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July 2005

Roundtable

A “Potential Common Front”: Hunter Thompson, the Hell’s Angels, and Race in 1960s America

Randy D. McBee

“A Strange and Terrible Saga,” the subtitle to Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels sums the book up best: it was dirty, raw, irreverent; it confirmed our worst fears about these motorcycle outlaws, and it profoundly influenced a nation’s imagination about motorcycle culture. Was it accurate, fair, balanced? It was certainly convincing, hard to put down, and no doubt sensationalized, a Thompson trademark. But we cannot ignore it because Thompson has done what so many other authors have not: situated the Hell’s Angels within the broader social, cultural, and political context of the period and shown how that context (and not just the behavior of the Angels) shaped the public’s understanding of these soon-to-be famous outlaws and possibly their understanding of motorcyclists across the country.

Much of the public’s imagination about the Hell’s Angels, or at least their initial impression about the club, emerged in 1965 because of the Monterey rape case. Thompson notes that during the first half of the 1960s the Angels were “the state’s biggest and most notorious motorcycle gang. Among outlaws their primacy was undisputed—and nobody else cared” (35). This changed, however, whe n some members of the Angels were charged with the rape of two underage teenagers. The charge of rape was eventually dropped, but the story captured the national media and, as Thompson notes, “by the middle of 1965 they were firmly established as all-American bogeymen” (37).

That the Monterey case attracted national attention was not altogether unexpected for Thompson, but he was surprised when politicians ignored the alleged crime. Not even Senator Goldwater, Thompson lamented “seized on the Hell’s angels issue,” and “‘Crime in the streets’ was a winner for him” (36). Senator Barry Goldwater was in the midst of his bid for the presidency in 1964 when the Monterey case began to attract attention, and Goldwater was part of the initial backlash against the political movements of the 1950s and 1960s (Civil Rights, Black Power, Feminism, Gay Rights), a backlash that would assume center stage with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and become known as the “New Right.” For Goldwater’s part, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, proposed ending Social Security, advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam, supported privatizing various government programs, and urgently began to speak out in favor of “law and order,” which would become an increasingly important political slogan over the next half decade—think of Richard Nixon despite his own lawlessness.

Capitalizing on the fears of street crime was a political strategy that grew increasingly popular throughout the 1960s because of its link to African American men. After all, while Thompson mistakenly argued that “crime in the streets” was too vague, it was a direct reference to the rebellions that erupted in cities across the country between 1964 and 1968 as growing numbers of African-American men and women became frustrated and disillusioned about the marginal support for civil rights and the increased violence against activists. I n short, young African-American men were a much more potent symbol of violence and perceived to be a much greater threat to white America than a bunch of white bikers no matter how violent or antisocial they appeared.

At the same time, however, Thompso n suggests that the Angels did not become the focus of a national campaign for “law and order” because they were not as threatening as they often appeared. Thompson refers to what he called a “psychic compatibility” between the cops and the Angels, who, Thompson argues, “get along pretty well” and “operate” on what he called “the same motional frequency.” Thompson claimed that the Angels and the cops “deny this.” “The very suggestion of a psychic compatibility will be denounced. . . as a form of Communist slander.” But he argued that this compatibility was

obvious to anyone who has ever seen a routine confrontation or sat in on a friendly police check at one of the Angel bars. Apart, they curse each other savagely, and the brittle truce is often jangled by high-speed chases and brief, violent clashes that rarely make the papers. Yet behind the sound and fury, they are both playing the same game, and usually by the same rules. (37)

Thompson failed to explain what he meant by the “same game” and the “same rules,” but Sonny Barger, who was head of the Oakland chapter of the Angels, located it within the broader context of race. Thompson explained that in Oakland a special four-man detail was assigned to keep tabs on the Angels. They would stop by the “bar now and then, smiling good-naturedly through a torrent of insults, and hang around just long enough to make sure the outlaws knew they were being watched” (236). Thompson claimed that the Angels enjoyed these visits and that the Oakland chapter had a “special relationship with the local law,” because of what Barger referred to as a “potential common front against the long-rumored Negro uprising in East Oakland.” The cops, Barger pointedly added, were counting on the Angels to “keep the niggers in line.” “They’re more scared of the niggers than they are of us,” Barger explained “because there’s a lot more of em” (237).

Barger’s comments suggest that he was as hostile to the African-American community as the cops had already been for decades. But the “common front” to which he refers also suggests that concerns about race and the expected uprising in Oakland profoundly shaped the police’s perception about the Angels and their racial politics. In other words, in the midst of tremendous uncertainty and racial conflict a solidarity based upon race (or whiteness) not only surfaced but helped reconcile fears the police (and the general public) may have had about biker violence. Whether or not the Angels were as shocking and as antisocial as Thompson claimed--or perhaps because they were--the police and the general public were not ready to abandon them altogether. These outlaws were the frontline of defense the (white) police and their (white) constituents could depend upon to stop the potential rebellion that threatened to spill beyond the boundaries of the African-American community. Barger’s and the Angel’s individual or personal racial politics cannot be ignored. That racism undoubtedly influenced the cops’ understanding of the Angels as well as the public’s image of motorcyclists nationwide. Yet the day-to-day way in which the Angels were expected to respond to the African-American community also took shape within the much broader context of a natio n struggling to come to terms with the issue of civil rights, and that context profoundly affected the ways in which the non-riding public viewed black versus white violence and the development of the modern biker. Thompson understood the importance of this larger context and for that reason alone his book is as relevant today as it was when it first appeared in 1965.

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