Introduction & Overview
The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) has been one of the most notorious outlaw biker gangs since its conception on Saint Patrick's Day, March 17th, 1948 (1). After The Hells Angels opened their first chapter in California, they quickly grew into an international organization. Within the next few decades, they would see their influence reach countries such as New Zealand, Germany, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey (2). Like the Bōsōzoku gangs of Japan, HAMC was founded as a way for World War II veteran pilots to regain a sense of camaraderie (3). Over time the organization's overall intent has evolved from establishing itself as an imposing force during the 1960s counterculture movement to helping like-minded motorcycle riders form communities that will allow them to better enjoy riding. Throughout the years, their laissez-faire approach to governance has allowed each chapter to find and adapt its own purpose (4). The HAMC's freedom-loving outlaw counterculture influenced its chapters internationally to adopt various motives. With operations ranging from toy donation campaigns -- such as the Christmas drive held by the San Diego HAMC -- to illegal drug smuggling attempts that led members from the same San Diego chapter to be arrested in Malta. The Hells Angels' individual chapters have often found themselves in a strange limbo between criminality, political activism, and simple automotive hobbyism (5).
At the end of the Second World War, many veterans returning to the United States had difficult times detoxing from the adrenaline-filled lifestyle of a serviceman and coping with their then unrecognized PTSD (6). Unable to create connections with those who had not experienced the shock of war firsthand, these veterans would start to classify themselves as outcasts from typical American society. Isolating into social groups made up of fellow veterans, they formed similar bonds to the ones created during the war. To many in these groups, the connections they made were more substantial than that of their families (6). While these tight-knit friends would satisfy the veterans' social needs, they still sought out a replacement for the highs of combat. The average bar brawl was a start, but the economic boom after the war would give them the funds to acquire a love for the large CC motorcycles HAMC is known for (6). Although the groups were primarily focused on their shared passion for motorcycles, they would not officially be categorised as a Motorcycle Club until the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) required them to create formal charters to compete in sanctioned races (6). This AMA legislation led to the recognition and creation of numerous clubs nationwide, all with different compositions and ideologies (6).
On July 4th, 1947, an AMA-sanctioned race gave way to a riot in the town of Hollister, California. The media tension after the event caused the AMA to break away from clubs associated with the rioting and paint them as outlaws (7). Some of the clubs cast aside by the AMA used their new rebellious personas to make a mark on America, either intentionally or not. Now labeled as 'outlaw' motorcycle clubs, they used intimidation and disorder to form their own counterculture. Clubs such as the Pissed off Bastards of Bloomington (POBOB) and the Booze Fighters Motorcycle Club became some of the first to have the image of "Gangis Khan on an iron horse" cast upon them by the press (8). With the help of the media, outlaw biker culture swept east from California, giving rise to like-minded clubs all around the country. The creation of new clubs meant the creation of new rivalries; which, for instance, caused tension to form inside the Piss Off Bastards of Bloomington. During the height of these underreported tensions, then-members of the POBOB broke away to create the first Hells Angels chapter in the Fontana area of California (9).
Today, it is difficult to determine all of HAMC's driving motives other than to fill a natural need for community, as well as curate a network of different businesses (10). Hells Angels are incorporated and have their own registered trademark (11). They have also created two churches, named the Church of the Angels and the Church of the Free Highway, for which they receive tax exemptions on club assets (11). Each chapter and its members can differ widely, from libertarian-minded businessmen to lifelong criminals (12). Depending on the Hells Angels clubhouse that one walks into, they may find anything from toys ready for donation, or methamphetamine being prepared to move across the border (13). A specific chapter's goals and political views are determined mainly by those actively involved in the club and their current thoughts on the world around them.
In the club's earlier years, it was much easier to pin down the rebellious intent of the HAMC and its unique ideology. Besides the goal of funding their chapters through both legal and illegal means, HAMC seemingly wanted to curate their own unique style of 1960s American counterculture (14). This style is summarized by a quote used in the book 'Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga' in which a Hell's Angel states -- "We're the one percenters, man—the one percent that don't fit and don't care. So don't talk to me about your doctor bills and your traffic warrants—-I mean you get your woman and your bike and your banjo and I mean you're on your way…."
Throughout the 1960s-70s, HAMC's image grew immensely due to the release of various films inspired by them and the high public disdain for the U.S. government (15). The perceived liberal nature that these films cast on the club through renditions of psychedelic drug use and their presence in the politically active San Francisco Bay area helped attract support from well-known public figures (16). One of them was Allen Ginsberg, an American poet that became renowned after the release of his anti-capitalist poem titled 'Howl' (17). This support and romanticization in the media led many Americans who were a part of the counterculture movement to use the Hells Angels as a militant arm of their otherwise peaceful ideology. While the Hells Angels would accept this role inside liberal politics, HAMC members were primarily motivated by ideological markers such as masculinity, a sense of brotherhood, territorial defense, and autonomy from society (18). Constant struggles with the police, defamation by officials, and their general outlaw persona left a vast majority of Hells Angels to develop an anti-authoritarian mindset towards U.S. Government and state officials. Since HAMC members did not apply this same anti-authoritarian mindset to the club itself, which involves a multitude of various ranks and strict laws, some have created the label ‘Rebel Authoritarians’ for them (19). This unique form of authoritarianism allowed HAMC to act as a structured security force for Haight-Ashbury's alternative communities and new age events such as the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Speedway (20). Although most altercations they were involved in ended violently, the counterculture favored HAMC over the police.
However, this relationship quickly changed when Hells Angels attacked anti-war protesters in Berkeley. The demonstrators who once looked at the Hells Angels as comrades in their fight against the establishment had become their targets. HAMC members beat and harassed Vietnam Day Committee protesters which they believed had become too radical and were traitors to the country (21). Hells Angels claimed they were protecting Oakland from out-of-town Berkeley radicals (22). The incident would forever hinder the bond between the two cultures and further confuse the public's perception of the Hells Angels' ideology (22). To distance themselves from the hostile media that surrounded these anti-Vietnam War protests, Oakland Chapter President at the time, Ralph 'Sonny' Bargers, held a press conference. He would go on to denounce the demonstrations—even offering to volunteer Hells Angels members to fight against the Viet Cong (23). Other HAMC members stood behind Vietnam veteran 'Sonny' Bargers and exposed their underlying patriotic views. Since then, it has been challenging to determine the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club’s political affiliations or if they even maintain any.
Militant & Political Abilities
Although the Hells Angels involves many chapters with unique focuses, they have still developed legislation allowing them to operate as a worldwide organization. Chapters of HAMC fall under a 'Regional Officer'. This officer acts as a representative for all chapters that exist in their area (24). These areas usually encompass the eastern or western half of a country (24). During annual country-specific and worldwide club events, these representatives will meet to vote on matters relating to the Hells Angels. While chapters are mostly regarded as equal to each other, the Oakland California Chapter is considered to have the most influence on club decisions. This influence is due to their large number of members and the universal respect Hells Angels have for former chapter president Ralph 'Sonny' Bargers. The HAMC's maintained connection between all chapters allows HAMC to conduct international operations, ranging from running a bar chain called 'The Other Place' to waging multi-country turf wars with rival clubs (25).
Approach to Resistance & Alliances
During the height of HAMC's popularity in the 60s-70s, they often targeted rival clubs that threatened the criminal and political operations a chapter may have been running. The HAMC carried out numerous bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and beatings to protect their interests (26). At one point, they also attacked mafias such as the Chicago Italian mob, who was the target of a failed car bombing that left one Hells Angels member dead (27). This violence continued onwards to the late 1990s, when HAMC members were convicted for bombing a Bandidos MC headquarters in Norway. While violent actions are less likely to be carried out by HAMC chapters in the modern day, this does not mean they have entirely ceased. For example, in June of 2022, a group of Hells Angels members fired at a rival gang on a Las Vegas highway (28).
Even though HAMC has chapters in twenty-seven states throughout the US and five continents, they have been known to work in conjunction with other motorcycle clubs worldwide to aid in both community and criminal activities. In 2015, HAMC and ex-rivals the Bandidos MC were accused of working together in Zelenograd, Russia, against the Night Wolves MC, also known as 'Putin's biker gang' (29). This ability to establish international chapters and the willingness to cooperate with once-rivals of HAMC only reinforces the Hells Angels' role as a player in world economics and politics.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - “History.” Hells Angels MC World. Accessed September 30, 2022. https://hells-angels.com/our-club/history/.
(2) - “Charter List.” Hells Angels MC World. Accessed September 30, 2022. https://hells-angels.com/world/charter-list/
(3) - Sawa, Jackson. “The History of the Potentially Misunderstood Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.” MSN, August 17, 2022. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/crime/the-history-of-the-potentially-misunderstood-hells-angels-motorcycle-club/ss-AA10Mepl#image=1
(4) - Bagnall, Sam. “Programmes | This World | Hells Angels: Easy-Riders or Criminal Gang?” BBC News. BBC, January 2, 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/this_world/3311057.stm
(5) - Toy Drive on December 18 at San Diego Harley Davidson. YouTube. KUSI News, Dave Stall, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCdwlflPtMM.
(6) - Dulaney, William L. “A Brief History of Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs - Ulysses SA.” Ulysses East London Newsletter. Accessed September 30, 2022. https://www.ulyssessa.co.za/eastlondon/EastLondonMarch2014.pdf.
(7) - Grad, Shelby. “How the Outlaw Biker Gang Culture Got Its Start in a Small California Town.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2015. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-hollister-marlon-brando-biker-culture-20150519-story.html.
(8) - Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels the Strange and Terrible Saga. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.
(9) - James, Randy. “The Hells Angels.” Time. Time Inc., August 3, 2009. http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1914201,00.html.
(10) - “Bars-Op.” Hells Angels MC World. Accessed October 2, 2022. https://hells-angels.com/our-club/bars-op/.
(11) - National Institute of Justice, and Ann Richardson, OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS USA OVERVIEW § (1991).
(12) - Kovaleski, Serge F. “Despite Outlaw Image, Hells Angels Sue Often.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 29, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/us/despite-outlaw-image-hells-angels-sue-often.html.
(13) - Toy Drive on December 18 at San Diego Harley Davidson. YouTube. KUSI News, Dave Stall, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCdwlflPtMM.
(14) - Chamings, Andrew. “The Most Famous (and Infamous) Houses of Haight-Ashbury.” SFGATE. SFGATE, April 30, 2021.
(16) - Wood, John. “Hell's Angels and the Illusion of the Counterculture.” The Journal of Popular Culture 37, no. 2 (2003): 336–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-5931.00071.
(17) - Chamings, Andrew. “The Most Famous (and Infamous) Houses of Haight-Ashbury.” SFGATE. SFGATE, April 30, 2021. https://www.sfgate.com/sf-culture/article/2021-04-san-francisco-haight-ashbury-famous-homes-16129977.php.
(18) - Bradley, Carl. “The History of Outlaw Bikers and Ancient Warbands.” Outlaw Bikers and Ancient Warbands, 2021, 11–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-75347-4_2.
(19) - Stewart, William J., and Daniel Krier. “Dark Spectacle: Authoritarianism and the Economic Enclosure of American Motorcycling.” Capitalism's Future, 2016, 240–76. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004300293_011.
(20) - Austerlitz, Saul. “Remembering Meredith Hunter, the Fan Killed at Altamont.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, July 19, 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/feature/remembering-meredith-hunter-the-fan-killed-at-altamont-630260/.
(21) - Smith, Chris A. “Angels, Protesters and Patriots: What a Long-Ago Skirmish Says about Love of Country.” Cal Alumni Association, November 27, 2021. https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/spring-2016-war-stories/angels-protesters-and-patriots-what-long-ago-skirmish.
(22) - Austerlitz, Saul. “How the Hells Angels Split with Sixties Counterculture.” CrimeReads, July 11, 2018. https://crimereads.com/how-the-hells-angels-split-with-sixties-counterculture/.
(23) - Hells Angels' Press Conference. YouTube, 2021. https://youtu.be/9oWx3f6oePg.
(24) - National Institute of Justice, and Ann Richardson, OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS USA OVERVIEW § (1991).
(25) - Services, From Tribune News. “Missiles Used to Attack Hells Angels' Clubhouses.” Chicago Tribune, August 19, 2021. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1996-04-18-9604180145-story.html.
(26) - Morgan, Raymond C. The "Angels" Do Not Forget. San Diego: Law and Justice Publishers, 1979.
(27) - Burnstein, Scott. “Plenty of Fireworks in Cleveland Mafia in the 1970s: The Danny Greene Mob War Timeline.” The Gangster Report, August 2, 2018. https://gangsterreport.com/plenty-of-fireworks-in-cleveland-mafia-in-the-1970s-the-danny-greene-war-timeline/.
(28) - Charns, David. “4 Las Vegas Hells Angels Members, Prospects Arrested; 4, Including Chapter Leader, Wanted on New Charges.” KLAS. KLAS, September 27, 2022. https://www.8newsnow.com/investigators/4-las-vegas-hells-angels-members-prospects-arrested-4-including-chapter-leader-wanted-on-new-charges/?ipid=promo-link-block2.
(29) - Night Wolves MC Russia Attack Bandidos MC and Hells Angels Biker War in Russia Documentary 2015. YouTube. YouTube, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFGOQBr6LoQ.