Our culture loves outlaw bikers. Growling Harleys, leather jackets and club patches are as instantly biker as Bad To The Bone or Motörhead thrashing through Ace of Spades. From their portrayal in pop-culture staples, from Easy Rider to Hunter S Thompson to The Simpsons, outlaw bikers have been cemented in our world.
Most recently we got a bit closer to this image of outlaw bikers with Sons of Anarchy (SOA), the award-winning series about the Sons of Anarchy MC (motorcycle club), a fictional “original” outlaw biker MC. It was followed by the spin-off Mayans MC, also about an outlaw biker club.
Both are highly rated shows now streaming on Showmax that give interesting glimpses into the secretive world of biker gangs. But do these gangs exist in the real world? And what about in South Africa?
Outlaw biker gangs: Don’t mess with the One Percenters
First, a clear line should be drawn between outlaw biker gangs and other types of MCs. Many non-outlaw clubs have the icons of the outlaw gangs, such as large club patches on their backs and a fondness for roaring around in packs. That’s because bikers started rocking leather, patches, beards, bandanas, work boots and beer before outlaw gangs appeared. They may look similar, but their ethos is very different.
“In South Africa, it is important to emphasise the difference between an MC and an outlaw MC,” said Ron Darby, President of MAWC (Motorcycle Association of the Western Cape). “An MC is not interested in participating in organised illegal activities. It’s a group of motorcyclists with similar interests and a love for biking who understand and respect what patched biking is about: Loyalty, Honour and Respect (LHR) at its core, but outside of the club, their families will come first.”
Outlaws, he continued, take LHR to another level and will “do anything to protect their way of life, their brothers and their identity.” There is another important distinction here: many in outlaw clubs are law-abiding professionals with pensions, bonds and families. But loyalty to their club and responding to its demands comes before anything else.
This is in line with much of the outlaw biker mythos. These clubs are also called One Percenters. The story behind the term shows how ingrained the rebel culture of outlaw MCs has been, since as early as the 1940s.
In 1947, the Californian town of Hollister hosted a biker rally, which was an overwhelming success: literally – the town’s population more than tripled. After one or two incidents at the rally, the press sensationalised them as the Hollister Riots. The American Motorcycle Association responded with a release that blamed deviant clubs and explained that 99% of bikers are law-abiding citizens.
Outlaw bikers took that cue and proudly adopted the term One Percenter. Even the FBI uses it as jargon for its reports.
That’s right – certain MCs concern the FBI, and it’s not the outlaw clubs. It’s the clubs that are also criminal gangs.
OMGs: The real bad outlaws
Sons of Anarchy deals with a very specific part of the biker world: MCs that qualify as criminal outfits or OMGs (Organised Motorcycle Gang). This is an official designation used by the FBI, identifying them as dangerous gangs with serious criminal intent. A handful of OMGs have also been added to lists of international criminal organisations, placing them alongside the likes of Mexican drug cartels and the Mafia.
OMGs managed to avoid this designation for quite a while, only being listed as gangs in the 90s. Motorcycle gangs being listed alongside criminal gangs led to widespread surprise – biker gangs, surely, were perhaps a bit rough around the edges, but they also did toy runs and chased away drug dealers, right?
Well, no. Again, we’re talking specifically about OMGs. They may do toy runs. But they don’t scare away drug dealers. In fact, drugs are what their empires have been built on.
The Hell’s Angels, for example, once one of the great OMGs, cut its teeth selling LSD and PCP to hippies in the 50s and 60s. But PCP, also called Angel Dust, was dangerous, and let’s just say it didn’t provide much repeat business. Then the Angels got their hands on a recipe for methamphetamine, aka crystal meth.
By carefully controlling meth’s recipe and production, the group spread globally – most notably to Australia. They have also been complicit in cocaine trafficking, particularly in the Netherlands, and other drugs. SA Hell’s Angels were implicated in a US-SA ring smuggling heroin in the 1990s.
OMGs are like any criminal organisation: willing to make a quick buck out of organised illegal activities. The charges against criminal bikers cover everything from murder to human trafficking. Despite their legendary codes of honour, OMGs have ripped off other groups and even fought internally in bloody wars.
Regular outlaws: Legends with PR machines
But these are the extreme examples of outlaw bikers. Most outlaw gangs shouldn’t be messed with, but they aren’t about to go to war with a Colombian drug cartel (yes, that has happened). Much of the outlaw biker’s legend is something they have carefully honed.
“Reputations don’t come from thin air, but a lot of it does get exaggerated by the media and the clubs themselves too. Some clubs have excellent PR machines with targeted propaganda to drive the image they want or need to precede them. They will do what needs to be done to protect their image and reputation.”
Patched bikers: Tame, but don’t touch them on their insignia
Zoom further out and there is the larger community of patched bikers, MCs that sport their club emblems on their backs. They’re a fairly common sight on our country’s roads.
Patched MCs are not dangerous, but their insignia is no gimmick. Another bit of biker lore is the sacred status of club patches. It’s a topic that is resolved violently in one Sons of Anarchy episode. Patched MCs don’t go that far. But they take the symbolism of the patch seriously, as Darby lays out:
“My patch is my identity. It is my family crest and it is something I’ve worked hard to deserve to wear. It shows others that I have walked the walk to earn the respect of my fellow brothers (and sisters) within my club, and so if you have any respect for my club or your own, you will respect me as an individual. If it’s not in your heart, don’t wear it on your back!”
SA MCs: OMGs are carefully controlled
South Africa has a lot of motorcyclists and it’s not a surprise to occasionally spot a patched jacket in traffic. The country’s wide roads and pleasant weather are perfect for motorcycles, beating the best any Highway 66 or Mojave Desert experience could offer. But does South Africa have its share of OMGs as well?
A few groups that are classed as OMGs are definitely in the country with local chapters. But if they get up to no good, they keep it out of the headlines.
“There are a few One Percent clubs in South Africa,” Darby noted. “We have been privileged in South Africa that if there are any underworld dealings in the biking community, it hasn’t spilled out and affected the general public. Nothing like what has taken place in other parts of the world.”
This is thanks, in part, to the work of SA’s MC networks, Darby says. For example, several MCs united in George last year to protest the attempted establishment of a Satudarah chapter, an outlaw club from the Netherlands known for its culture of violence. This is not unusual:
“In organised biking, areas are ‘controlled’ by regional councils or associations. Several clubs have aligned themselves with a shared vision to improve and protect their way of life with a set of rules that all clubs in that area need to abide by. The councils deal with any inter-club disputes and their rulings need to be respected and honoured by all. In South Africa, we have been aligning our councils, and a set of documented rules has emerged known as Protocols.”
The Protocols include preventing international clubs and patches from opening charters in the country. Even existing One Percenter clubs in SA support the Protocols and help to maintain them. This explains why, despite its crime problems, SA doesn’t struggle with OMGs, unlike Australia, the US and the Netherlands.
So how accurate are Sons of Anarchy and Mayans MC? There is truth to their stories, but a lot of the legend as well. Some of it skirts the true nature of some outlaw MCs. Other aspects maybe push the cool factor too much. But there is more to belonging to a club than the image, said Darby:
“Organised biking is not glamorous, it is not a cool symbol, it is not a licence to be a badass and most importantly, you don’t need a patch on your back to support and fundraise for charity. You can achieve all of that without a club affiliation.”
If you want to join an MC, find one that reflects your interests and shows loyalty, honour and respect. Or, if you prefer to leave the modern cowboys to ride off into the sunset, sit back for Sons of Anarchy and Mayans MC, both streaming on Showmax. Let the boys of SAMCRO do all the dirty work!
And if you want a taste of the real-life thrill and danger that comes from infiltrating biker gangs to bring them down, stream Gangland Undercover, about the drug dealer Charles Falco who agreed to help the FBI bust some of the most terrifying biker gangs in the States by going undercover. It’s also on Showmax.