You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin

Book Review By David Walton

You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin
By Michael Grogan
Wisconsin: Badger Wordsmith, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0-692-77436-6

Michael Grogan’s book, You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin (2016) landed on my desk a few weeks back—and I’m glad it did. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Outlaws Motorcycle Club (MC) and adds another chapter to our historical understanding of the 1%er outlaw motorcycle clubs. In this review I’ll offer some brief contextualization, give an outline of its aims and contents, what readers can expect from reading it and bring out what I think are the book’s merits.

Ever since Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966) there has been an almost constant trickle of books recounting the exploits of 1%er outlaw clubs, either told from within (like Frank Reynolds’ Freewheelin Frank (1967) George Wathern’s Wayward Angel: The Full Story of the Hells Angels (1978) and Sonny Barger’s Hell’s Angels: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (2000) or told by others with access to ex members (Tony Thompson’s Outlaws: Inside the Hell’s Angel Biker Wars (2011) or by those on the outside looking in like…. Of course, Hunter Thompson was positioned in-between, an outsider allowed to eavesdrop on the Hell’s Angels and get closer to the club (in much the same way that Daniel Wolf did in The Rebels: A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers (1991)). The general focus of these books has been on the clubs themselves and while the police and other law agencies have often played important roles in the narratives they have, more often than not, very much been in the background. However, this is where Michael Grogan’s book differs and, in my opinion, has something relatively distinct and important to offer. I write ‘relatively’ because there have been a number of studies written by undercover agents who have infiltrated 1%er clubs (Alex Caine’s Befriend and Betray (2009), William Queen’s Under and Alone (2011), Jay Dobyns No Angel (2010) are just three fairly recent examples); however, Grogan claims no privileged insider knowledge but his interest is clearly shaped by how the Wisconsin Outlaws Motorcycle Club which broke, evaded and to some extent succumbed to (the often weak arm of) the law.

Grogan begins his book by emphasizing the difficulty of unravelling the history of 1%er MCs, given that, as many authors have made clear, clubs shroud themselves in secrecy and, in the case of the Outlaws some search warrants and police reports are no longer available. This seems to me to be a wise move and what it necessitates is a historical technique that relies not on an insider view of the Outlaws activities but on government documents, newspaper reports and personal correspondence with law enforcers. This point of a view situates the focal point very much from the perspective of those whose job it is to enforce the law. While this might seem as if the book is an apology for police agencies (and while it is in no way pro-1%er MC) it is critical (if very respectful) of the Milwaukee Police Department and what Grogan sees as the leniency and inefficacy of the criminal justice system in the 1960s and 70s. In this respect the book resembles the 1967 biker action-flick Born Losers (T.C. Frank, alias Tom Laughlin of Billy Jack fame) where the MC is able to put the finger up to law enforcers–until the end when the MC is finally subdued by the law. Grogan’s study suggests that owing to the excessive leniency shown by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, in failing to react with sufficient severity (by giving low bail for offenses like sexual assault, shootings and murders) it took some thirty years before federal prosecutors could make any real headway in terms of prosecuting criminal members of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club.

Drawing on Randy McBee’s recent excellent book Born to Be Wild (2015) and other studies Grogan’s book dedicates his first two chapters to an exploration of how what he calls ‘outlaw motorcycle gangs’ in the United States (some colleagues might object to the use of the word ‘gang’ rather than ‘club’ as insufficiently accurate) have evolved. This examination of the customs, norms and traditions enables the writer to trace the migration of what he calls this ‘dangerous, complex, and narcissistic ideology’ to Wisconsin (the writing style here alerts the reader to the perspective of the author). In this section there is some valuable contextual information (for those not familiar with the subject) on the genesis of 1%er clubs starting with the disaffected Second World War veterans and the infamous Hollister incident in 1947 which, with the aid of film and the media, helped to imprint the outlaw image on the consciousness of North America and, later, on other parts of the world. Grogan also links the outlaw clubs to other organized criminal groups like the mafia, which helps to see them within a broader perspective. Other important topics explored by Grogan are club membership and colors, the role of women, the social-political philosophy behind the clubs, the code of silence and brotherhood and the international spread of the 1%er clubs.

Eight chapters are dedicated to further the reader’s understanding of how the Outlaws came into existence and how they sought to dominate other 1%er clubs in and around Wisconsin. These chapters also go into considerable detail about the key members, and the vicissitudes, of the police forces, like Milwaukee Police Department’s twelfth police chief, Harold Breier, and Sergeant Frank Miller, who would be instrumental in bringing many members of the Outlaws to justice. These chapters include the recounting of how Outlaw members evolved from intimidating ‘ruffians’ to  ‘deadly eradicators’  (49), the typical crimes perpetrated by the club (based in and around stolen vehicles, trafficking drugs and arms) and the brutal and violent incidents that arose from the Outlaws’ conflicts with other clubs and their ten-year confrontation with the Heaven’s Devils MC, which refused to concede to their demands. Like many books in the field, this makes compulsive reading and, in the convoluted plots drawn out through time, the violence, beatings, retaliations and deaths, often resembles a scaled down version of the blood-curdling narratives found in series like The Last Chapter and Sons of Anarchy (and the myriad number of films dedicated to biker mayhem) only this, of course, in all its crudity, isn’t fiction and we read about how both club members and innocent ‘citizens’ are injured, maimed or killed.

This unrelenting tone, intertwined with police efforts to convict perpetrators of crime, is sustained in the final three chapters where Grogan brings the reader to the 1990s when the Outlaws where involved in violent attempts to impede the Hell’s Angels expansion into their territory which lasted seven long years. These chapters also chart how the federal and state law enforcement agencies gradually developed the means to challenge the outlaw gangs and their criminal activities–including what Grogan considers ‘an at-will urban terrorist network’ (4).

While Grogan’s study is an investigation of a subculture, the book is historical rather than ethnographic so does not draw on sociological or cultural theory to shape its ideas in the way that studies like Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), Paul Willis’ classic analysis of British rockers, Profane Culture (1978), or Daniel Wolf’s ethnographic study of a Canadian MC, The Rebels (1991), do. There are many books in this subgenre which function at the level of anecdotal evidence (like Yves Lavigne’s Hell’s Angels: Three can keep a Secret if two are Dead (1987)) but this is not the case here. Grogan draws on the press, police records and personal connections with law enforcers and all sources are cited and he offers considerable substantiating evidence. He also provides useful glossary of abbreviated terms (although this might have been extended).

I have a couple of observations on things I think might have been treated a little differently (which I hope will serve as constructive criticism). I would like to have seen the book situated with relation to other books in the field to help to bring out its particular contribution and originality. On page two the author claims that his historical focus is ‘non-ideological’. Post Marx and Foucault etc., I don’t think this is any longer a viable claim. I’m not accusing the author of trying to distort the information but, as Hayden White and a host of other writers have suggested, all history is a form of writing and decisions have to be taken about what to include and exclude, chapters have to be structured and historical plots formulated. The plot in Grogan’s book is interesting but not, from my perspective, beyond ideology. Grogan also states that he thinks that government documents, newspaper reports and other primary sources ‘generally speak for themselves’. Surely not! In fact, I think the value of the book, and its art, is in the way that the author is able to make them speak in a coherent and intelligible form. I’m not sure the rape recounted on page 81 needs such lurid detail (although it does convey something of the sheer horror suffered by the victim). There are a few typos scattered through its pages but otherwise it reads very well.

This is not a book designed for those looking to challenge the image of the 1%er outlaw clubs as violent, criminal organizations; it tends to confirm what many earlier books have established but, of course, this does not diminish the book–it has to stand up according to its own aims–and it certainly achieves this. It is not as broad ranging as some of the histories of 1%er clubs but in my opinion it does give valuable insights into the particular machinations of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club (and their associates and enemies) in and around Wisconsin connected to the (more or less efficient) cat and mouse attempts by the law enforcers to trap patch members who were considered or suspected of being involved in criminal behaviour or activities. As suggested earlier, lenient sentences and modest bail conditions, in Grogan’s view, often helped the Outlaws make a mockery of the criminal justice system and sections of the book serve as an indictment of the legal system.

In this review I have deliberately avoided recounting the most hair-raising incidents of the book in an effort not to steal the writer’s thunder. In short, it is a highly readable and dramatic history, a veritable rogues gallery of 1%er outlaws where guns, theft, rape, brutal inter-gang violence, explosions, innocent deaths, near escapes, police successes and failures all coalesce into a rich, if bloody, kaleidoscope that ranges over a considerable historical period. All this in 190 pages. I would urge anyone interested in outlaw clubs to read You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin by Michael Grogan because it makes a valuable contribution to the literature and will, I suspect, spark debate in terms of its general focus.

David Walton is Senior Lecturer and coordinator of cultural studies at the University of Murcia and has taught courses on popular cultures, postmodern cultures, the history of thought, and literary and cultural theory. He currently teaches courses on cultural theory and cultural practice at undergraduate level, and comparative postmodern literatures and cultures at master’s level. He is a founding member, and currently President, of the Iberian Association of Cultural Studies (IBACS), which is dedicated to the promotion of the area on the Iberian Peninsular. He has organized a number of conferences and published widely in cultural theory, cultural studies and visual cultures. Recent books include Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning Through Practice (SAGE, 2008) and Doing Cultural Theory (SAGE, 2012), and his latest publication (with Juan Antonio Suárez) is Culture, Space and Power: Blurred Lines (Lexington, 2015). Recently, he has also published chapters and articles on new sexualities, the satire of Chris Morris, graffiti culture, the interfaces between philosophy and cultural studies and road racing on the Isle of Man TT.

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One Comment

  1. A very thorough, spot on review. Bought and read You Gotta Be Dirty. The book is meticulously researched.

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