IN 1966, Hunter S. Thompson called the Hell’s Angels “the hundred-carat headline” and the capacity of outlaw bikers to shock, appal and shift vast piles of newsprint has only increased in the years since.
Thompson realised that these barbarians on motorcycles were the sum of all fears in postwar America. They represented a totalitarian force that could overwhelm society as it moved lock-step towards conformity. Unlike the hippies, the bikies weren’t tuning out, they were planning to tear everything up.
Writers like Thompson in fact turned myth into reality, a process that had begun in 1953 with the cinema release of The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. The Wild One, the story of two rival motorcycle gangs who terrorise a small town after
one of their leaders is thrown in jail, was “an inspired piece of film journalism”, according to Thompson, telling “a story that was only beginning to happen and which was inevitably influenced by the film”.
It drew on earlier mythmaking in 1947 by Time magazine, whose breathless beat-up, complete with phony pictures, of a lawless weekend in a small Californian town of Hollister, first introduced Americans to what became known as “the Menace”.
The Wild One, with Brando as anti-hero Johnny, portrayed the bikers as an invading force, motivated by a sense of alienation. When Johnny is asked what he’s rebelling against, he curls his lip and replies: “Whaddya got?”
The film “gave the outlaws a lasting, romance-glazed image of themselves, a coherent reflection that only a very few had been able to find in a mirror”, wrote Thompson. The Wild One, fanned by half a century of journalistic urging, has spread the outlaw ethos around the globe.
The notion of “The Menace” is alive and well in Australia today. Last week, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced “a never before seen crackdown” on bikies after a spate of violence on the Gold Coast. Within hours, the gates to state parliament were chained and padlocked as earnest police chiefs warned of the likelihood of “retaliatory attacks” by angry bikers.
This followed “a siege” when Bandidos gathered outside Southport police station demanding the release of their brothers jailed over bashing a rival. Fortunately, the police didn’t believe the hype and shoot their way out.
The power that media coverage gives to the misanthropic and marginalised individuals who join motorcycle clubs is intoxicating to them.
A couple of biker brawls on the Gold Coast, one outside a nightclub and another in a juice shop, leads to blanket media coverage, the creation of taskforces and the promise of the toughest bikie laws in the world.
They know if they fire a few cowardly rounds into a shop front in the dead of night, the reaction will go on for weeks. The shrill condemnation from the media tells them they are being taken seriously.
Police have warned in the past that the media coverage of high-speed pursuits encouraged a rise in car theft among indigenous youth. And so it is with drive-by shootings.
Journalists who describe these made-for-TV moments as “acts of war” or “signs of escalating conflict” only validate the perpetrators and encourage more acts of stupidity. Young men join these clubs (and street gangs of all hues) to experience the fraternal intimacy usually available only to those who go to war. It’s said that these attacks are often carried out by hangarounds and wannabes who want to show their “class” to the clubs who might patch them up. What better way to catch the attention of people for your handiwork than to go multi-media?
Declarations of war by politicians and police at press conferences strengthen the bonds between members. The Hell’s Angels credit J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI with helping the club become the best known brand in the world. In turn, Hoover knew that “The Menace” would reinforce the FBI’s cred as a national crime fighting force, just as the Australian Crime Commission is doing today. Police, bikers and the media have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The greater the level of fear in the populace, the better it is for politicians seeking to send “a get tough on crime” message as part of the popularity contest we call democracy. Senior police will never talk down an opportunity to acquire greater powers or bigger guns. They want to get home safe every night like the rest of us.
Yet trying to make us hate and fear bikies has largely backfired, as I wrote in an earlier post. The media has been the outlaw world’s best recruiting tool.
Over the past decade, biker numbers in Australia have soared in a direct relationship to the column centimetres devoted to their denunciation.
“Since the heat has come on the clubs, we have a queue stretching round the block of people who want to join,” says one club president.
As society becomes rule-bound and obedient, the idea of living large like an outlaw becomes more attractive to men looking for identity and purpose. To be hated and reviled by media is a unifying virtue.
The Wild One has been overtaken by the long-running US cable TV hit Sons of Anarchy as the blueprint. It portrays biker clubs as hard-core organised crime, gun-runners and ruthless urban terrorists. Once again, media is telling a story that is just beginning to happen and influencing it at the same time.
Thompson instinctively understood the media appeal of the 1960s Angels and little has changed.
“They are acting out the day-dreams of millions of losers who don’t wear any defiant insignia and who don’t know how to be outlaws. The streets of every city are thronged with men who would pay all the money they could get their hands on to be transformed — even for a day — into hairy, hard-fisted brutes who walk over cops, extort free drinks from terrified bartenders and thunder out of town on big motorcycles after raping the banker’s daughter.”