Immigrant & Social Order: The Oakland Chapter of the Hell’s Angels 50th Anniversary

Hells Angels

Courtesy of Associated Press. Ralph “Sonny” Barger (center), president of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, reads a statement during a news conference in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 19, 1965.

When is a party a party? And when is a party just a get together? That was the question I asked myself as I read the headline staring out at me: “Hells Angels to Celebrate Oakland Chapter’s 50th Anniversary.” The Bay Area is the birthplace of the Hells Angels most infamous chapter: the Oakland Hells Angels; the focal point in the most notorious outlaw motorcycle club in the land. . . the baddest of the bad. The “81” as the Angels are known in the parlance of the biker world, will be out in full force, this weekend, reminiscent of their coming out party in Hollister many years ago. . .

The image that the Angels conjures up is one of violence and trouble. When I told my girlfriend about my plans to feature the Hells Angels in this post her only comment (in her sweetest voice) illustrates my point: “Oh. . . ah well I guess you can write about whatever you want honey.” There in lies the rub when considering the Hells Angel’s controversial history–there is more to this group than meets the eye.

To understand the Angels, you must first understand the man behind the organization: the Baddest of the Bad Sonny Barger. Barger founded the Hell’s Angels most influential chapter,the Oakland chapter, 50 years ago as an expression of freedom. The Angels became a sanctuary for the disenchanted and the disenfranchised; it became a place for those men who did not wish to be a slave to society’s expectations or norms.

The original charter, San Bernardino, was established by returning WWII veterans who not only felt this disconnection from society but also a burning desire for adventure. Following the original mold while improving upon it, Barger modeled the Oakland chapter after a military unit with a general (Barger), officers, and street level soldiers. Throughout his tenure as club president, Barger committed himself to living free and riding often. This commitment became a way of life and a call to arms.

Anybody who has not been living on Pluto for the past half century understands the criminal background the Hell’s Angels have represented. Yet the major media has painted the “81” as the ultimate villains, bad guys and a virtual poster boy for crime in modern society.

On the other hand, the major media has fostered a long standing love affair with the Mafia. The movie industry has a long history of glorification of mobsters (Italian in most cases) as does their counterparts in the print and television medias. The best example of this glorification is the most popular television cereal of all time: The Sopranos.

Why the disparity in perception? Why are fictional or real characters like Michael Corleone, John Gotti, or Tony Soprano romanticized? And why was a figure like Sonny Barger ostracized and targeted as the bad guy in our social structure?

My theory is simple: the Immigrant & Social Order factor. In my opinion the reason we, as Americans, love to love the mobsters real or fictional is because they represent society. These were men who rose from the impoverished. These men were rumored to hold respect and honor as the highest of ethics–a sort of honor among criminals. We could identify with them as was the case with my Italian uncle and his love for the Corleone figure in the Godfather movies. They had a social order in our society albeit an underworld order. These men like Gotti or Soprano were family men, with wifes and children and mortgages. They lived within the social structure. . . while ripping us off blind!

In complete contrast, Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels were separatists. They wanted nothing to do with society so they created their own social order. They rejected what society deemed a normal family life, normal values, and normal social behaviors. They were satisfied with complete disconnection from society. Granted many Angels have wifes and kids but they do not use them as “fronts” like the traditional mafia.

Therefore I believe that the Hell’s Angels are a far more honest and forthright group than any mafia organization has ever been in our long history of organized crime. With the “81” what you see is what you get. You know where they stand and they do not hide behind family or perception. They are what they are. . . with the traditional mafia you have an organization much tougher to see, more difficult to understand, and much harder to hate. . .

Consequently this weekend marks the passing of the 50th Anniversary of the Oakland Hell’s Angels with a party beyond parties. Make no mistake this one is going to be a big time party, expected to draw up to 2,000 Angels from around the world. All are destined to land at the original Oakland chapter clubhouse: 4019 Foothill Blvd Oakland, California. For those citizens crazy enough to even entertain the idea of taking a peek or drive by I have one simple suggestion: Don’t EVEN think about it! I do not need a guilty conscious if something were to befall my brethren in the blogging world.

Peace to all. . .