“I wasn’t allowed to work at my tattoo shop, which is all I’ve done for the past 30 years. My security license was cancelled. I wasn’t allowed to see my mates—the only blokes I’ve spoken to for about 20 odd years.”
This is how Kris, a 56-year-old ex-Bandido bikie from Brisbane, explained the effect Queensland's anti-bikie laws had on him. The laws the eventually propelled him to turn to drug dealing.
“Eventually I said ‘fuck these cunts’ and I bought an ounce and started selling.”
Kris was just one victim of Queensland's Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) act, introduced in 2013. Under this law, members or associates of criminal organisations convicted of serious crimes were made to serve an additional 15 to 25 years' jail. The only way to avoid the extra term was to cooperate with law enforcement, which has always been a cardinal sin in the bikie world.
At the time VLAD laws were introduced, I was a bikie. This meant that every time we paid the boys in Queensland a visit we weren't allowed to wear the club insignia and faced jail for publicly congregating in groups of three. But the guys who lived there had it worse. If you were a QLD bikie in 2013 you were suddenly banned from operating a clubhouse, restricted to using specific types of mobile phones, and banned from all licensed venues.
Similar laws were soon introduced in New South Wales and South Australia. And I watched members remortgage their homes to acquire bail and others sell their motorcycles to pay legal fees, in the fight for the culture.
The same year the law was introduced, three of our club members nicknamed “The Versace Three,” were the first to be charged under the consorting act for meeting at a hotel to finalise the purchase of a motorcycle. Soon after our club became the first to be declared a criminal organisation in the state of Queensland.
Soon Queensland members were left with no choice but to move to states like Victoria in order to maintain decade-long relationships.
“How much is brotherhood worth to you? How important is friendship in your life? Now imagine you, as an adult in a free country, get told you’re not allowed to talk to your only friends,” summarised my friend Andy, who's an ex-member of the Hells Angels over Wickr. “The police told me my sons aren’t allowed to hang around with their mates, because their dad was in the club and they think we’re sending messages. A couple of my mates just said ‘this country has turned to shit, we’re buggering off to Thailand.”
It was there that I witnessed the demise of a subculture. The Easy Rider-inspired interstate rides were reduced to nostalgic yarns about the good-old-days. And what was originally a scene centred around motorcycle culture—which was a simple adrenalised emblem of freedom—transformed into an offset of street gang culture. Bikies turned from simple guys who liked bikes, into guys who liked easy money—and it was Australia's media and draconian laws that propelled this shift.
In July this year, Police Minister Mark Ryan told a press conference that in 2016-17, Queensland police issued 230 consorting warnings to bikies, and from 2017-18 they issued 570 warnings. Under the new revamped laws, gang members don’t need to meet up to break the consorting laws, they can be charged simply for speaking to one other via phone, sms, email, or social media.
The main problem with Queensland's consorting laws was that congregating charges were able to applied without proof of criminality. As Dr Terry Goldsworthy, former detective and associate professor in criminology at Bond university, told me via email: "there is no requirement for the consorting laws in Queensland, nor NSW (and in most Australian Jurisdictions) to have any criminality attached to the consorting behaviour. This is a fallacy.
"The police often overstate the role of OMCGs [outlaw motorcycle gangs] in relation to crime in general and especially in relation to organised crime. Two commissions of inquiry we had in Queensland identified this overreach.”
I remember personally watching as this overreach started to affect how bikies saw themselves. Suddenly motorcycle clubs began consuming the media portrayal of this hyped-up caricature of criminality. You can trace the shifting attitude to the physical appropriation of gang culture; mainstream bikies swapped their rugged patches, Levi’s and beer bellies for Nike TNs, steroids, Rolex watches, and Givenchy. The clubs began absorbing and exploiting the gangster propaganda that was being fed to the masses.
The iconography of outlaw bikers has always been an overdramatic assault on what we call civilised culture, perpetuated by those who feel most marginalised by it. Clubs often appropriate taboo symbols from Nazi Germany, not because they're run by racists but purely as a shock tactic that asserts their place outside of society. The point of the offensive patches was to be divisive and separate us from them, when the attire became a variation of street culture we were seen as just another gang.
The situation was further muddled by the fact that there is a long-standing relationship among outlaw motorcycle clubs and criminals, in the same way they share a history with war veterans. Men who do not fit the puzzle of nine-to-five society are offered a sense of community through a shared bond over motorcycles. Nothing else matters; your job, culture, religion, education and race. All totally insignificant.
I remember seeing ex-prisoners come to the club for the first time. Every member would chip in to provide an assortment of lamb chops, gourmet sausages, and beef patties. I would watch as supporters and hang-arounds made their way to say a few words and offer whatever they could to lend a hand. A hook-up with a gym membership, a job opportunity, an introduction to their girlfriend’s friends, or maybe assistance with housing. These guys were overwhelmed by whay society requires from adults. Some of these guys had spent over 15 years in prison, so adjusting to something as natural as freedom seemed to them arduous and complicated, especially when they'd been locked up from as young as 16.
“[Motorcycle Clubs] were a place where you could forget the stresses of daily life. Have a few beers and try your luck with some strippers. All the things that give you a value in real life, no one used to give a shit about in here. No one cared what car you drove, where you worked or who you were having sex with. As long as you ride,” said Robbo, an ex-member of the Rebels Motorcycle club. “But in the last 10 years, the opposite has happened. Everyone's turned plastic, they’re all obsessed with watches, who you’re fucking, and what contracts you’ve landed. Sure, people moved a bit of gear back in the day, just so we had enough to get fucked up with ourselves, but these days blokes are looking for careers at the clubhouse it’s a fucking joke. And they’ve killed the culture in the process.”
Those committing crimes in OMCGs are a minority within a minority, and what’s happening in the crossfires of prosecution is that non-criminal members, who already feel marginalised, are being legally ostracized. Since the laws were enforced, and the ensuing media branding of motorcycle culture as criminal, the new wave of Nike bikies are drawn from cross sections of society that assume the clubs are rooted in criminality, and they’re proud of it.
The strategy of the police was to dismantle outlaw bikies by implementing unconventional policing such as freezing bank accounts, banning paraphernalia, and restricting group activity. They wanted to strip them of what they thought bikies lived for, their identity or colours. But they somehow didn’t anticipate the bleeding obvious. The police assumed that drug dealers believe in what’s on their vest, more than what’s in their pockets. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
“They have not dismantled OMCGs, they have merely driven them underground," says Dr Goldsworthy. According to the ACIC website, since 2012, four new feeder gangs and 280 new chapters for outlaw motorcycle clubs have appeared. “The consorting does not have any criminal character to it, so it would be highly unlikely it is disrupting organised crime. Two reports of the NSW Ombudsman were highly critical of the consorting laws in NSW.”
Clubs attract members who are looking to be guided and grounded, by people they trust, in an environment they can relate to. When I joined the club, if anyone brought police attention to the clubhouse they were black-eyed and scolded. We were governed by street rules that made sense to us. But when we were pulled apart, the blokes that drowned in substance abuse or turned to crime—they were the ones struggling to find that thing that gives life its meaning.
This article does not imply that the people in the photographs are involved in criminal activity.
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