10 July 2015

A Matter of Turf

by R.T. Lawton


Patch worn on the front of the jacket
while the gang colors go on the back
A couple of months ago in Waco, Texas, there was a shootout during a gathering of bikers at a well-known barbeque restaurant. Nine bikers dead, several wounded, over a hundred arrested. Some press reports said the gathering was to talk about newly proposed laws for motorcycle riders. Other reports said the meeting was to work out differences among various motorcycle gangs concerning territory and recruiting. In truth, it could have been for both reasons, depending upon those attending. The spark setting off the melee was claimed by some to be an argument over a parking space, by others, a biker's foot being run over by another motorcyclist. We were never told whose foot it was or whose parking space was in dispute, but if a one-percent patch holder was involved, it's reasonable to assume that either incident made for an excuse to go to battle right then and there. It made no difference whether the perceived slight was truly an accident....or a premeditated push.

There's a long history of violence among motorcycle gangs. Some of it I've seen in the press, some I learned from various gang members and associates, some I heard from other law enforcement agencies and some I've witnessed in person.

One-percent gangs are very territorial. At the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis during the mid-1970's and up to 1980, you could find several different club colors in attendance. Some colors represented criminal motorcycle gangs, some stood for organized clubs and some were merely made up by a bunch of friends just out to have fun. But by 1980, the word had been put out by various one-percent gangs that if their bottom rocker displayed the name of a certain state, then no other club had better wear colors with a bottom rocker showing that same state. The Deadmen MC learned the hard way that South Dakota was part of the Bandido Nation. When the corpse of one member of the Deadmen was dug up from his shallow grave on the side of a river bank, it was said that he was shot so many times that the lead slugs just fell out of his body. In 1980 at the Sturgis Rally, a member of the gang I had infiltrated was thrown to the ground by the Bandidos and the club patch on his jacket was cut off while he was still wearing the jacket. Me, I missed the Rally that year, got drafted to Miami on a special to chase smugglers in go-fast boats. Just as well. When a club receives an insult like the two mentioned above, the offended club has two choices, bend the knee or go to war. Seized colors are frequently hung up in gang clubhouses as war trophies.

Even though South Dakota was considered as part of the Bandido Nation, the Sturgis Rally was supposed to be neutral ground. The problem was keeping it that way. To show supremacy on their own turf, the Bandidos made an annual mandatory run in a pack, two by two with road guards out to stop other traffic on any road intersections or interstate entrance ramps, from their Rapid City clubhouse, up I-90 and into Sturgis, where they paraded up and back the four blocks of Main Street which were restricted to motorcycles only during that week.

Didn't take long for the Hell's Angels MC to start pushing. One of their members bought the Bent Horseshoe Ranch just north and east of town and set it up as a Hell's Angels campground. They even held rock concerts there during the Rally. One attendee was U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell who has publicly stated that the Angels are just a misunderstood group. So now, the red and whites, as the H.A.'s are sometimes called, have a firm establishment in the Bandidos backyard.

During one Rally in the early 1990's, I was working with a U.S. Customs agent that week. At one point, we found ourselves standing at the side entrance of a vendor's tent just off Main Street. A crowd was gathering around a small cleared area on the sidewalk and out into the street. Seems that two old, bearded Bandidos wearing Washington state bottom rockers had walked into a bad situation. One Bandido was in the middle of the cleared area where a young H.A. from South Carolina kept shoving and trying to taunt him into a fight. The Bandido took the shoving without a word. No doubt, he could see about 8 or 9 other H.A.'s standing in the perimeter of the crowd, to include one very large guy nicknamed Tank, from Minnesota. Getting into a fight here where biker rules dictated that every club member was required to join into any altercation meant receiving a severe beating or worse, thus he opted to take the abuse. The second Bandido stood quietly on the sidewalk right in front of the agent and I. To his right stood another H.A. with his left arm squeezed around the Bandido's neck. This H.A. had his right hand wrapped around the handle of a large Crescent wrench resting in the back pocket of his jeans. Obviously, it was there to work on his Harley, should it have a mechanical problem. The extent of their conversation was, "We aren't going to do anything, are we?" The Bandido merely nodded. Neither one looked behind them.

Eventually, the South Carolina H.A. quit pushing the old Bandido around, forcibly took his hand and shook it, and said he was just funning him. Everyone went their separate ways and the crowd dispersed. Personally, I think one of the H.A.'s was smart enough to realize there were undercover cops in the area when he heard the vendor approach the Customs agent and me and tell us we probably shouldn't be there with this going on, and my reply that yeah, we should be there at this time. That's when I think a warning went out to the other H.A.'s about the presence of unwanted witnesses. In any case, the two sides separated. That's when the two Bandidos made the mistake of making their exit down a nearby dark alley. Partway down, they got waylaid and knifed. Both survived to tell the tale, but there's a lot more stories like these out there.

So folks, the next time you see a parade of one-percent patch holders making a toy run for charity or a blood run for a hospital, just remember, it's not really safe to play with wild animals. And of course there was the Rally year that the one-percent clubs told their members to clean up their appearance from the old dirty biker image. There I was on Main Street in Sturgis, standing behind and off to one side of an old Hell's Angel who was wearing new white tennis shoes, clean blue jeans, a clean jacket with colors and sporting a nice barbered cut to his short grey hair. He was loudly addressing a passing member of some Christian group that rode motorcycles, and he was telling the guy that he had better get rid of the Christian patch on the back of his jacket. I could tell by the twitch in the old H.A.'s right eye while he was talking that even cleaned up, it was the same old mentality of turf and status.

Ride easy, until we meet again.

5 comments:

janice law said...

Sounds as if these guys have way too much time on their hands!
Entertaining as always.

Eve Fisher said...

Great post. This is why I've never gone to Sturgis, despite everyone in SD telling me, "oh, they're just a bunch of fun guys who like to ride bikes." Sure. I grew up in Southern California, back when the Hells Angels and Axemen and the Satan's Slaves were all having turf wars in every California city (or so it seemed). Very hard to avoid. Now that I can avoid them, I do.

Anonymous said...

My ex and I used to spend quite a bit of time in and around the Black Hills, but stopped when Sturgis started to grow. By now, seeing what's there even when the bikers are NOT present (seriously tough bars, strip clubs, and campgrounds set up for their use that remain year around, for instance), I wouldn't go there then for anything. What I wonder is how long it's going to take the people of Sturgis to realize they have a rattlesnake by the tail that's going to bite them dead sooner or later. By now, there is no way they can get out of it. And (having lived just south of the Black Hills as recently as 2004) the length of time the bikers are in that area has grown constantly so that now it's most of the summer. It's a really scary thing.

R.T. Lawton said...

Janice and Eve, thanks for the comments.

R.T. Lawton said...

Anonymous, officially, the Sturgis Rally is one week, however, over the years, the vendors and motorcyclists started arriving earlier and earlier and leaving later and later. Several of the houses and Main Street stores and other businesses have been bought up by some of those vendors, or gangs, or speculators who hope to make a profit on two weeks worth of rent. The flavor of the town has definitely changed over the decades, and the gang shootings, stabbings and hammer attacks have increased. If you are a non-patch holder then you are probably safer than if you are wearing colors.
At times, the sidewalks on Main Street are so crowded, we jokingly called walking there as the chain gang shuffle.