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From Rebels To Republicans: The American Biker's U-Turn

Bikers in Waco, Texas, in June
Bikers in Waco, Texas, in June
Gilles Paris

WASHINGTON — Tattoos dedicated to Lucifer, traces of alcohol and various drugs, lots of wounds: The recently unveiled autopsy report for the nine victims of a gunfight in Waco, Texas include all the elements needed to preserve the dark legend of American bikers.

On Aug. 6, a week before the report went public, Republican Party presidential candidates gathered in Cleveland, Ohio for the first in a series of debates. One of the participants, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, is the son of a pastor and about as straight-laced as they come. And yet he introduced himself as, "A guy with a wife, two children and a Harley." Enough to confuse the issue.

These two worlds crossed paths on a sunny Sunday last May, deep in the heart of Texas. Dozens of bikers descended on the Twin Peaks restaurant, which opened a year earlier in a shopping center in the south of the city, and was chosen for the gathering because of its pretty waitresses and proximity to Interstate 35.

Such gatherings are organized several times per year by the regional section of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents, and are open to regular guests, weekend bikers like Scott Walker, as well was members of what the police consider to be gangs.

That day, members of two different biker gangs — the Bandidos, founded a half century ago by a Vietnam War veteran, and the rival Cossacks — arrived and took up positions on opposite sides of the Twin Peaks parking lot. Fueling the gnawing rivalry was an earlier decision by the Cossacks to add the word "Texas" to the patches that adorn the backs of their leather jackets. The patch also features a Barbarian armed with a scimitar, and the word "Cossacks." The move raised hackles among the Bandidos, whose emblem is a plump Mexican carrying a saber and a pistol.

Texas law enforcement authorities, very much aware of the rivalry, sent 20 police officers to the site as a precaution. The police were already there when all hell broke loose, so to speak. Bikers scuffled in the parking lot. Weapons were pulled. A first gunshot fired. And then a full-on shootout — brief but bloody. When the shots ceased, nine bikers were lying on the ground.

Police reinforcements arrived and made waves of arrests. By evening, 175 people (including four women) were behind bars on criminal charges. An exorbitant bail of $1 million was set for each of them.

More than meets the eye

Sixty-eight years after Hollister, the now legendary takeover of a small Californian town by a drunken, mechanized horde, the image of the dangerous outlaw biker is making a comeback in the American imagination.

Outside the restaurant, every news network in the country broadcast live as Sergeant Patrick Swanton, spokesperson for the Waco police, talked about acts of violence that hadn't been seen in 35 years. Swanton seemed to have forgotten the bloody siege of the Davidian sect in 1993, when 86 people were killed just 20 miles from Waco.

The Twin Peaks firm immediately withdrew its franchise from the restaurant's owners, who the police accused of failing to cooperate. In the following hours, the firm dispatched a crane to remove the Twin Peaks sign, which features two snowy summits. Vehicles that were involuntarily abandoned by the arrested people, or seized (135 motorbikes and 80 automobiles, according to Waco press), were soon placed in a safe place that was kept secret "for security measures," the police explained.

This is by no means the first time biker gangs have crossed paths with the police. And yet, there are elements here suggesting this is more than just a routine run-in in their long game of cat-and-mouse. More than three months after the violence, the county prison now has only three bikers (one member of the Cossacks and two of the Bandidos) behind bars. And much about the events in question remain shrouded in secrecy. The findings of the ballistic investigation, for example, have not been made public.

"The police wanted to keep control of what happened from beginning to end," says Don Charles Davis. "It hid information and is still doing so. It is making the most of the situation to demonize bikers."

Conspiracy theory

Davis, himself a biker, is something of an authority in this world that gladly follows the code of silence, especially with the media. He is the author of numerous articles and a book on the subject of bikers. In California, another place known for its rumbling motorcycle enthusiasts, Davis runs a blog that quickly refuted the official version of the story. He calls the blog "The Aging Rebel," a name that brings to mind an image not of murderous outlaws, but of gray-bearded family men — good guys.

That's a description that could apply to Steve "Dozer" Cochran, a biker who arrived at Twin Peaks shortly after the shooting began. Steve, a father and grandfather, is in charge of assisting the bikers in their tangles with authorities, of making sure their legal rights are protected.

[rebelmouse-image 27089385 alt="""" original_size="256x256" expand=1]

Steve "Dozer" Cochran — Photo: USDefenderDozer via Twitter

Cochran established a list of errors in Sergeant Swanton's reports, some of which have since been corrected. The report, for example, said the fight began in the restaurant restroom, rather than in the parking lot, and that police seized about 1,000 weapons, rather than the actual 318.

Did the police exaggerate when it depicted the incident as something that had been planned long in advance and that involved the mobilization of troops and a real arsenal? Sergeant Swanton stands by that original assessment but hasn't provided any new information based on the ongoing investigation. "We didn't take things lightly. Our response was justified," he insists.

Steve Cochran and other detractors say the opposite, calling it a frame-up, a conspiracy based on informers or infiltrated agents within the Cossacks. "By whom were the bikers killed? What if it was the police?" says Cochran. "I'm waiting impatiently for the results of the ballistics report and of the investigation. Once it's clear that a dozen people have been deprived of their civil rights with no valid reason, thrown into jail and to the mercy of the media, or lost their job, the city of Waco will probably pay a high price."

Solidly GOP

It's a world upside-down, in a way, in which bikers are taking the moral high ground, defending law and order against a "lawless" police force and abusive state. Their take on the situation, however, isn't surprising giving the political transformation that has gone on within biker circles over the past 70 years. Bikers use the same machines, but their ideas have changed.

"What was a demonstration of counter-culture in the "60s and "70s slid towards conservatism," says Randy McBee, who teaches at Texas Tech University. McBee has followed the Waco incident and subsequent investigation closely and is eagerly awaiting answers.

[rebelmouse-image 27089386 alt="""" original_size="1024x576" expand=1]

Protesting bikers in Waco — Photo: Pat Jones Photography

Over the summer, the historian published Born to Be Wild (UNC Press), a book dedicated to this transition. It started in the late 1970s with opposition, in the name of individual freedom, to a federal law making helmet use mandatory — a measure then then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan opposed for this reason.

An article by the conservative magazine National Review was quick to identify bikers as a new, potential source of political support. After he was elected president, Reagan even ignored his liberal economic doctrine to protect Harley-Davidson, the national treasure based in Wisconsin, Scott Walker's state, against Japanese competition.

It was at the same time, Randy McBee explains, that the "rich urban biker" phenomenon appeared. These guys ride their bikes like others play golf. They have deeply transformed the humming droves, except for the small gangs specialized in drug trafficking and prostitution. For a long time, these hordes consisted mostly of former soldiers who fought in World War II, then Korea, and finally Vietnam, people like Don Charles Davies, who sought hierarchy, strict rules and spirit of camaraderie.

Twenty years after the mass emergence of weekend bikers, the disciplined hordes eventually took root on the right of the U.S. political spectrum. Steve Cochran's Twitter followers include many of the major names and figures of the Republican right wing, from Glenn Beck to Ted Nugent, Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter.

In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a Vietnam War hero, received an official endorsement by the bikers of the Sturgis Motorcycles Rally, organized in Republican South Dakota. On Labor Day, Scott Walker, the owner of a 2003 Road King, participated in a motorcycle tour that traveled through all 10 counties in New Hampshire. The long ride wasn't about raising hell. It was about winning votes.

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