What you don't know about motorcycle clubs

Riding with an outlaw motorcycle club
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Story highlights

  • William Dulaney: Most Americans have a misunderstanding of motorcycle clubs
  • This has been perpetuated by portrayal in the media, he says

William Dulaney, a professor at the U.S. Air Force Air Command & Staff College, researches motorcycle outlaws and is a biker himself. His doctoral degree dissertation focused on the identity and culture of America's outlaw motorcycle community. The views expressed are his own. Watch more as Lisa Ling goes inside the Mongols biker nation this Wednesday on CNN at 9 p.m. ET.

(CNN)It's no secret that we Americans love our outlaws, from the legends and lore of rebellious (and illegal) acts by our Founding Fathers, to the bushwhacking and bank-robbing capers of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to the "bad boy" music of Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Dr. Dre.

American culture and mass media have led inexorably to characters that embody this bad-boy attitude -- like Jax, the heartthrob outlaw biker star of the TV show "Sons of Anarchy."
    Americans have a long established canon from which they "learn" about society from fictional dramas. And the more we watch shows like "Sons of Anarchy," the more a news story will seem to fit our mental construct of "how those people are." The same is true of popular TV crime dramas' portrayal of American minorities' involvement in violent crime.
    And it seems that every time outlaw motorcycle clubs are portrayed in the news, it's because of something terrible, such as the 2002 incident in Loughlin, Nevada, or the recent deadly events in Waco, Texas.
    But here's the thing: As we watch more crime drama, we perceive that crime is more prevalent than it actually is.
    The history and violence of American motorcycle gangs
    The history and violence of American motorcycle gangs

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    And when the media fail to represent or report the average, everyday activities of motorcycle clubs and the workaday lives of their members, media consumers have nothing against which to compare how those people might really be.
    Add to this the fact that the outlaw biker narrative has been largely controlled over time, not by members of the culture, but outsiders and the misconceptions grow. Case in point: the Waco incident. Sgt. Swanton of the Waco Police Department effectively controlled the story of what happened on May 17, 2015, and it appears that story has already begun to unravel. Regardless of what ultimately is shown to be the truth about the events in Waco, if history tells us anything it's that that story will not likely be broadcast as widely as the law enforcement narrative was ... if at all.
    An old criticism about the media goes, "if it bleeds it leads."

    Biker bureaucracy

    I've spent 15 years researching America's biker culture and I can say with some authority that the reality of everyday life in motorcycle clubs is neither dangerous nor exciting.
    One might even call it boring.
    Meetings run on for hours. Committee work is less than exciting, no matter the organization. Raffle tickets have to be sold, charitable events have to be planned, staffed, provisioned and the grounds have to be cleaned up afterward. Clubhouses have to be maintained; the yard has to be mowed, the roof needs to be patched, someone has to clean the bathroom, and so on.
    Most of the time, MC members -- called patch-holders -- hang out at one another's homes or shops talking about motorcycles.
    Countless hours are spent riding their motorcycles from one state to another, stopping only for gas, regardless of the weather, which after the first 1,000 miles can dampen the spirits of even the most ardent rider.
    When not together, patch-holders mostly work and spend time with their families (and most families spend time with the MC).
    But what about the claim that motorcycle clubs are gangs?
    Motorcycle clubs are born of a love of the machine, racing, riding and from military service. Gangs began for various reasons as well, but largely as a form of protection for ethnic immigrants residing in inner cities.
    Motorcycle clubs' social structure is overwhelmingly democratic from the local to the international levels. Officers are democratically elected and hold office so long as they meet the memberships' needs.
    Actually, it was a surprise research finding that most MCs adhere strictly to Robert's Rules of Order during official meetings, with fines for being found out of order ranging from $20 to $100.
    In contrast, gangs can be seen as more autocratic than democratic, where leaders emerge more for their charismatic leadership and illicit earning abilities than for their abilities to run organizations.
    Motorcycle clubs are organized hierarchically, with strictly defined chains of command and lines of communication. MCs elect secretaries whose jobs are to maintain meeting minutes, keep track of committees and chairs, and see that old business is complete and new business is on the agenda.
    Treasurers also are elected officials and they attend to fiduciary responsibilities such as collecting membership dues, paying clubhouse expenses and financial planning for the future. Both secretaries and treasurers are required to produce written documents for the membership to review and approve during each meeting.
    It seems laughable to believe that gangs do the same. In addition to a decade-and-a-half of research, I have lived my entire adult life around bikers and MCs and have yet to encounter a motorcycle gang. I have, however, witnessed several occasions where MCs run street gangs out of the communities in which the MC clubhouses are located (MCs usually can only afford to buy or lease properties in the cheapest parts of town where gang crime is most prevalent.)

    Not hiding behind charity work

    Perhaps the singularly most important distinction between outlaw motorcycle clubs and gangs is evidenced through philanthropy.
    It's been widely reported by local, state, and federal law enforcement organizations that MCs support charities, mainly (if not entirely) for positive public relations in order to offset some negative public image.
    This interpretation does not fit my field observations. I've found two primary reasons why motorcycle clubs are so closely intertwined with charity work: MC family members are or have been affected by the maladies the charities seek to eradicate, and members of the local community are in legitimate and immediate need.
    MCs support a wide variety of local, national, and international charities that seek to end cancers, poverty, hunger and children's diseases, but especially supported are disabled veterans organizations.
    Charity is to members of motorcycle clubs as gasoline and oil are to their machines. For some, it's a major reason why they join and stay in MCs.
    I've observed MCs providing 24/7 security at battered women's shelters, holding motorcycling events such as Poker Runs to raise money for local families whose homes were destroyed by fire or natural disasters, or to help families stricken by some other tragic event get on their feet.
    If a member of the community is in legitimate need, and the MCs are able to help, they almost always do.
    Even if it's just "Passing the Hat," where patch-holders literally pass around a baseball cap into which members place what cash they can spare.
    This might not seem like much, but to a family in desperate need of short-term assistance, this can mean the difference between having electricity and water and going without.
    And this happens all the time.

    Why people join MCs

    Over the years, I've come to understand that identity may be the main purpose people join MCs.
    It's not easy becoming a patch-holder. Many have compared "prospecting" -- the process of earning full membership -- to that of military basic training, where the individual is broken down in order to be reformed into a part of a collective: To think not of one's self but of others, and to understand that one's actions or inactions impact the team and the organization. But prospecting takes months and sometime a year or more (5 years for one MC).
    Prospecting is physically, emotionally, and intellectually demanding and not everyone can do it. A significant amount of social status is conferred upon those with the steel to make it. Perhaps this is the only obvious similarity between MCs and gangs.
    That sense of brotherhood was on display at a funeral for a patch-holder slain at Waco. I witnessed members of the Hells Angels, Bandidos, Mongols, Vagos and more than 50 other motorcycle clubs come together in peace to mourn the passing of a man who touched the lives of so many in his community.
    To them, he was much more than a biker or a patch-holder -- he was their Brother, with all the familial love, respect, and honor that that word conveys. To my knowledge, such a gathering has never happened before.
    This convergence of contrasting MCs was no media stunt. There were no media in the funeral that day (although there was one white, unmarked van, out of which came uniformed men clad in body armor and armed with assault rifles).
    What is most worrisome to me is that we as Americans don't really know these people and yet we readily accept one-sided narratives as they pop up in the news. Certain law enforcement officials and organizations have labeled outlaw motorcycle clubs as a domestic terrorist threat.
    As one who earns a living studying and teaching about threats to national security, it concerns me greatly to think that precious time, money, and manpower are wasted on targeting the wrong people. We have very real dangers to our society, our American way of life, but MCs are unequivocally not among those dangers. In my experience, patch-holders represent the very people who protect us from those threats.