Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Origin and Development of Motorcycles and OMCGs, Part 3


1947, Hollister:

It is generally accepted that the birth of OMCGs and the rise of biker subculture occurred as a result of the events in Hollister in 1947.

On the Fourth of July 1947, the small town of Hollister, California, hosted that year’s Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally, an event approved by the American Motorcyclist Association which had been founded in 1924.

Gypsy Tours were AMA-sanctioned racing events staged at various locations across America  and were considered to be the premier motorcycle racing events of the time.  Only AMA members were allowed to race.

The AMA had rigid rules for members, both to foster safety and to present a public image of the sport being family-friendly and wholesome.  Both members and non-members attended the event.

Among the clubs present at Hollister in 1947 were the Top Hatters (still existing today), the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington (one member of which, Otto Friedli, went on to become a founding member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club) and the Boozefighters.

Non-members of the AMA spent their time drinking large amounts of beer, to the delight of retailers, and racing their bikes on the main street, to the dismay of residents.  There was some minor damage to a storefront and at least one misdemeanour arrest for public indecency.

It should be noted, however, that Hollister was not unfamiliar to motorcyclists.  It had hosted the 1936 Gypsy Tour and its racetrack was regularly used for motorcycle racing and hill climbing.  Indeed, in 1997 Hollister held a large 50th anniversary biker rally to commemorate the events of 1947.

What gave notoriety to that weekend in Hollister was not the events that took place but the reporting of them.

A photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle, Barney Peterson, staged a photograph of the events in Hollister, intended to shock and titillate readers.  Peterson had an unknown drunk, not a club member, sit astride a motorcycle surrounded by broken beer bottles:

 (Click on images to enlarge)

The San Francisco Chronicle did not run the photograph, although it did carry a story sensationalising the events, portraying them as 4,000 motorcycle club members terrorising a town.  Peterson did manage to sell the photograph to Life magazine.  It appeared on page 31, a full page photo, with the caption “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and his friends terrorize a town.”  The accompanying article was in the same vein as the Chronicle reporting.  Other media followed suit and the concept of bikers taking over, and terrorising, a town was born.

1948 and onwards:

It has been asserted that after the Life photograph and media stories, the AMA issued a press statement asserting 99% of motorcyclists were good, decent, law-abiding citizens and that the AMA members were not involved.  The AMA has no record of releasing such a press statement and has denied ever having made such comments, but the apocryphal story remains. 

Mainstream motorcyclists and motorcycling organisations did try to distance themselves from the events in Hollister.  Other clubs, such as the Boozefighters, played up the notoriety and adopted the 1% tag, a badge that survives on biker colours to this day to indicate an outlaw club:

According to one writer:

So it was that the birth of outlaw motorcycle clubs was the result of a siege that never took place and the expatriation from an organisation to which they never belonged, and not much notice was taken outside the biker subculture. . .

It is during this era [between 1948 and 1960] that the notorious “one percenters” emerged on a national scale from the outlaw biker subculture. The dominant motorcycle clubs of the time took the secession a step further and turned the AMA’s declaration back on itself, claiming the remaining 1% as a badge of honour and forming themselves into a loose association of truly outlaw motorcycle clubs known as One Percenters. The original one percenters agreed on a diamond-shaped symbol to denote their marginal-but-exclusive social status, and agreed to establish geographic boundaries—primarily in California—in which each motorcycle club would operate independently. Although this loose association had been around for some time before the American-Vietnam conflict, the one percenters were not to make the national media scene until the mid-1960s.

The author of the above article draws a distinction between outlaw clubs and one percenter clubs:
  • Outlaw clubs are those which are not members of the AMA.
  • One percenter clubs are those in which the demands of the organisation are superior to the needs of the individual, which includes the individual’s family and occupation.
Quite a lot of material about OMCGs, as well as the authorities and law enforcement agencies, do not draw such a distinction.  They simply regard one percenters and outlaw clubs as one and the same thing.  The clubs and their members do likewise.

In 1951 Frank Rooney wrote a short story called “Cyclists’ Raid”, published in Harpers magazine, which was based on the Hollister events.  It portrayed a biker takeover of a town and its inhabitants being terrorised.

Two years later, in 1953, Stanley Kramer released the film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando.  It was both based on, and inspired by, the events in Hollister and the Rooney book.

According to another author:

The leather; the attitudes; the motorcycles; and the ever-present strength, power, and volatility of the bikers became a paradoxical fear/envy attraction for nearly every American. Not everyone could become a “wild one,” but it seemed that, deep down, everyone wanted to. . .

As the media continued to exploit the fear/envy element of the biker world throughout the ’50s and ’60s in the form of absurd movies like The Born Losers, The Savage Seven, and She Devils on Wheels, bikers continued to enjoy the true camaraderie-driven lifestyle that had emerged in the post-war years.

Between 1948 and 1960 outlaw motorcycle clubs spread outwards from California but remained small in members and small in number.

In 1964 two members of the Oakland Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club attending a club rally were arrested and charged with raping two women in Monterey, California. The charges were dropped due to lack of evidence and the two Hell’s Angels were released.  Nonetheless the media reporting caused California politicians to demand an investigation into motorcycle gang activities.  The report which resulted, named the Lynch Report after the Attorney General, consisted of inaccurate “facts” and retelling of law enforcement urban myths, such as gang rapes of innocent women and the plundering of small California towns.  Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels for a year, wrote about his experiences in his book Hell’s Angels and in that book debunked the Lynch Report.

The Lynch Report, however, was widely reported on and quoted by media outlets.  The negative portrayals were taken at face value and became the basis for depictions of OMCGs.  The resultant public perception of such clubs was reinforced by films such as Wild Angels and Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967) which adopted the Lynch Report portrayals.

That is not to say that the OMCG members were all innocents unfairly portrayed in the media and that the clubs were the equivalent of a bowls club.  Thompson’s book makes clear that club members were outside mainstream society, that they enjoyed the outlaw image and even went out of their way to promote it.  Ironically too Thompson received a “stomping” from the Hell’s Angels when he fell out with them when they demanded a share of his book proceeds.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s new outlaw clubs were formed, varying in strength of numbers and authority.  The biker subculture strengthened, some clubs became involved in criminal activity, including drug manufacture and distribution, and what had been loose organisation was strengthened.

The period after the 1970’s may be the subject of a future article.

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