Police arrested 170 members of various biker gangs for their involvement in a shootout outside a Twin Peaks Sports Bar and Grill in Waco, Texas, on Sunday. The melee involved at least five different motorcycle clubs, the members armed with weapons including chains, brass knuckles, knives and guns. Nine people died, and 18 others were wounded.
The level of violence and scale of the brawl suggest that biker gangs, often considered a relic of Americana compared with more contemporary criminal organizations, are still around and haven't changed much since their early days.
Outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) are an American invention and institution. The earliest such organizations first emerged after World War II, when biker gangs formed as a subculture that celebrated freedom and nonconformity. They fully embraced the outlaw image.
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Biker gangs have a well established hierarchy, and membership is exclusive. Long before Occupy Wall Street, biker gangs referred to themselves as the "1 percenters," after a former American Motorcycle Association president blasted OMGs and insisted 99 percent of motorcycle enthusiasts were law-abiding citizens in the late 1960s. Historically, this has meant these organizations are predominantly all white, though black and Latino motorcycle clubs have cropped up. In fact many OMGs have ties with racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist organizations.
Women also typically have not been permitted membership in biker gangs. Rather, these groups are notoriously misogynistic, and women who associate with a club may wear "property" belts or vests adorned with "property" patches, according to a background article on motorcycle gangs published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.
OMGs grew in number and in membership over the 1960s and 1970s, though their ranks have dwindled following a number of large-scale drug busts and racketeering investigations in the 1980s. Although the largest biker gangs are still well known, most OMGs try to stay under the radar in order to avoid drawing attention to criminal activity.
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Today, biker gangs constitute roughly 2.5 percent of total gang members in the United States, according to a 2013 report (PDF) by the National Gang Intelligence Center within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). With roughly 1.4 million gang members in the country, that gives OMGs around 35,000 affiliates. Despite the small size of OMGs relative to other criminal organizations, 11 percent of jurisdictions in the United States report motorcycle clubs as the most violent type of gang.
Around 300 gangs actively operate in the United States. OMGs have a presence in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Clubs range in size from a single chapter with half a dozen members to hundreds of chapters with thousands of members from around the world. The biggest biker gangs are the Hells Angels, the Pagans, the Bandidos, the Outlaws and the Mongols.
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Illegal activity typically associated with these clubs includes drug smuggling, violent crime, weapons trafficking, prostitution and more. Law enforcement agencies treat OMGs as organized criminal organizations, and several gangs have found themselves the subjects of RICO investigations.
Last February, the last members of a 28-defendant investigation involving members of the Black Pistons Motorcycle Club were sentenced for their involvement with drug trafficking. In March, six members of the Phantom Outlaw Motorcycle Club were convicted of a RICO conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder and other violent racketeering-related offenses.
While motorcycle gangs may not enjoy the same clout they did in their heyday, these incidents and the latest shootout in Waco are a reminder that OMGs are not likely to ride off into the sunset anytime soon.