…….. “Luckily, there appears to be no serious damage to the town. These trick riders did more harm to themselves. 3 motorcyclists had been seriously injured. One man suffered compound fractures of his right leg when struck by a cyclist swerving to avoid another rider spinning circles in the middle of the street. By early Sunday morning, the nearby hospital had treated 50 bikers for abrasions and broken bones”.

A police officer called the rally……….. “The worst 40 hours in Hollister history” and gave a brief version of events from the Police perspective. “Saturday afternoon it got a little out of hand and I remember some people tossing bottles onto the pavement, and riders spinning circles (today called donuts) in the street with their machines. The guys weren't vicious but they were drag racing up and down”.

After the last biker had left town and the dust had settled the city fathers of Hollister debated long and hard on whether they should ever allow another 3 day rally back into their community and if they did could they keep the rowdies under control. The tow chief of police resigned 48 hours after the weekend riot. The city fathers decided to reduce the event to one day, which effectively killed the event and after 1947, no hordes of bikers raced through Hollister or attended races at the local racetrack.

Did the Boozefighters, the local bike club established in 1946 and who are  generally acknowledged as being the people that instigated the “riot” realize that that they would rip an enormous hole into the social fabric of America? I don’t think that they did. I think that they just wanted to have some fun, ride their bikes fast, dance and drink. One of the members caused the most visible and memorable events of the Hollister weekend by riding his Indian bike into Johnny’s bar, the truth is that while Jim did in fact ride his bike into the bar and leaned it against the bar counter he did not crash it into the bar and when asked to move it away from the counter and put it against the wall he complied.

So while in the day they were regarded as outlaws and they liked to let off steam, partied heavy and occasionally got drunk, got jailed for speeding and had the occasional bar fight, none of the original members were ever put in jail for a serious crime like murder or drugs.  
So the Riot in Hollister as you can see, while for the time was a huge  problem to authorities and most Americans it was in fact nothing more than a glorified drunken binge that saw a few windows broken a few arrests made and a few injuries from riding bikes like hooligans, not bad if you think that thousand had descended on the town. It was thanks to the press that the events of that weekend was blown out of proportion and Hollister as well as the weekend’s events became part of biker folklore.

Stephen Dunkley
Port Elizabeth

·         Wikipedia
·         Mammoth book of bikers
·          Various articles from internet  


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