Why Do People Join Motorcycle Gangs Like the Bandidos?

We talked to biker expert Edward Winterhalder about his reasons for joining a gang 40 years ago and how an argument over a patch turned into a deadly shootout on Sunday in Texas.

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May 20 2015, 9:15pm

Photo via the Waco Police Department

Officials in Waco, Texas, are in a special kind of hell right now. On Sunday, a parking dispute between members of several motorcycle clubs broke out inside a breastaurant bathroom and eventually spilled onto the streets, where it turned into a shootout, entangled the cops, and left nine dead.

Now the city is left trying to figure out what to do with about 170 men and women who have been booked for participating in organized crime (not to mention their seized weapons). First there's the matter of separating out the Bandidos, the Cossacks, the Scimitars, and the others, so as to prevent more sectarian violence. And then there's sussing out exactly who shot who, which police say is complicated by bikers who are being dishonest. Finally, officials will have to figure out how to take those responsible to a court without completely bankrupting the county.

But as the cops try to figure out what to do with the alleged participants, we wondered what draws men to outlaw clubs in the first place. So we called up Edward Winterhalder, a former member of the Rogues who formed the Oklahoma chapter of the Bandidos in 1997 and has written ten books about motorcycle clubs (which he wants you to know are available at all major bookstores and in all e-reader formats). He explained who looks for a sense of family with groups like the Bandidos, why women are attracted to the culture, and how beef over a patch led to the most violent incident in the history of motorcycle clubs.

VICE: Who was the first member of a motorcycle club you ever met?
Edward Winterhalder: The very first guy I ever met that was in a motorcycle club was prospecting for a club called the Rogues. And we were all buddies, and we were hanging around on our motorcycles in the parking lot of a restaurant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1975. A guy pulled up in a car, got out, and pulled two sawed-off shotguns out of his car and pointed it at a prospect [a new recruit going through the initiation process] of the club. I got in between the guy with the shotguns and the guy who was prospecting. He was ten years older than me and he had a family and kids, and I didn't. I told the guy with the shotguns to shoot me instead of my buddy. And the guy said he didn't want to shoot me, he wanted to shoot a Rogue. And I said, "He's just a prospect. Go find a real Rogue." And the guy turned around, put his shotguns in his car, and left.

That would not make me want to join a motorcycle club.
You've gotta understand, we were all Army guys, a lot of us came home from Vietnam, and we got into motorcycles because we were looking for the same camaraderie and brotherhood we had in the Army. So shortly thereafter, the motorcycle club my buddy was prospecting for told me they wanted to see me. So I went to see them, and they said, "Man, we'd really like to have you involved with us." So I met some of the guys, and we became friends, and I started hanging out with them, and one thing lead to another.

How does prospecting work?
Usually guys in the club meet guys through work, family—those are two real good ways—and then they meet them at biker functions like biker parties and biker rallies. And people get involved because they like the person they met, and the friendship is established first. You hang around for a long period of time, and then someone asks, "Hey, would you like to join?" A lot of the guys say no. They don't want that level of commitment—having to ride to Atlanta tomorrow and Los Angeles the next day. They just wanna hang out with those guys around town. And that's fine. People hang around motorcycle clubs for 20 years and don't become a member.

How long until you get your patch?
First you prospect—some clubs call it probationary. That's usually a year, sometimes longer. And then, during that time, the club gets to check you out and you get to check the club out. Once you get involved, you find out more things about it. For some, it doesn't work out. Some leave the lifestyle altogether, move on, and have families. Most guys, in this day and age, don't stay in the club very long because it's very demanding financially, emotionally, physically, mentally. There's so much riding involved it's like you never have a chance to catch your breath, and it's hard to keep a relationship going with a female.

Related: Meet Baltimore's baddest dirtbike crew.

What would that lifestyle offer to someone who wasn't trying to transition back from military life?
Almost all of these guys are dysfunctional in some way. They missed something in their childhood and they didn't have that sense of family that most people have. So they're looking for a family they never had and they find that with the brotherhood.

Then there's the negative aspect of people who want to deal drugs and use the patch as a tool in your toolbox—as a point of intimidation—so they can do that more successfully. But they have to hide that or they'd never be allowed to join.

I don't wanna say it's a small minority, but you could probably say 60 to 70 percent of outlaw motorcycle clubs are regular working guys. They have jobs. They have families. They have kids. The only thing they're guilty of is having too much fun on the weekends.

What attracts women to the lifestyle? They're not allowed to be members, and there's a misogynistic undertone to the whole thing.
A lot of the women that are in the lifestyle have been abused when they were young, so for them to be in a subservient position in the club, they feel at home. A lot of them are also looking for protection, and they find that in the motorcycle club. Let's say dad sexually abused her forever, well she gets with a motorcycle club guy, that ain't gonna be happening anymore. The motorcycle club guy is gonna beat the fuck out of dad.

So let's jump to Texas, where the shooting happened. Why were there so many bikers there?
It was what's called a Confederacy of Clubs meeting. They've been held in almost every state for the better part of 20 years. These CoC meetings have always been peaceful with the exception of the occasional agreed-upon fistfight where the guys would take their patches off and everybody would watch—and then they would get up and hug each other and buy each other a beer. A lot of them would become friends after that.

But the Confederation meeting gives the clubs a time to talk about business, find out who the new clubs are in the area, find out what kind of patches they're wearing. If they don't want to become an outlaw motorcycle club, they're advised to wear a two-piece patch with no geographic territory on the bottom rocker. Things of that nature. It's always legal business. It goes on for a couple of hours, and everyone socializes, and everyone goes back home to get ready to go to work the next day.

What started the altercation?
The Bandidos have not allowed any clubs except for a few in the state of Texas to wear a Texas bottom rocker. About 18 months ago, the Cossacks came to the Bandidos—and they'd gotten along over the years—and told them they were gonna start wearing a Texas bottom rocker and the Bandidos said that wasn't gonna happen. The Cossacks, who have been around since 1969, told the Bandidos to fuck off. They were putting the Texas rocker on and that's all there was to it. And they said, "If we catch you with a Texas rocker on, we're gonna take it off, no matter what it takes."

Why does everyone care so much about a patch?
Because for decades, 20 or 30 years, they didn't let anybody else have a Texas bottom rocker. In about 2010, a few other clubs started wearing them in defiance of the Bandidos, but those clubs were typically all police clubs with a lot of law enforcement or firefighters or ex-military that were younger. The Bandidos had problems with them, too, but not as much as with this deal.

So 18 months ago, there started to be skirmishes when those Texas rockers went on, and there were fistfights. And they started getting more violent, and in early 2014, maybe March or April, in Abilene or Odessa, a couple of Bandidos stabbed a couple of Cossacks in a fight. And in March of this year, a lot of violence occurred between the two clubs. Four or five Bandidos would catch a Cossack by himself and they would beat the shit out of him. And the other way around. Tit for tat. It got more and more violent leading up to May 17, 2015 [the day of the shooting].

It's a giant clusterfuck in Waco right now with police trying to process and interview almost 200 people. What's gonna happen next?
There's guys there who had just showed up and had got off their bikes and were drinking a cold bottle of water in the parking lot when all this started happening, and they didn't have a clue what was happening. Those guys are in jail on million-dollar bonds. Some of those guys have very prominent jobs. One of them is a service manager at a Chevy dealership. Another one is FedEx driver. These guys are all losing their jobs, because their bosses think they were involved in this shootout. As this progresses, you're gonna see 50 to 100 be let out of jail, and then their lawyers are gonna sue the shit out of everyone, and it's going to be a huge mess.

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