Just after closing time at Mid America Powersports on Thursday, a black and chrome Harley-Davidson rumbled into the parking lot. The driver removed his bandana and gloves, revealing several heavy rings. As the driver lifted his black boots over the saddle, a small bullet casing hung from a zipper on his jacket and a ponytail tied with two separate bands swung against his shoulder.
He and his wife on back were the first to arrive, which he thought was curious since he had to travel the farthest. As he waited for the others, he talked about why he had come.
“Back in 1975 a small-town Baptist preacher ended up in a motorcycle rally,” he said, introducing himself and his wife as Carl and Marsha Owen, in a gentle, grandfatherly voice underneath a white beard. “He started praying to God and said, ‘You’ve got to send somebody to these people and share the gospel with them.’ Well, God sent him. And that’s what we do.”
The Christian Motorcyclists Association patch on his leather jacket read, simply, “The Son.”
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“We go to these rallies, wherever motorcyclists are,” Owen said. “Sometimes we use words. Most of the time we just serve.”
This impromptu meeting of several prominent Wichita biker groups had been arranged by Sis Bohrer, public relations officer of the local chapter of ABATE (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments), the main political organization of motorcyclists in Kansas. The only rule of the meeting was that the bikers would not talk about the very event that gave rise to the meeting: the deaths of nine bikers in a shootout in Waco, Texas, four days before.
They were tired of all the negativity that was coming out about bikers after the deaths in Waco and wanted to set the record straight: Bikers in Wichita are upstanding, wholesome community members who just happen to love to ride, they said. They’re more likely to be found delivering toys to children than getting into a violent altercation. But some motorcyclists are afraid the government will use this tragedy as an excuse to erode the rights of bikers.
The motorcycle world is split up into three main groups, according to the bikers and other sources. First, there are the lawyers, doctors and others who ride on their own or in small groups and are sometimes referred to as “motorcycle enthusiasts.”
Then there are the clubs. They often wear leather, patches and specific colors that identify them. They talk about riding as a lifestyle, which brings freedom from the strictures of society, but ride in large groups for the camaraderie with fellow riders. They’re known as bikers, or when trouble has been stirring, “The 99 percenters.”
Most people attribute that name to their desire to separate themselves from a small percentage of club bikers: the gangs, outlaws or “one percenters.” The idea is that 99 percent of bikers are law abiding, but one percent are not and give the rest a bad name. Outlaw clubs such as the Bandidos and Hells Angels share the ideology and camaraderie of regular club bikers, but allegedly make a living from criminal activity. Like street gangs, they will defend their colors, their territory and their income.
The basic difference between the gangs and the clubs is that the gangs “are 99 percent for their own club and one percent for the rest of the world,” said Mike “Ringo” Ringgold, president of ABATE Kansas. “They will live and die for their colors.”
ABATE has about 2,000 members in Kansas, according to Ringgold, and although the vast majority are upstanding, law-abiding citizens, he said some are “one percenters.” He just doesn’t know which ones. But after Waco, he is worried that the government will find an excuse to take away motorcycle rights.
“This patch they say is a gang and your rights will be violated,” a post on ABATE’s Facebook page stated after Waco. “I urge you all to get educated about the freedoms we may lose. Get involved if not … who knows.”
ABATE won a political battle in Topeka last year to allow motorcycles to go through red lights at empty intersections, because motorbikes are not heavy enough to trigger the lights on their own. Sis (who prefers one name) was hoping to pursue further laws that would make hitting a biker on a right-of-way a more serious crime, and to prevent police from profiling law-abiding bikers. But now she doesn’t know what political support she can expect.
There are fewer than 50,000 members of biker gangs nationally, according to the most frequent estimates seen by Don Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who studies extremist groups. But like data around sex trafficking, he said, he’s never seen strong support for these numbers because, like the mafia, biker gangs don’t talk openly about what they do. And they’re hard for the police to infiltrate because their initiation process is brutal and can last more than a year.
Generally speaking, the biker gangs tend to deal in methamphetamine or weapons, Haider-Markel said. They often have their own land where they meet but will sometimes gather in public bars.
A representative for the gang unit of the Wichita police, Lt. Jeff Gilmore, said his department keeps tabs on the 24 local biking clubs but that officers haven’t seen any evidence of illegal activity recently. An altercation between members of the Bandidos and El Forasteros ended in a death in 2003, but they haven’t seen much since then.
Part of the reason is that Wichita only has a few months of good riding weather a year. Most of the notorious gangs are concentrated in the West in places where it is dry and they can ride all year round.
Sometimes police will be alerted that biker gangs are driving through Wichita. “When they get together in Wichita, we’ve never had any problems,” Gilmore said. “They’ve been approached by law enforcement and engaged in civil communication. We have no concerns about biker gang problems.”
Clubs and police
That doesn’t mean the clubs haven’t had trouble with the police. The Black Sabbath Motorcycle Club recently moved from its clubhouse on Harry Street because, its leaders said, police were harassing them and finding any excuse they could to give them tickets.
Black Sabbath is the oldest biker club in Wichita, according to its president, Greg “Big G” Phillips. Nationally its membership is 90 percent black, but in Wichita, Phillips says it’s just over 50 percent.
Police, he said, would shine their lights at Black Sabbath members, pull them over and give them tickets for any reasons they could come up with. Police once gave a ticket for parking on the grass in their own gravel lot because, Phillips said, it had a bit of grass growing out of it.
The police told Phillips that the neighbors were complaining about the noise and that the club had to leave the neighborhood. But Phillips thinks they were being harassed because they have to shoulder the burden of looking and sounding like the real criminal biker gangs.
Gilmore denied the allegations of profiling. “We don’t target anyone,” he said. “We enforce the law and don’t specifically look at people riding motorcycles.”
Black Sabbath members have to prove they have a job and don’t have a criminal record to join. They give money for sickle cell anemia, build homes for the needy and even “cut old ladies’ grass,” according to John “Black Dragon” Bunch, the national president based out of Georgia. Along with many local riders the club travels to Cassoday once a month to hang out with sometimes thousands of cyclists.
“They see us as all the same whether we are ‘one percenters’ or not,” Bunch said. “As long as you have a patch on your back, you have to live with a stigma.”
When they first moved to Wichita more than 25 years ago, the Black Sabbaths had to get the permission of the local outlaw gangs in order to ride here, as has been the custom. But now they do everything they can to avoid them. “You see them riding around,” Phillips said. “I’m not going to say everybody knows who they are, but you can tell the difference between an outlaw motorcycle or a ‘one percenter.’”
At the meeting, one biker described crashing his first bike at age 5 and falling in love. Another talked about moving to Wichita, not knowing anyone and meeting the best friends of his life. A third said that he and his wife’s marriage grew deeper the more they biked together.
Many years ago Sis lost her right arm when it got caught in a filling machine at a bottling plant. She loves the freedom she gets from driving the three-wheel automatic her late husband gave her because, with one arm, she’s not legally allowed to ride a manual. “It was glorious,” she said of her first time on her own. “I was in control.”
Many motorcycle groups, including the Black Sabbaths and Hells Angels, were originally formed from Army veterans, and many at the meeting described feeling a kinship with other riders who would brave a 30-degree drop in temperatures on their bikes to drive through rain and hail.
“We are closer to our brothers and sisters who ride than we are to our own blood,” Sis said.
Part of the joy of riding a motorcycle is the inherent danger that puts them “right on the edge,” according to Carl Owen of the Christian Motorcyclists Association. “It has an inherent danger, being on two wheels. There is no protection.”
The reason many club riders and nearly all “one percenters” choose to ride Harley-Davidsons, according to Eli Geiger, general manager at Historic Harley in Topeka, is that it “evokes strong-willed American feelings” and even allows doctors and lawyers “to have a little bit of edginess.”
When asked about what happened in Waco, none of the bikers would speak. They said it was a tragedy and they don’t approve of violence, but they also weren’t ready to condemn their family on two wheels.
“I don’t care if you’re riding a Honda, Kawasaki or a Harley, we don’t care,” said Sis after the meeting was over. “We fight for all motorcycle riders. We don’t condone the violence, but if they’re going to be on two wheels or three wheels, we’re fighting for their rights.”
Reach Oliver Morrison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 316-268-6499. Follow him on Twitter @ORMorrison.