The Texas Biker-Gang Massacre

Nine people are dead after a fight among bikers escalated into a gun battle involving police and outlaw organizations that seemed ripped from another era.

Waco Police Department / Reuters

Scores of bikers gathered at a bar-restaurant Sunday in Waco, Texas. Expecting trouble, a dozen police officers were standing by. And then: mayhem. A fight spilled into the parking lot, “initially involving just fists and feet, but escalating quickly to chains, knives, clubs and firearms,” The New York Times reported. “Eight members of motorcycle clubs were killed at the scene and another died at a hospital.”

The shootout took place at a busy shopping center.

“There were maybe 30 guns being fired in the parking lot,” a witness told the Waco Tribune. “There’s a lot of people in the hospital, a lot of people shot.” All bikers, amazingly. Bikers reportedly fired at one another and at police, who fired back. No video has yet emerged and although 100 people were detained for questioning, none of the bikers has yet spoken to the press. The Tribune added, “other local dining and drinking establishments, including Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q, closed early as concern spread that other gang members were traveling to Waco to resume the violence.”

Police warned them not to try anything today.

Law-enforcement officials put particular blame on two motorcycle gangs, the Bandidos and Cossacks. Enter Skip Hollandsworth to address what we’re all thinking.

“If you weren’t living here thirty or forty years ago, you might not have any idea who the Bandidos are,” he reported in a 2007 Texas Monthly article. “You probably have no inkling that they were once the terrors of Texas, so fearsome that when a rumor spread through a town that they were coming, people literally headed inside their homes and locked their doors. And even if you do know who they are, you could very well have trouble believing they still exist. The Bandidos? The renegade motorcycle gang? Aren’t they long gone, artifacts of the Easy Rider era? Hasn’t the motorcycle world been taken over by lawyers, doctors, and advertising executives, all those self-proclaimed ‘chromosexuals’ who pull back their hair in neat ponytails and don designer sunglasses and expensive black leather jackets so that they can take leisurely rides through the countryside on sunny weekend afternoons?”

The Bandidos were, in fact, thriving, with as many as 1,000 members in 16 states and 400 in Texas alone. Founded in 1966, “they are now as large as the fabled Hells Angels,” Hollandsworth wrote, “and according to law enforcement officials who investigate the club, the new Bandidos—or at least some of them—are just as ribald and rebellious as the originals, whom the cops used to chase day and night.” The Department of Justice says they now have 2,000 to 2,500 members.

They have rivals, too.

“There are more than 300 active outlaw motorcycle gangs within the United States, ranging in size from single chapters with five or six members to hundreds of chapters with thousands of members worldwide,” DOJ adds. “The Hells Angels, Mongols, Bandidos, Outlaws, and Sons of Silence pose a serious national domestic threat.”

Members call these organizations “one-percent motorcycle clubs.”

The State of California explained the term in a 1991 report that traces the rise of these biker organizations beginning in the 1940s and peaking a few decades later. “In the late 1960s, a former American Motorcycle Association president was irritated over the raucous behavior of the outlaw motorcycle gangs and declared that 99 percent of the motorcyclists in the United States were law-abiding citizens,” the report explained. “This statement was a public relation's effort to demonstrate that only one percent of the motorcycling public was involved in criminal activity. Thus, denoting ‘one percenter’; those who chose to be a part of the outlaw motorcycle gang subculture. The outlaw motorcycle gang members coined this phrase—using it to differentiate themselves from the law-abiding social motorcycling clubs.”

Comparatively little has been published about the Cossacks, but according to Bill Hayes, who wrote the book on outlaw motorcycle clubs, they were founded around 1969 in Texas. There is a press report of a 2013 stabbing involving Cossacks and Bandidos.

In American journalism there is a precedent for getting the full story on outlaw bikers. “By the middle of summer I had become so involved in the outlaw scene that I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell's Angels or being slowly absorbed by them,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote of his 1965 reporting. “I found myself spending two or three days each week in Angel bars, in their homes, and on runs and parties. In the beginning I kept them out of my own world, but after several months my friends grew accustomed to finding Hell's Angels in my apartment at any hour of the day or night.” Shortly after, he was evicted.

It is doubtful that any journalist today is repeating his efforts, and so the whole story of what happened Sunday, leading to nine deaths, may not ever be fully known outside a subculture that stokes an occasional national panic then recedes from our awareness. “When you get in an argument with a group of outlaw motorcyclists,” Thompson wrote, “your chances of emerging unmaimed depend on the number of heavy-handed allies you can muster in the time it takes to smash a beer bottle. In this league, sportsmanship is for old liberals and young fools.” The addition of guns proved predictably deadly. But whose bullets killed whom and why?