Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club
Ralph 'Sonny' Barger, with Keith and Kent Zimmerman
London: Fourth Estate, 2000
Subject, Methods, Database:
The autobiography of Ralph 'Sonny' Barger, for decades one of the leading figures of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club.
Ralph Barger, born 1938, grew up in California in the 1940s and early 1950s. His mother had left him with his alcoholic father and an older sister when he was just four months old. He was suspended from school several times for assaulting teachers, and he liked to fight other boys. However, in retrospect Barger doesn't see himself as a bully or a delinquent. He stresses that while he had lost interest in school he spent his time reading or working at a grocery store, not robbing and stealing. In 1955 he enlisted in the army at age sixteen and was discharged 14 months later when it was discovered that he had forged his birth certificate in order to be able to join.
After his return from the Army, Barger drifted between menial jobs, looking for a purpose in life which ultimately became being the member of a motorcycle club.
In 1954, while still in high school in Oakland, Sonny Barger had organized a small street corner club called the "Earth Angels". In 1956 he joined his first bike club, the Oakland Panthers, but it was not what he was looking for: "I quit the club as quickly as I started it. Sure, they'd party, but when the shit came down, they didn't stick together. I felt no brotherhood" (p. 27). For a while, Barger rode around with some fellows talking about starting up another club. One of the bikers, Boots Don Reeves, wore a patch he had found in Sacramento, a small skull wearing an aviator cap with a set of wings. Boots suggested they name their new club after the patch, the Hell's Angels. They then went to a local trophy shop and had a set of patches made in April of 1957, not really knowing that there were other Hell's Angels motorcycle clubs around California. These clubs where only loosely affiliated. The Oakland chapter formed by Barger and his friends was never actually voted in by the other chapters. They simply rode down to Southern California to visit with the other chapters and decided to have their own club.
"Early on," Barger recalls, "we decided that if we were all going to wear the same patch, we were all going to function under the same rules. To shore up our territory fast, we made up tactical rules early on. Example: there couldn't be one charter within fifty miles of another, except for Oakland and Frisco" (p. 32). There were fights between chapters, namely over the correct Hell's Angels patch, but mostly conflicts arose with other motorcycle clubs like the Gypsy Jokers who were eventually driven out of California.
The Oakland chapter, with Sonny Barger serving as club president, assumed an informal position of authority within the Hell's Angels organization going back, according to Barger, to a standoff they had with local police and the California Highway Patrol in the aftermath of an outlaw motorcycle meeting in Porterville, California, in 1963.
Around the mid 1960s, chapters began to be formed outside the state of California and also outside the United States. "When we award charters in new states," Barger explains, "it's always done by national vote. When a prospective club lets us know they want to become Hell's Angels, we'll check them out to see if they're stand-up people. We'll send officers out to meet with them, and in return they'll send guys out to meet with us. We might invite them to a run or two, and likewise we'll send some of our guys to party with them. At some point - time varies - we'll vote on their membership status. The same process that lets in individuals applies to entire new chapters as well... Once we sanctioned each official Hell's Angels charter, it became their responsibility to keep anybody from starting up an illegal charter in their part of the country" (p. 35-36).
Members can transfer from one chapter to another. However, "because of rats and infiltrators... you have to be in the chapter you're transferring from for at least one year" (p. 36). Members from other Big Four outlaw motorcycle clubs (Outlaws, Bandidos, Pagans) are not welcome to join the Hell's Angels. Among the many stories surrounding the Hell's Angels Barger dismisses as myths are those regarding initiations: "To become a Hell's Angel, there never has been any initiation rite outside of serving as a prospect. As a prospect, you're basically a gopher for the club" (p. 42).
The Hell's Angels have a set of written rules. Some of these have become public, including the obligation to attend regular meetings, not to fight with other club members and not to mess with another member's wife. Another rule Barger repeats in variations throughout his book states that Hell's Angels are obliged to support fellow members under all circumstances: "The story of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club is the story of a very select brotherhood of men who will fight and die for each other, no matter what the cause" (p. 67); "we stand up for ourselves and a Hell's Angel should never break and run" (p. 146); "it's like a golden rule: when a Hell's Angel fights a citizen or a rival club member, everybody rat-packs to his side" (p. 148).
While Barger rejects the notion of the Hell's Angels being a criminal organization, he freely admits that members tended to have a criminal record ("most of us were card-carrying felons," p. 124) and used illicit drugs ("acid was something we all had in common," p. 128). Barger himself "sold heroin from the late sixties into the early seventies directly to junkies" (p. 81) and "was also printing up fake driver's licences" (p. 180). Moreover, he developed a serious drug habit: "I snorted so much coke I didn't know what I was doing from one moment to the next" (p. 177). As Barger recalls: "My cocaine mood swings got me into a lot of deep criminal shit and would ultimately land me in Folsom Prison" (p. 113). He was sentenced to ten to life for possession for sale of 37 grams of heroin in the summer of 1973, but at the end of a legal battle he was released in 1977.
In 1979, the federal government put Barger and several members and associates of the Oakland chapter on trial on RICO charges (United States of America v. Ralph Barger, Jr., et al.), trying to connect the club to guns and illegal drugs. The jury acquitted Barger on the RICO charges with a hung jury on the predicate acts: "There was no proof it was part of club policy, and as much as they tried, the government could not come up with any incriminating minutes from any of our meetings mentioning drugs and guns" (p. 221).
In 1982, Barger was diagnosed with throat cancer. His vocal cords had to be removed, leaving Barger with a voice that supposedly sounds like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
In November 1987, Barger was arrested for conspiracy in interstate bombing based on evidence produced by a high-level FBI informant, West Coast representative Anthony Tait. Tait had pretended to be planning the bombing of the Outlaws clubhouse in Chicago and tried to muster the support of several Hell's Angels, including Barger who after a five-months trial in Kentucky was convicted of conspiracy to violate federal law to commit murder. He served his time in Phoenix, Arizona, until 1992.
In 1998, Sonny Barger returned to Arizona to settle down with his third wife and a daughter. At the time of the publication of his autobiography he was a member of the Cave Creek chapter of the Hell's Angels.
Members of the Hell's Angels have a reputation of secretiveness. Barger has no intention of undermining this reputation. He makes no sensational disclosure about the inner live of this so-called non-traditional organized crime group. What his autobiography provides, however, is an insider's view and as such a second opinion on previous accounts about the Hell's Angels, such as the classic book by Hunter S. Thompson ("a total fake," p. 125).
Barger takes issue with many allegations against the Hell's Angels, especially the notion that the organization as such controls its members' criminal activities. In this respect, at least, he appears credible. At the same time, the Hell's Angels are not really placed in a favorable light. They do not come across as a sophisticated criminal organization, nor as an organization of sophisticated criminals. The emphasis is on physical violence, and on drug and alcohol abuse.
This autobiography makes no sensational disclosure about the inner life of the Hell's Angels. However, by presenting a subjective view of the culture of the most notorious of the so-called outlaw motorcycle gangs it provides a second opinion to official and journalistic accounts that is worth taking note of.
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