The ‘outlaw’ in outlaw motorcycle gangs (or OMCGs, as law enforcers around the world call them for short) is a self-adopted term by bikers who view themselves as outside the law. According to ‘Gangs in NSW’, a 2002 paper by the New South Wales Parliamentary Library Service, ‘The criminal activities differentiate them from the many recreational motorcycle riding clubs which comprise people who get together solely for the purpose of riding their motorcycles and socialising.’ The outlaws would have you believe they just love their bikes and have a few bad apples among their membership, but that’s nonsense. It’s fair to say that not all members of outlaw gangs are criminals, but the majority are. Those not getting their hands dirty know of the exploits of their mates but remain silent, even when confronted by bombings, arson, beatings, murder and drive-by shootings in the nation’s suburbs.
Outlaw motorcycle gangs have been in Australia for half a century. They started out as social clubs for blokes who loved bikes but weren’t keen on leading a life of quiet suburban aspiration or frustration, and they didn’t cause too much trouble until drugs became the common currency of their lives. The outlaw-biker violence that has swept Australia for more than a decade is the product of their battles for dominance in the drug market. The faces may have changed to reflect Australia’s multicultural make-up, but the motivations remain unchanged: profit and greed. And, just like those addicted to their product, the bikers have been at war with each other for so long it has become a tough habit to break.
In 2001, Tim Atherton, Western Australia’s assistant police commissioner, said there is ‘solid evidence of the bikie gangs linking with long-established and well-known organised crime identities’. He then said, ‘Have we underestimated the bikies? Absolutely. We can’t ignore them as just a ragged bunch of part-time criminals.’ Atherton’s remarks were stimulated by a recent visit to Canada, where, in the preceding five years, more than a hundred biker-related murders had happened. He said, ‘The very clear message given to me by the head of their OMCG task force was, “Don’t make the same mistake Canada made . . . we ignored them for too long.”’
It was good advice but two decades too late. The outlaws were here, they had jettisoned their roots as groups of bike enthusiasts, they were organised, they had a stranglehold on the recreational drug market, and the greed-driven war between clubs was just beginning.
In 2013, Australia has achieved a unique place in the history of OMCGs. For the US-based Hell’s Angels, this country was one of the first steps in their global spread and, for their competitors, the Bandidos, it was the first. The massacre at Milperra, in south-western Sydney, on Father’s Day 1984 was the first biker battle to achieve worldwide headlines, but this didn’t impede the growth of outlaw clubs, and today Australia has the highest per capita membership in the world. Australia can lay claim to spearheading multiculturalism in clubs, and today we can also boast that some of our home-grown clubs are players in Asia and the volatile outlaw scene in Europe.
Australia is now exporting its own brand of outlaw biker, and these men bring with them decades of myths and mayhem.
JUST A PASSING PHASE
Australia’s first outlaw motorcycle clubs formed around 1960. Bob Menzies was in The Lodge and his Liberal–Country Party coalition, which had been in power since 1949, showed no sign of departing at any time in the near future. Over the preceding decade, Menzies, who firmly believed that communism was the greatest threat to the nation, had tried to have the Australian Communist Party destroyed by using draconian legislation that, at least in the government’s view, was appropriate to ensure Australia’s safety. The High Court didn’t agree and ruled the Communist Party Dissolution Bill to be invalid. The court would take a similar view to anti-biker legislation half a century later.
With the Cold War still in full cry, Menzies had kept up the anti-communist pressure, and good fortune came his way thanks to the 1954 defection of the Russian diplomat Vladimir Petrov and his wife, Ivanka. As part of his defection, Petrov exposed the depth of communist penetration into Australian life, and Menzies did what politicians invariably do when they have a contentious issue and the whiff of political point-scoring in the air: he called a Royal Commission to investigate Petrov’s allegations. A handy by-product of the Commission was that it fuelled the simmering row that caused the 1955 split of Menzies’ opposition, the Australian Labor Party. The split prompted the formation of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which was strongly Catholic influenced and which plagued the Labor Party for a generation, helping to thwart any chances of their winning government. By 1960, the Menzies Government was in full control and the opposition was in rebuilding mode under their new leader, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam. For the country, it was a time of peace and growing prosperity. The tragedy of the Vietnam War was a few years in the future.
In Sydney and Melbourne, television, introduced in 1956 just in time for the Melbourne Olympics, had taken a firm grip on life in the suburbs. By 1960, around 70 per cent of homes boasted a flickering black and white picture, set in a fine piece of wooden cabinetry in the lounge room, and Graham Kennedy had the first ever Gold Logie on his mantelpiece. Television and movies were suffused with the pleasures of California’s beach culture. The bikini was in, board shorts were making their early appearance, the Gold Coast was a haven for honeymooners, and, in Kings Cross and St Kilda, nightclubs were swinging to the sounds of the Beach Boys and local rockers such as Johnny O’Keefe. Around the nation’s beaches, the first panel vans were making an appearance in the car parks, often swaying on their suspension late into the night, prompting the bumper sticker ‘If it’s rocking, don’t come knocking’. Australia’s youth were starting to have the good times denied to their parents thanks to the Depression, war and rationing.
However, not everyone embraced the gentility of the suburbs or the prospect of weekends spent enjoying surf and sun. In the UK, rock and roll had spawned youth gangs: the Mods, who preferred sharply tailored high-fashion suits and Italian motor scooters; and the Rockers, who favoured leather jackets, a bit of grime and fast motorcycles such as the Triumph or BSA. The Rockers thought the Mods were on the effeminate side, but both had an interest in using amphetamines to keep the party going. In the US, the Hell’s Angels and the Outlaws, the first of the outlaw motorcycle clubs that remain with us today, were causing a stir.
A smattering of Australia’s disenfranchised began to form their own motorcycle clubs, taking the lead from the Rockers and the US outlaw clubs (the term ‘gang’ would replace ‘club’ a few decades later). Claiming credit to be the first outlaw club in Australia were the Gladiators, from the New South Wales Hunter Valley. Sword-and-sandal film epics were all the rage in Hollywood at the time thanks to the huge success of Ben-Hur, which was released in late 1959 and collected 11 Oscars in 1960, and the Gladiators based their name on it.
Like their US counterparts, some of the men in Australia’s outlaw clubs had grown up the hard way, and had spent time in the military or had occasional brushes with the law. These were not men sowing their wild oats before taking their place in the middle class. Instead, they formed motorcycle clubs with their local mates and kindred spirits. They liked to ride hard, fast and often en masse. Beer or Bundaberg rum were the preferred tipples, and, scandalously, they smoked marijuana. Sexual encounters weren’t a rollicking good time in the privacy of a parked panel van but conducted in the open and in full view of their mates. They didn’t aspire to a job for life or mortgages. The police in the 1960s, however, reckoned these early bike clubs were little more than a traffic problem and one best dealt with by the traffic police. They thought the bikers (or ‘bikies’ in Australia, but I have used the more international term throughout) were just a pack of misfits who smoked a little dope, drank a bit too much, didn’t bathe as often as they should and had a fairly liberal approach to relationships with women. The police reckoned the life the bikers liked to lead was just a passing phase, and one they’d grow out of before sprucing up and joining the rest of mainstream Australia. Police regarded the bikers as reasonably harmless but nevertheless viewed them with suspicion. It was an Australia whose police forces and a large chunk of society were unsettled by anyone a little different, such as artists, the gay community, anyone not quite white, atheists, or those who didn’t vote for Labor, Bob Menzies’ coalition government or the DLP. ‘Not quite right’, as well-to-do suburban mothers would intone. The police also knew the bikers didn’t mind a bit of biff and didn’t complain, which made them an ideal target for some sport.
My father was a New South Wales traffic copper in those early days and mad about motorcycles. He recalled that he and his colleagues would turn a blind eye to the exploits of some people. Radio DJs, for instance, were like gods and could drive dead drunk, or at a speed that prompted witty opening lines by police such as ‘I didn’t think Jack Brabham was in the country’. The DJs got away with their indiscretions, and so our family had a fine selection of the latest recordings, often autographed. Doctors, lawyers and members of the judiciary, provided they showed a reasonable degree of humility, received the same treatment, with the copper working on the premise that some day he might find himself on the operating table, in need of a good lawyer, or standing before the learned judge or magistrate. A young copper’s use of discretion was a wise investment in his own future. However, it was a different story when dealing with the bikers. This had a touch of irony, as traffic police also had a passion for motorcycles and riding fast and not always sober, but they did so with immaculately pressed blue serge uniforms and polished boots and leggings. Bikers referred to the police, with a glimpse of humour, as ‘the big blue gang’.
The bikers liked to take weekend rides, usually along the major highways and occasionally down a decent scenic road, stopping at a pub where they could sit, drink, smoke, talk, chat up women and enjoy the odd brawl, either among themselves or with any locals who also saw fighting as a recreation. Places such as Werris Creek on the New England Highway, Gundagai on the Hume, Doyalson on the Pacific, and the quiet backwater of Wisemans Ferry on the twisting and demanding Putty Road shortcut to the New England district all had suitable watering holes. Unfortunately for the bikers, the traffic police had a fair idea where they’d be heading on a tour and would be lying in wait, and in strength, for a bit of fun of their own. Compared with the activities of the Criminal Investigation Branch’s (CIB’s) infamous 21 Division, which was responsible for starting brawls and planting evidence, the traffic cops were almost genteel, but they were still annoying.
When word of an event seeped through to the headquarters of the Special Traffic Patrol, the large garage under the North Sydney approach to the Harbour Bridge became a very busy place. The traffic cops’ wickedly fast Triumph motorcycles – both solo and with sidecars on the occasions when another set of hands or fists might be useful – were buffed to a sheen, tyres were blacked, chrome spokes polished and engines tuned. When all was ready, the big blue gang set off to prepare their ambush. The police of the day used a technique that is still dominant in policing gangs these days: irritation, with the hope that being part of a gang just becomes tiresome. It’s a strategy that has limited success, as the current strength of the outlaw movement attests.
As the bikers rumbled up the highway, they would be intercepted and pulled to the side of the road. The police would then inspect their bikes, finding even the tiniest fault in their road-worthiness, such as a malfunctioning light globe, obscured number plate, noisy exhaust and so on, for which the hapless biker would get a fine and/or defect notice. Speeding fines were also popular and, in the days before radar speed cameras, were based on the copper’s professional estimation of the speed, which was generally accepted as accurate by magistrates. Police officers didn’t lie in those days, or so the courts preferred to believe.
The bikers usually took these events on the chin – it was a lesson they’d learnt quickly, as resistance only escalated the police actions. However, there were occasions where timing and frustration saw common sense head out the window. If the mood was upon them, police would wander into the pubs where the bikers were drinking and enjoying the odd puff of illicit weed, and wait to either be provoked into a brawl or start their own. The net result was a bit of fun for both sides, but one that ended with a few of the bikers being arrested for relatively minor crimes such as common assault, resist police, unseemly words (which could be anything from an unkind suggestion about the marital state of the officer’s parents at the time of his conception, through to more colourful phrases using four-letter words). Convictions for minor offences didn’t faze them, so they usually pleaded guilty to get the problem out of the way quickly and cheaply. But those innocent days wouldn’t last forever. My father once observed, ‘We were a bit like them – passionate about the machines – but we couldn’t let the buggers get away with scaring the motorists, or getting pissed and being a nuisance in the pubs. The other drinkers didn’t like it, nor did the publican. It was our job to remind the buggers that they had to be well behaved. We wanted them looking over their shoulders.’
Excerpted from Outlaw Bikers in Australia by Duncan McNab. Copyright © 2013 by Duncan McNab.
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