Hells Angels, Outlaws And The Politics Of The Patch

Don't, whatever you do, call them badges. And please don't confuse MCC's with MC's, or it will get nasty very quickly...
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Bikers can be found riding en masse in every city on every continent. Often they are drawn together because they are fans of a particular make or model of machine, or because they live in a certain area, but more often than not they bond simply through the sheer joy of riding. Many such clubs identify themselves with ‘patches’ or ‘colours’ sewn onto their jackets, but what untrained eyes see as random choices over positions and designs are actually the result of delicate and lengthy negotiations within the complex world of biker politics.

The majority of organised bikers belong to MCCs – Motor Cycle Clubs – and wear their patches on the front or side of their jackets. Joining such a club is easy and requires little in the way of ongoing commitment. Patches are available for purchase by anyone who turns up to a rally or meeting and the main goal of the club is to enhance the social life of its members.

At the other end of the scale are the MCs – Motorcycle Clubs. The absence of that one letter makes a world of difference. An MC is about more than brotherhood, more than camaraderie; it is less a club, more a way of life. MC patches cannot be bought, only earned, a process that can take many years. To be accepted by an MC you have to be prepared to give up everything and anything and make the good of the club your number one priority.

MC members wear a three part-back patch, sometimes sewn directly onto a jacket but usually on a leather or denim cut-off. The club name appears at the top on a curved bar known as a rocker. The club colours are in the centre while a bottom rocker will name the territory. Prospective members wear only the bottom rocker as a mark of their reduced status.

The major MCs also sport a diamond shaped patch with ‘1%’ inside on the front of their colours. This originates from a massive drunken riot that followed a 1947 drag race meeting attended by thousands of bikers in the small town of Hollister, California. In the aftermath the organisers, the American Motorcycle Association, said the trouble had been caused by a small minority and that ninety-nine per cent of those who attended had been well behaved. The riot went on to inspire the Marlon Brando film ‘The Wild One’ and MC gangs have called themselves ‘one percenters’ ever since.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of a set of patches to an MC member. They are his most prized possession and the loss of them under almost any circumstances is an unbearable disgrace. Patches are absolutely sacred and it is no exaggeration to say that MC members consider them worth fighting for and, if necessary, dying for.

With painfully few exceptions – such as when two new clubs emerge from an unclaimed area at roughly the same time – no new MC will ever wear a bottom rocker laying claim to an occupied area unless they are prepared to declare outright war on the current incumbents.

(When the Mongols MC launched in the early 1970s, their members wore a ‘California’ bottom rocker much to the annoyance of the Hell’s Angels who not only dominated the west coast state but also considered it sacred: the gang had been founded there in the aftermath of World War Two. The Angels warned the Mongols to remove the rocker. The Mongols, composed mostly of Hispanics who had been refused entry to the HA on account of their race, stood their ground. It took 17 years and dozens of murders on both sides before the Angels eventually agreed to a compromise.)

The 1% MC gangs not only control their territory but also, to some or other degree, oversee the activities of all other biker clubs within their area.  Nothing happens without their say so and any potential threat to their superiority, no matter how small, is dealt with harshly.

If you have any doubts that this is indeed the case, I suggest you try the following experiment: gather together a group of male friends (women are generally not allowed to join back patch clubs), equip yourselves with large motorcycles – ideally Harley Davidson’s – and choose a club logo. Stitch your colours to the back of a leather jacket with the name of your club above and the name of your county or state below.

Hold elections to appoint a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer and Sergeant-At-Arms (responsible for club discipline) then go out riding as a group and get yourselves seen by as many people as possible.


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Within days, possibly within hours, you and your friends will be intercepted by the massed ranks of whichever MC club is dominant in your area. If you are lucky and show sufficient reverence – that is, if they feel you can drink and party and fight and fuck with the best of them – they will invite you to a meeting at their clubhouse, explain the error of your ways, request that you stop wearing your patches (or charge you a hefty weekly fee in return for permission to wear an altered version) and then lay out the rules for your future conduct.

Far more likely, however, is that you and your friends will be stomped and beaten and chain whipped to a pulp, your patches and possibly even your bikes will be confiscated. Your arms or legs will be broken (to prevent you riding) and you will be told in no uncertain terms that your little club no longer exists. Period. The patches will be burned and the bikes stripped down for spares or resold. And if you even consider going to the police, you’ll just make an enemy of every other MC in the world and instantly prove that you didn’t have what it takes to make it in the scene anyway.

This scenario becomes even more certain if the dominant club in your area is one of the big three international gangs: the Hell’s Angels, the Outlaws or the Bandidos, or if you attempt to use a ‘protected’ colour combination: red on white for the Angels, black on white for the Outlaws, red on yellow for the Bandidos. Copying the designs of one of the big gangs would bring even more trouble – all three are trademarked and protected by international copyright law.

The issue of showing appropriate respect to an MC applies even when it is crystal clear that the other club is in no way any kind of a threat. In August 2010 a sixty-three-year-old bike-riding preacher from Altoona, Pennsylvania was beaten and robbed by members of the Animals MC after failing to seek permission to wear a back patch which featured a red cross on a white background along with the words: ‘Shield of Faith Ministries’.

In the UK the Brothers of the Third Wheel (BTW) go to great pains to point out that they are an association, not a club, for trike riders. They have many female members, revel in a family atmosphere and have never been involved in any form of conflict. Following careful negotiations their members are allowed to wear a symbol on their backs because the 1% clubs have designated it a badge, not a patch. Despite this the Hell’s Angels have forbidden BTW members from wearing their badges anywhere in Kent.

Such rules exist because an MC has to be seen to be the dominant club in the area it controls and the best way to do this is to ensure that no other club ever wears their colours there without permission. When clubs fail to follow this rule, wars start and all too quickly escalate out of control.

‘Outlaws: Inside the Violent World of Biker Gangs’ by Tony Thompson is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99