Counterculture as a Gendered Post-War Legacy: The Latent Case of Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs

Members of Pagan’s Motorcycle Club in Cherry Valley, New York, 1970 (AP Photo)

The year 2020 will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Without a doubt, it was a turbulent epoch where women’s rights across the globe underwent arduous and countless defining challenges. Unfortunately, patriarchal legacies such as militarised masculinity systematically and institutionally prevail by the means of allusive behaviors deeply ingrained within our societies. We can commonly observe this through the outlandish infatuation toward uniformed men in armed forces, which is a marvel I am certain my fellow Indonesians can attest to.

Outlaw motorcycle clubs, also known as OMCs or 1%ers, are a product of the non-success of postwar adjustment of veteran soldiers into regular society. Since then, this crime-ridden counterculture became one of the most fervent instigators of gendered social hierarchies and racially induced discriminations that are still exercised today. Despite current global efforts to implement gender mainstreaming policies using various plans of action, counterculture groups commonly establish and adhere to their own authority. The axiomatic existence of outlaw motorcycle clubs may not appear to disrupt our day-to-day lives. However, their habitual operations, while relatively concealed from the public’s general knowledge in detail, is undeniably a perceivable threat to national–and even international–security.

To understand the gendered aspects of outlaw motorcycle clubs and how it influences gender dynamics at a societal level, it is imperative to maintain clear distinctions and acknowledge fundamental definitions. We must begin by recognising that the “biker culture” is not homogenous–not all motorcycle clubs are considered outlawed. The US Department of Justice specifically defines outlaw motorcycle clubs as “organizations whose members use their motorcycle clubs as conduits for criminal enterprises”.

Consequentially, it is also important to first understand what characterises outlaw motorcycle clubs as a gendered affair in relation to militarised masculinity and counterculture, how motorcycle clubs originated and how some subsequently transformed into organised crime, why its post-war legacy of continued violence can still be felt today, and how it continues to flourish globally.

Defining militarised masculinities

Maya Eichler’s thesis on militarised masculinities establishes the diverse structures and manifestations of the concept. It affirms that militarised masculinities must be understood as a social construct that extends beyond the military context. Eichler makes the case for the importance of militarised masculinities to be referred in plural form, for there is no universally accepted definition and is proven to be a theory that responds to epochal progress. Therefore, the intersectional feminist lens becomes a crucial framework to dissect the layers of gendered issues resulting from post-war grievances.

In the book Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives Cynthia Enloe expressed her belief that militarisation is never gender-neutral: it is a personal and political transformation that relies on ideas about femininity and masculinity. In her essay Understanding Militarism, Militarization, and the Linkages with Globalization published, Enloe described militarised masculinity as a “model of masculinity that is especially likely to be imagined as requiring a feminine complement that excludes women from full and assertive participation in (post-war) public life”, or regular society. Further, Enloe also highlighted that “any man who refuses to engage in armed violent action is jeopardising his own status as a manly man” as one of the commonly understood core beliefs of masculinity. This rings exceptionally true in the period of the world wars, where military enlistment or conscription was compulsory and enforceable by law.

From 1940 to 1973, citizens of the United States of America were required to fulfill conscription. As elucidated by a disturbing yet beautiful line by the Roman poet Horace, quoted and re-popularised by Wilfred Owen in 1920 as “The old Lie”:

dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, or what translates to “how sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country.”

From the lyric, we can deduce that conscription or the draft during the period of the world wars not only became the norm but became the pride and masculine virtue that defined one as a true man. It was the reason why Seth Moulton, a former marine, had walked out from Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, condemning him for mocking Sen. John McCain and called Trump a “draft dodger”, approximately fifty years since the end of conscription. There are lingering sensitive attitudes surrounding the perceived monumental importance of military conscription to this day. This is again confirmed in the 2004 book entitled Men, Militarism and UN Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis by Laura Whitworth where she took note that by joining the military, men confirm their manliness to others as well as themselves.

Subcultures and countercultures as a post-war response

At the end of the Second World War, a wave of collective masculinity as a common identity and grievance was inherited through the experience of veteran soldiers who were having difficulties to re-adapt into regular society after coming home. One of the ways in which veterans used to adjust or mitigate their post-war difficulties was by creating a safety net by establishing male-dominated countercultures. This includes motorcycle clubs, and even prior to the Second World War, right-wing secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded after the end of the American Civil War in 1865.

Counterculture is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English as the “way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm”. The Ku Klux Klan was initially founded in the Southern States to oppose black emancipation by employing terrorism tactics and unauthorised use of violence to disrupt the new structure of society.

In variation with subcultures, most countercultures are almost unable to consort with the dominant culture or values of regular society. In other words, countercultures engage in more extreme–commonly disfavourable–values beyond comparison to your prepubescent next-door teen neighbour who unsolicitedly professes their undying love for the boys of Bangtan Sonyeondan every annoying chance they get since falling deep into the never-ending black hole of the Hallyu subculture. (P.S. I may or may not have been referring to myself, but for the record, I am no longer a prepubescent teen).

The Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCSS) describes subcultures as being used as a form of resistance through expressing a particular style or characteristic. Confronted by a debilitating of class identity, subcultures serve as collective identification by exhibiting the said resistance against mainstream culture and establishing of the aforementioned codes of conduct as solutions to the structural problems. Scholars such as Ken Gelder in Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practices explicitly argued that there is a “lack of effort from researchers and scholars to find female perspectives rather than a lack of women in subcultures” as “the study of subculture is recognised of being predominantly white”. In the case of motorcycle clubs, the focus on collective masculinity is clearly evident, for males are the epicentre of the research. Thus, it could be imagined that it is the same case with countercultures.

Emerging as the victors of the Second World War, the United States experienced a post-war economic boom known as the golden age of capitalism which lasted until 1973, then came the period of economic stagnation after the fall of the Bretton Woods system. However, during the long boom period, the healthy economy allowed returning veterans who became the newest additions to the middle class, to collectively purchase Harley-Davidson or other big Western–preferably American–motorcycles and start their own macho “boys club” under the ethos of male-bonding or brotherhood.

In its initial establishment, these motorcycle clubs only allowed membership to cis-gendered straight white males who had gone through a process of hazing known as “prospecting” beforehand. The Mongols–which we would later learn to be one of the most problematic outlaw motorcycle clubs in American history–was established in 1969 as a retaliation against Hells Angels who had allegedly rejected the founders of the club for being Latino. Up until today, 90% of the members of the Mongols are Latino.

To the common eye, motorcycle clubs can be identified through their uniformed attire. Leather or denim vests are known as “cuts”, originating from the German word kutte, decorated with insignia and patches are commonly worn by the members. Similar to the military, the patches attached to each individual member’s cut may show the different positions the member holds within the club. The ranks typically consist of a president, vice-president, treasurer, sergeant-at-arms (who acts as an enforcer of the club rules), and road captain, but may vary from club to club. Like military medals or ranks, patch guidelines and etiquette exist and must be thoroughly followed.

Post-war evolution and changes in biker culture

By the 1950s, the biker culture quickly grew into a popular subculture although it’s useful to keep in mind that the first motorcycle club had emerged in the United States around the 1900s. One of the most popular “big four” outlaw motorcycle clubs, Hells Angels, was started by American World War II immigrants in 1948. Following the return of all Vietnam War veterans in 1973, many of these motorcycle clubs faced a surge in membership. The Pagans, one of the other “big four” outlaw motorcycle clubs, grew its membership by nearly 5,000 in the early 1970s.

During this same period, some motorcycle clubs started evolving into a counterculture of outlaw motorcycle clubs also known as the “1%ers”. Up until the mid-1960s, the Pagans were relatively non-violent until a disruptive incident ensued in Maryland, prompting local newspapers to brand the Pagans as the “1% of motorcyclists that cause problems”. In response, The Pagans took ownership of the 1% expression, and subsequently invented the insignia which was quickly adopted by other outlaw motorcycle clubs.

To put things in a deeper perspective, there was an intensified negative sentiment toward veterans starting in the 1960s, particularly against those returning from one of the most unpopular wars in American history, the Vietnam War. As a result, Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968 succeeded under the platform to end compulsory enlistment or conscription. By 1968, the war had cost the United States 2.3% of its GDP. Nixon was conscious of the grave importance of ending the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War in due course.

Through the Selective Service System, the Nixon Administration announced the end to compulsory military enlistment or conscription on 27 January 1973–the same day Nixon himself legally committed to formally end the Vietnam War by signing the Paris Peace Accords. However, this moment coincided with the 1973–1975 economic recession which, as briefly mentioned above, where the United States Bureau of Labor estimated the loss of 2.3 million. Unsurprisingly, akin to many other times of crisis, everyone began to point fingers at what they thought went wrong. The high cost of war (The United States had spent equivalent to $1 trillion in 2020 dollars) led a handful of Americans to believe that the Vietnam War had a significant influence in the recession, especially that it was understood that the United States’ objective to curb communist ideologies in the Indochina region evidently proved to be a failure.

In truth, most Vietnam War veterans actually came home to similar grievances to the non-veteran public such as unemployment and other economic-related struggles due to the recession. Alas, most of their grievances were dismissed with stigma and rejection from their own communities. To borrow the exact words of Viet Nam Vets motorcycle club, a non-1%er club with the largest number of all-military members in the world, “We went away as patriots, returned, and were treated as outlaws”. Until today, many Vietnam War veterans conceal their veteran status. Some, like the members of Vietnam Vets MC and other clubs, have also expressed their feeling of incompatibility with today’s America.

Feeling unappreciated, it drove a transformation for a handful of motorcycle clubs to evolve into a violent counterculture we have been referring to as outlaw motorcycle clubs or “1%ers”. As a social rebellion, many of the renounced veterans decided to proudly claim ownership of the stigma projected by regular society and became part of motorcycle clubs–some outlaws. With little means to survive financially, outlaw motorcycle clubs resorted to organised crime activities from arms trafficking, drug dealing, murder, extortion, rape, and illegal prostitution among other things. They may form allegiances among themselves, but may also engage in (eternal) rivalry against one another.

Rivals may skirmish over territory, akin to what is carried out by the military in wartime activities. Some outlaw motorcycle clubs expanded their business large enough to form partnerships with cartels, as well as to be prosecuted under the United States Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. In the United States and Canada, outlaw motorcycle clubs are viewed by the government as an organised crime group due to the dire impact on national stability.

As such, it can be remarked that all outlaw motorcycle clubs follow their own authority. Like any other club, outlaw motorcycle clubs establish their own constitution and bylaws. However, theirs might be ridden with stringent, discriminative, and unsettling articles and clauses.

A gendered analysis of the problematic practices of outlaw motorcycle clubs

The constitution and bylaws of these outlaw motorcycle clubs–reasoned or not–are upheld as sacrosanct. Members must devoutly adhere to the rules, and any violations may be acted upon by a penalty deemed appropriate by club members. Every club employs different club constitutions and systems. The bylaws of the club constitution may even differ among different chapters of the same club, largely due to the size of membership or local context. However, the core principles will remain equal to the mother chapter or headquarters.

Like the bylaws, insignia or patches of the same club may operate under a unique system due to the local context or size of the chapter. While the meaning of the patches used by “the big four”: Hells Angels, Outlaws, Pagans, and Bandidos have relatively become general knowledge among the public, the specific meaning of each patch is not usually publicly disclosed by the outlaw clubs themselves. Mongols, a relatively smaller but no-less powerful club, had the significance of their “secret” patches disclosed to the public following a massive operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATR) in 2008 known as Operation Black Rain.

In one of the criminal case dockets from Operation Black Rain entitled USA v. Cavazos, et al., which is one of the many cases involving the son of the ex-communicated former Mongols National President Ruben Cavazos, the club was found to have devised a “wings” patch that signifies a club member’s sexual triumph over a woman. To quote part of the docket in verbatim,

“Mongols are encouraged and expected to engage in sex acts at Mongols functions or when pre-arranged “wings parties” are held. They are then rewarded with different color wings patches. The different colors of the patches of the patches identify different sex acts performed by the member in front of the organization, such as green wings to represent sex with a woman with venereal disease and purple wings to represent sex with a woman who is dead”.

A presentation that circulated online presumedly prepared by Deputy John Williams of the Los Angeles Country Sheriff’s Department in 2010 further identified the meaning of other colours of the wings patches as follows: blue wings mean wearer had oral sex with a policewoman, brown wings mean wearer had oral sex on a woman’s anus, red wings means wearer had oral sex while the female was menstruating. The wings patches system also extends to race and gender-based sexual violence–a member may earn their yellow wings if they performed sexual acts with an Asian, and black wings if they perform sexual acts with a black woman, gold wings means wearer performed sexual relations with a woman during a gang rape involving fifteen or more persons–all to be done in front of other club members.

Women are strictly forbidden to acquire membership in outlaw motorcycle clubs, The only time women would ever be given the exception to wearing a cut is if it is decorated with a patch that says “property of”. (Image: Vanity Fair)

The display of institutionalised misogyny is also integrated into the common language or terms employed by outlaw motorcycle clubs. For example, the term “mamas” or “sheep” translates to a female that is sexually available to be used sexually by all club members–essentially painting the women as disposable objects. Women who are considered to be official girlfriends or are wives of fully-patched individual club members are called “old ladies” and other members must not engage in any questionable acts in the name of respect to the brotherhood.

In 2008, United Nations Security Council had unanimously voted to pass Resolution 1820 which identified rape as a weapon of war, and acknowledged that may persist “after the cessation of hostilities”. As explained by Claudia Card in her 1996 book Rape as a Weapon of War, rape is done not only to simply undermine the victim’s mentality and society as mentioned in the resolution, but also to strengthen the bond between soldiers–as perpetrated by Mongols. John Gotschall’s essay Explaining wartime rape explains that masculinity in many cultures is important as a collective identity due to its embodying the strength and power of a whole community. If a woman is raped, the shame is carried by the whole community, especially by the men directly related to the women themselves, because men are supposed to be seen as their protectors.

This manifestation of hyper-masculinity–whether in extreme form or internalised–and gender-based sexual violence clearly illustrates the unrelenting continuum of violence that remains in development from a counterculture that was born as a result of unresolved post-war grievances. As soldiers are willing to “die” for their country, members of outlaw motorcycle clubs are willing to die for their club. Subconsciously, this manifestation lives and translates as ideologies resulting from a form of extreme militarised masculinities in nuclear communities like subcultures.

Biker culture as a post-war legacy in other parts of the world and other developments

Similar issues with outlaw motorcycle clubs in other parts of the world are not unheard of. The Great Nordic Biker War in the mid-1990s attests to violence attached to the counterculture. It was a drug turf-related dispute affecting four out of five of the Scandinavian countries–Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. While the grievances may slightly differ from the United States, Henrik Tham has identified poverty and unemployment as factors influencing violence. In the case of Sweden, most of the suspects in gang-related violence may have a migration background, which evidently makes it an intersectional issue.

In 1990, the club Satudarah–satu meaning “one” and darah meaning “blood”–was founded by mostly second-generation Moluccans in Moodrecht, Netherlands. The club grew into what was arguably one of the most feared outlaw motorcycle clubs in Europe, which was legally outlawed in Germany in 2015 for constituting as a “threat to society”, and the Netherlands in 2018 for its “culture of violence”.

Satudarah’s grievances can be traced back to the decolonisation process of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. After the fall of the Axis Powers in the Second World War, independence was declared on 17 August 1945. A power struggle for legitimacy between Indonesia and the Netherlands ensued. Military operations referred to as agresi militer in Indonesian or politionele acties in Dutch broke out across the archipelago until 1949. The transfer of sovereignty was finally signed between the two States was made on 27 December 1949.

The colonial Royal Dutch East Indies Army–Koninklijk Nederlandsch-Indische Leger in Dutch or simply KNIL–that was actively mobilised throughout the military operations, was disbanded by the Netherlands by 26 July 1950. Similar to the Gurkha unit of the British Indian Army, most of the KNIL personnel were indigenous to the archipelago, the majority being Moluccan. In 1951, 12,500 Moluccan ex-soldiers sought refuge and resettled in The Netherlands, but most were legally left stateless. They were only given the immigration status of faciliteitenwet, a somewhat similar concept to the American DACA but with no possibility to apply to Dutch nationality until 1991.

The grievance and betrayal against the Moluccan community prompted several violent incidents peaking in the 1970s–including two infamous train hijackings in Wijster and Glimmen–with the demands of an independent state of the Republic of South Maluku. Using intersectionality as a lens, we may observe race, class, immigration as the grievances inherited through the post-war legacies of the Indonesian decolonisation.

Satudarah, although predominated by Dutch-Moluccan club members due to its history, accepts all ethnicities, unlike the traditional “white male-only” clubs such as Hells Angels–an enemy of the club. However, militarised masculinity as a defining characteristic can still be observed in its misogynistic principles and hyper-masculine attitudes. As a reference, in the Dutch Academy Award-nominated documentary directed by Joost van der Valk and Mags Gavan Satudarah: One Blood, we can observe a clear hierarchy, brotherhood, and militaristic aggression in the way club rules are enforced.

However, new developments in biker culture are not always adverse. Some new clubs such as Caramel Curves, an all-black woman motorcycle club based off New Orleans, emerged to claim ownership of the gendered nature of this subculture and turned it to what is an empowering activity for historically oppressed women. Dressed in heels and pink attire, Caramel Curves in a way rejects the masculine conventional image attached to the biker culture.

Iraq Bikers, a male motorcycle club founded in 2012, aims to promote peace and unity in Iraq after the protracted war finally ended in 2011. In reference to sectarian violence, Bilal al-Bayati had established strict rules against political discussion to ensure that inane ideological differences would not ensue. In the end, we may observe that the conspicuous prominence of gender performativity in the culture.

Thus, we can safely assume that the biker culture will continue to flourish in different forms all over the world. Subcultures or countercultures that started as a localised phenomenon–in this case, the biker culture–may be “exported” abroad and evolve with different sources of grievances, also maintaining the gendered characteristics of the subculture.

Conclusions

Subcultures and countercultures will forever remain a gendered issue, some with more intricate dimensions than others. Likewise, war is a non-binary human activity and must not be seen as mutually exclusive to masculinity. Dichotomising gender roles in the context of security would lead us to overlook gendered situations that happen under our noses.

Because masculinities and war have had an extended complex relationship deeply integrated into gendered societal norms in many cultures and nations, it would be best to approach the matter with a feminist intersectional lens when unpacking post-war legacies. It is unquestionable that there exists a continuum of violence from post-war repercussions that sustain beyond the era, some of which unfortunately occur right under our noses.

The product of United Nations Security Councill Resolution 1325, the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, highlighted the “three Ps”–protection, participation, and prevention–as important elements to achieve sustainable peace. The resolution may have the cathartic power to trickle down in addressing the many underlying issues confronted by post-war challenges, such as that we have discussed in the essay. Not only must it be implemented through meticulously-crafted National Action Plans (NAPS), governments must be open to consultation and attend to civil society and implement gender-sensitive laws to truly put the “three Ps” into force. In Indonesia, this would include the legislation of RUU-PKS or the draft bill concerning the elimination of sexual violence that has been continuously delayed by an incompetent parliament*.

Just as important, the effective implementation of the three Ps must be accompanied by further studies on subcultures and countercultures. The studies should be encouraged in order to address the gaps within the fundamental elements previously missed, as well as to overlook possible gendered challenges that may arise in the future.

*P.S. Yes, that was an attempted jab at the Indonesian Parliament for refusing to recognise the urgency of the RUU-PKS bill.

Gender and international security. Bachelor in War Studies. Continuously learning and un-learning in this patriarchal society. Based in Jakarta, Indonesia.