"Who likes titties? I do!"
A bearish dude with an orange ZZ Top beard hollers at me as he squeezes the breasts of the brunette butterball beside him through her sheer red shirt. They're guzzling beers on the back of a golf cart, and I'm straddling a Harley Road King Classic behind a 54-year-old man I just met. My driver, Greg, chuckles and his peach curls quiver inches from my nose. We accelerate, moving up in the Republic of Texas Rally biker parade—an anarchic swarm of motorcycles, thousands of us, circling a massive field for hours. Some bikers pile in golf carts to booze, cruise, and make out all at once. Most folks take breaks to mingle on the sidelines and mosey around the 128-acre madhouse.
This is the 20th annual ROT Rally, a bacchanal held each summer in Austin, Texas, replete with a daredevil stunt ride over two Budweiser trucks, a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, tattoo booths, and dozens of motorcycle gangs. About 40,000 bikers from around the country bring RVs and baby pools to the Travis County Expo grounds, camping out and stripping down for three nights.
"It never gets old," Greg, an electrical worker who lives about 90 miles north of Austin, tells me, his backwoods twang oozed across syllables like barbecue sauce.
It's only five o'clock, and the mostly-middle-aged mob is already raving: We pass a huddle of topless chicks with airbrush-painted chests, a line of men gyrating in thongs and Mardi Gras beads, a naked balloon lady sucking a giant rubber penis, and a 300-pound Marilyn Monroe impersonator draping her bare boobs on an ice sculpture, all within about two minutes.
Engines cough up smoke and roar. Mariachi, country, rap, and Kelly Clarkson jams melt together in the Texas heat. We almost run over a lobster-colored drunk passed out on the grass, cowboy hat smothering over his face. A gold bike with a "just married" cardboard sign swerves to a stop at the Port-a-Potties.
"This is freedom," says Greg, his eyes finding mine in the rearview mirror. "Ya got da wind, air, ya got it all."
"Who's your daddy? Where'd your daddy find you?" a guy with a buzz cut and referee outfit yells at us through a loudspeaker from the sideline. I cringe and Greg speeds on.
Where's Patrick? I wonder, checking my phone for a text from Patrick Bresnan, VICE's photographer here. Sure enough, he's messaged me: "I found the Bandidos."
The Bandidos are just who we're looking for. Texas's biggest motorcycle gang—and the second largest in the world—the Bandidos hover over this year's ROT Rally like a dark cloud, after the group's horrific shootout against rival clubs in Waco last month. The May 17 face-off in a Twin Peaks restaurant, which killed nine people and led to more than 170 arrests, incited a heated debate, especially in Texas, about the violence of biker culture and law enforcement's sweeping response.
Regulars at the ROT Rally told me that attendance plummeted at this year's event, which took place almost exactly a month after the Waco incident. Patrick, who has covered the ROT Rally for years, estimated that about the 2015 crowd was about half the size of the one last year.
"I have friends who were too scared to come this year," says Lenny Galvon, a longtime ROT Rally biker from Corpus Christi who's sipping a beer on the grass while we wait for Bubba Blackwell, a sort-of modern-day Evil Knievel in an American-flag jumpsuit, to jump his Harley."But they don't need to worry. Here, everybody respects everybody."
Most folks I talked to leap to defend their motorcycle "family," vehemently admonishing the cops for detaining so many people in Waco. The Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents, a group of individual bikers and clubs that was holding the meeting at the Twin Peaks when the shootout erupted, was at the rally selling black T-shirts with the slogan "Innocent Biker" to raise money for the families of those in jail.
"I was supposed to be in Waco that day," a confederation member who identified himself only as Ty tells me by the stand. Ty, who teaches children's karate in Austin, is tall and baby-faced, and wears a leather jacket with Texas and American flag badges. The Waco meeting, Ty tells me, was called to discuss pending state legislationthat could affect bikers and to teach motorcycle safety.
"We've been having meetings every other month for ten years and there's never been a black eye or bloody nose. What erupted was, there were some bullies," Ty says, explaining that he missed the meeting because he got caught in traffic. "The spirit of the meeting is to move the community forward."
Ty tells me the bikers' "constitutional rights were stepped on," since cops arrested so many people without evidence of their involvement. An attorney for two of the bikers is seeking to lower the $1 million bonds, claiming they have been used as an "instrument of oppression." One Waco arrestee is suing the city and police for detaining him without probable cause. Meanwhile, riders around Texas have been holding protests around the state, arguing that most of those swept up in the mass arrests were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"They violated our right to peaceful assembly... They call bikers gangs because they wear a uniform," Ty says. "But I teach karate and we wear a uniform, and I'm a president of West Austin Lyons Club and we wear uniforms. Does that make us a gang?"
Conspiracy theories also swirl around the ROT rally, the most popular of which is the idea that it was the cops that actually fired the first shot. Frank Eckrode, a retired biker with emphysema who looks like he belongs in The Grapes of Wrath, seethes from his lawn chair when the shooting is mentioned, and his bulging blue eyes look like they're about to slingshot out of his gaunt face.
"I think it was all the cops. I served in the Army 20 years, and it upsets me they would come in and do this right before Memorial Day. Why would you disservice me on Memorial Day you dumb fucks?" he says, shaking his unlit cigarette. "It's bullshit. What's happened to my country?"
Since so many bikers are eager to talk, Patrick and I stride optimistically up to the Bandidos. Unlike other tents, the Bandidos' area is enclosed with neon orange netting. Two hulking security guards in black sunglasses stand by the entrance, which is blocked off with yellow rope. I approach smiling, and tell the guards I'm a journalist, and soon several other huge men in black leather and skullcaps march up to the rope, careening over it to get in our faces.
I ask if they have any thoughts about what happened in Waco. "What happened in Waco?" the tallest, brawniest one barks. "You know..." I reply, still trying to coax something out. "I don't know what happened in Waco. Nothing happened that I know of." His dark beady eyes stay wide, and a toothy smile flies to his lips.
We step back, and I wander back into the debauchery, while Patrick sticks around to try to get some pictures of the white Bandidos tent. A little while later, as I try to stake out a spot on the lawn for the Lynard Skynard show, Patrick calls me. The cops have kicked him out of the rally, but won't tell him why.
I race back up to the Bandidos tent, inhaling fumes from the grills and spilt beer and cigarettes and grinding naked bodies. When I get there, I ask if they had a photographer kicked out. A bearded man in black seated by the orange netting invites me in, and grins at me like I'm a dumb dog.
"No, the cops came to us and asked if we were being bothered, said they heard someone was bothering us. I just said y'all had come by but then you left."
A testosterone-foaming herd in leather storms up. A man I met at the Confederation of Clubs and Independents booth is in the pack. He'd refused to talk to me earlier, but then hovered around me, telling me he'd been a news anchor in the past. "I'm telling you, as a reporter you better tread lightly," he says now, stepping closer. The bearded man calms him down.
"I don't want any trouble, I know," I retreat, and head to the tent of another motorcycle club, Blackett Arms, whose members were also at the Waco meeting according to a petition that the bikers are passing around. "The cops came to us too, you're not supposed to be reporting around here," a woman in the Blackett Arms tent tells me. "They asked for your description. I'm pretty sure they're looking for you too."
Shaken, I shuffle back down the parade route through the stampede of bikes, engines keening louder by the second. I scream at what I think is the sound of a gunshot, but it's actually a firecracker by my sandals. Christmas lights strung on golf carts blink warnings. Nearby, veiny legs braid a cold metal strip pole, fleshy breasts smashing against the silver. Glow-in-the-dark devil ears and a skull flag float by in the dark. The scene that had seemed pleasantly wild hours earlier is now terrifying.
I return to the lawn, now maniacal with Lynyrd Skynyrd onstage and crimson light beaming over crowd. "Texas how are y'all? Fuck its a Saturday night how are y'all? How many die-hard Lynyrd Skynyrd fans are out there?" howls Johnny Van Zant, throwing around his hair and waving an American flag hooked to his microphone stand. "By the way we still think the USA is the best damn place on Earth!"
Next to me, a wasted rotund man in a yellow tank and rock 'n roll bandana pulls out air pistols and sings along, and an emaciated woman with a cancerous, leathered hide sucks down a Jell-O shot, then squints and squinches her nose. "It's time for the south to rise again," Van Sant yells, now pulling out the Confederate flag. The band rolls into "Sweet Home Alabama" and then "Free Bird," and I can't help but chant with the mob. I realize I've got to get out of here. I wind through a maze of escalating chaos, trying to find an exit.
A few days later, the cops and ROT Rally organizers confirmed that Patrick was kicked out for photographing the Bandidos. "The ROT Rally folks notified our guys saying there was a disturbance around the Bandido area," said Roger Wade, a spokesman for the Travis County Sheriff's Officer. "They said Patrick was insisting on taking pictures and asking questions and there was some type of verbal disturbance."
A spokesman for the rally who identifies himself only as Matt (he refuses to give his last name) said the organizers had received calls from the bikers complaining about a photographer around the Bandidos' tent. He won't tell me who made the complaints. "We received complaints from campers saying he was causing problems. They didn't want him to take pictures. If anyone is taking photographs or harassing rally attendees we reserve this right," Matt said. "It's a private event."
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Patrick Bresnan, a.k.a. Otis Ike, is a photographer, installation artist, and filmmaker based in Austin. Check out his website here.