Written by Andrew two Cents Geltzer
Exactly what constitutes a “criminal origination”? How is a “criminal” organization different than an organization that has occasionally had criminals as members? How many members, or more accurately, what percentage of its members must be criminals before an organization is deemed a “criminal” one?
I ask this because the ATF and other law enforcement agencies continue to label 1% motorcycle clubs as gangs and criminal organizations. This labeling allows the government broad scope in the methods employed in investigating bike clubs. Warrant-less surveillance and profiling, for example, are tactics that would be unthinkable if used against an organization that has NOT been deemed a criminal one. The idea that the FEDS or the local cops can park their van in front of a biker gathering and take pictures and run license tags and compile a catalog of club members, all without a warrant or even a hint of probable cause, is an idea that must be examined for its motivation and its legality.
Recently, a Florida news station aired a report about a long-time, well-respected, fire chief who is also a long-time, well-respected member of a 1% club. They acknowledged that the fire chief has never been arrested during his 35-year career, and they stated that his employee reviews have always been above average. This is a man who’s earned the respect of his peers and the gratitude of the community. They used footage of the fire chief that was captured without his knowledge, and they zoomed in on a tattoo he has that bears his club’s name. The footage was similar to surveillance footage in that the camera was obviously hidden from the subject and the subject was completely unaware that he was being filmed, except unlike most surveillance footage this subject wasn’t breaking the law nor was he even SUSPECTED of breaking the law. Then they ran this footage on the news with a voice-over describing how the fire captain was a member of a criminal organization. They didn’t explain what defines a criminal organization, other than to say that the government SAID his motorcycle club is a criminal organization, and they certainly didn’t allege that the fire chief was a criminal (despite the hidden camera footage which would lead one to believe he was caught in the act of committing a crime).
So because the government has decided that his club is a criminal organization, the media can now portray him as a criminal. There’s no reason to suspect he’s a criminal; his department doesn’t even have a policy against his being a member of a bike club, even a 1% club; but there he was on the evening news being labeled a member of a criminal organization.
At some point the government is going to have to explain this designation. The bike clubs don’t have to explain anything. If the bike clubs want to say that 1%er clubs are the one percent of the biker community who’ll kick your ass if you get out of line that is their right. If they want to say they’re the one percent of the biker community who’ll react to disrespect swiftly and mightily, that is also their right. There’s nothing unlawful about that. Even the implied threat isn’t necessarily one of violence or criminality, and is so vague as to be meaningless in a court of law.
The 1% clubs however DO have a history of its members being convicted of crimes, including crimes of violence. Is this what makes them criminal organizations? Even when members of 1% clubs have CONSPIRED to commit crimes, was the conspiracy widespread? Did it include the leadership? Were ALL club leaders implicated in the conspiracy, or just some? Was there a pattern of criminality? Was the club as a whole the beneficiary of these crimes, or was it simply individuals or small groups within the clubs who profited?
Let’s put it another way. If a club which has been in existence for fifty years and has two thousand members and a hundred chapters (in the US alone), and ten of those members have been convicted of crimes (in the last ten years, we’ll say), is the government permitted based on those statistics to label the club a criminal organization? What about if twenty of its members have been convicted of crimes? How about fifty? A hundred?
What if within those one hundred convictions there was no evidence that the leaders of the club were involved in or even had knowledge of those crimes? What if the crimes committed by the members were unrelated to each other and the members themselves shared no connection EXCEPT for their membership in the club?
And what about the other NINETEEN HUNDRED members who were not implicated in any way? Nineteen-hundred seemingly law-abiding citizens, many of whom have been members of the club for twenty or thirty years, some of whom have even held high-ranking positions in community service, say, a fire chief?
What percentage of club members must be convicted of crimes in order for the club to be designated a criminal organization? And does that same criteria apply to police departments and hospital staff and financial firms and school teachers?
For example, in the New York City Police Department, 12,000 cases of police misconduct have resulted in lawsuit settlements totaling over $400 million during a five-year period ending in 2014. But these do NOT include arrests of New York City police officers. From 1992 to 2008, nearly 2,000 New York Police Department officers were arrested, an average of 119 a year. At what point can the New York City Police Department be considered a criminal organization?
Well, I did a little research and it turns out that the Justice Department does have criteria to define a gang: Firstly, the criteria states that you must have more than three members and you must have certain rules for joining and maintaining your membership and the members must meet on a recurring basis. Well, so far the local Boy Scouts chapter and the model train association meet the criteria for a criminal gang.
But now here’s an interesting requirement. “The purpose of the gang, in part, must be for criminal activity.” So despite the astonishing number of police officers who were arrested in our country, the purpose of these criminal cops and their police force is to uphold the law, not break it, so technically they’re not a gang. Every 1% club states that its intent is to socialize and travel and ride motorcycles and the overwhelming majority of its members do just that. If the stated purpose of the club is lawful and the activities of the club members are an ongoing example of that lawful behavior, on what basis is it determined that the PURPOSE of the club is criminal?
The Justice Department also states that in its gang definition that “the association seeks to exercise control over a particular location or region, or it may simply defend its perceived interests against rivals”.
1% clubs do like to stake their territory, and rivalries do exist between certain 1% clubs. The same can be said of local softball teams whose long-standing rivalries occasionally erupt into drunken bar brawls. But what the Justice Department doesn’t consider is that the 1% clubs respect each other’s turf as a way to AVOID violence. You stay in your area, we stay in ours, and we keep the peace.
In addition to that, individual 1% club members have in fact committed acts of violence against other clubs who encroach upon their territory. The members of the big 1% clubs take pride in being honorable men. When some upstart club comes out of nowhere and designs a set of club colors that may be similar to those of the local 1% club, it’s a concern. The big 1% clubs don’t want these inexperienced buffoons wreaking havoc all over town. But that’s not to imply that the big 1% clubs initially react to the situation with violence or criminality. They will usually approach the smaller upstart club and explain to them that unwritten rules have arisen over the years to help keep the peace and form a mutual respect between all clubs. The upstart clubs are not often men of honor, but are instead weekend warriors and guys who are trying to be tough guys. They think that by throwing on a patch they didn’t earn they’re automatically worthy of respect. This attitude usually results in a handy bout of fisticuffs, and where normally men would go their separate ways when the fight is over, these weekend warriors immediately go to the police.
And so an argument between a few guys that led to a brawl is characterized by law enforcement as “a violent intimidation and criminal conspiracy directed by the motorcycle gang” when in fact the victims of said club violence are quite responsible for the provocation. They are people who didn’t want to work within the motorcycle club community’s guidelines, the unofficial method of self-regulating for the common good. Kind of like the neighbor who refuses to turn his stereo down and ends up with a black eye.
This essay is not meant to persuade you that 1% motorcycle club members have only committed crimes for the right reasons. They’ve not. Many of them have committed crimes for all the wrong reasons. But the majority of 1% club members have not committed any crimes at all and in most cases the crimes committed by club members had nothing to do with the club.
Motorcycle clubs shouldn’t have to be guests on talk shows or sponsor charity events to prove they’re a bunch of nice guys. They don’t have to rub elbows with every mom and pop club and every weekend-warrior club and they certainly don’t have to hang out with cop clubs. There’s nothing the slightest bit illegal about wanting to only socialize with the type of people you get along with and respect. 1% clubs are serious about motorcycling; cops clubs are serious about pretending to be bikers. Dock workers, roofers, teamsters, iron workers, etc., prefer to socialize mainly with their colleagues and cops aren’t welcome. There’s nothing illegal about that.
In today’s world most of the 1% club members aren’t interested in committing crimes. It’s too easy to get caught, it’s too expensive when you do, and no one really wants to go to prison for something stupid. Members will go to prison for kicking your ass if you get out of line, and that’s never going to change; but I’m not sure if that meets the criteria for a criminal organization.
Most 1% club members are blue-collar guys with families and a strong love for their country. Many have served in the military honorably. Many have been married for thirty years and sent their children to college. Some are religious. Some are well-respected members of the community who’ve spent a career in public service, like the fire chief, and some are minimum-wage guys who spend all their off-work hours hanging around the clubhouse drinking beer and working on bikes. Some club members will no doubt use drugs or sell drugs or illegally carry weapons, and there’s no doubt that on occasion club members will be convicted of crimes. That’s never going to change. But so long as the leadership and the members strive to operate the club within the boundaries of the law and are by and large successful, the club should not be considered a criminal organization.
More importantly, the government must be restrained from labeling large organizations as criminal based on criteria that the government itself has created. If a judge was shown evidence that thousands of 1% club members gather each weekend in clubhouses and bars all over the country to socialize and to depart on motorcycle rides, would the judge agree that that behavior was lawful? Of course he would. And he would agree that that behavior was in line with the stated purpose of the club? Of course. It’s this evidence that would be presented by the defense in a RICO trial when the government tries to prove that the 1% club is a continuing criminal enterprise.
But there is no RICO trial. There’s no trial at all. No club members have been charged with any crimes, the fire chief hasn’t been charged with any crimes, thousands of 1% club members haven’t been charged with any crimes. So why is the justice department permitted to label these clubs as criminal organizations? Because of past convictions? From five years ago? Ten years ago?
They’re permitted to do this because no one is stopping them. They don’t have a legal basis, only the self-created criteria that is wildly vague. The reporter who described the fire chief to the community as being a member of a criminal organization should be held liable for slander, but it’s not slander because the Justice Department DECIDED that the fire chief’s bike club is a criminal organization. The Justice Department should only be making these designations in a court of law where they can be challenged by the defense and tested for their constitutionality.
The Justice Department must be restrained. Their job is to prosecute those who’ve violated federal laws, not to classify large groups of citizens as being criminal organizations despite the absence of widespread criminal prosecutions.
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