Hell-bent or heaven-sent?

Local bikers work to overcome outlaw image

Not warm and fuzzy: Shawn Hamilton (foreground) and his Hell Bent Motorcycle Club colleagues.

Not warm and fuzzy: Shawn Hamilton (foreground) and his Hell Bent Motorcycle Club colleagues.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Retail displays notwithstanding, the official Christmas season doesn’t kick off for some Sacramentans until they see Santa Claus cruise into town on a Harley. Escorted by thousands of bikers from across Northern California bearing all manner of stuffed animals, bicycles and assorted toys, the 28th annual Modified Motorcycle Association (MMA) Toy Run roars into the state capital November 28—and with it, an occasion to wonder: bikers—angels of charity or hell on wheels?

The background of the toy run—the “original” toy run, as MMA members are quick to note—is fairly straightforward. In conjunction with the U.S. Marines and the local Salvation Army, the association’s 200-plus motorcycle clubs from Northern California and their roughly 2,000 members pay a $2 entrance fee along with at least one new, unwrapped toy.

The result: more than 2,000 presents for Sacramento children who wouldn’t otherwise have a Christmas, officials say. (Statewide, the MMA puts on identical runs in Los Angeles and Bakersfield during November.)

Less straightforward, bikers say, is the reason for the continuing “outlaw” stereotype that follows motorcycle enthusiasts.

“We’re not warm and fuzzy,” said Shawn Hamilton, a member of the Nomads chapter of the Hell Bent Motorcycle Club. “We’re just guys who like to do our own thing—the fact that we keep to ourselves might not help.”

Hamilton, 45, sat across the room from his daughter, Heather—an articulate and sincere 15-year-old whom he’s parented by himself since she was 5.

“People have the wrong image of bikers, just because they have beards and tattoos and are big,” Heather asserted. “It’s just like high school, where people are stereotyped—like the jocks are stupid, and the cheerleaders are stuck-up—so, bikers are bad people. But my dad raised me, and I don’t drink or do drugs, and I get all As and Bs.”

In Sacramento alone, MMA members work on behalf of and ride in more than 50 pack runs per year, benefiting organizations that include the American Cancer Society and the Police Memorial Run. All told, MMA’s records show it donates about $30,000 per year to local causes.

Bobbie Smirl, MMA’s Sacramento office manager, concedes that membership has declined in recent years. Prior to the late 1990s, Smirl said, the high for the annual toy run was typically 4,000 to 5,000 riders. The drop to more than 2,000 members has hurt.

“I think that [proposed] legislation is part of the reason,” Smirl said. “People are worried about being associated with a club that the government could end up calling a ‘gang.’”

One of the pieces of legislation Smirl is referring to, S. 2358, would “allow for the prosecution of members of criminal street gangs, and for other purposes.” Officially known as the “American Neighborhoods Taking the Initiative—Guarding Against Neighborhood Gangs Act of 2004,” the proposed “anti-gang” legislation is authored by Democratic Senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Although the bill’s language doesn’t mention motorcycles or motorcycle clubs by name, MMA and its members are wary, believing the vagueness of the language regarding who and what constitutes a “gang” will give law enforcement the open door it needs to further restrict their rights.

MMA newsletters are filled with news stories, opinion pieces and letters to the editor exhorting the right to peaceful assembly, free speech and expression while decrying the Patriot Act and bills like S. 2358.

MMA was also the first organized motorcycle association in the nation to sponsor motorcyclists’-rights legislation, employ a political lobbyist and provide access to legal representation for all members.

“We’re not just about helmet laws anymore,” Smirl said. “We’ve already seen cases where people are thrown out of county fairs because bikers refuse to take off their jackets or their ‘colors.’ We’re the ones helping to fight those battles.”

“It’s an ongoing battle,” said her husband, Pete, business manager for the MMA and president of the Nomads chapter of Hell Bent. “Regardless of whether you ride a motorcycle, bicycle or bus, your rights are being violated every day. They’re not going to stop with us.”

Jeff Rabe serves as MMA’s lobbyist, for which he receives health-care benefits but no salary. Additionally, Rabe holds a 20-year membership in the Hells Angels Sacramento chapter and is its president. The club has about 20 members. Rabe became a private investigator specializing in criminal-defense work 15 years ago.

Rabe points to an anti-gang law passed in California courts in the early 1990s whose purpose, ostensibly, was to give greater authority to law enforcement trying to stem the flow of gang members up from Southern California.

“What we saw, however,” said Rabe, “during the first six or seven years was county district attorneys piling on a bunch of charges, including this gang enhancement, with the promise to drop it if a defendant pleaded to other charges. It’s a leverage tool.

“Obviously, we have concerns about laws like this at the national level, given what has happened in California.”

Rabe contends the proposed bill is too broad and too vague as to what constitutes membership in a criminal street gang, and he points to language that denotes “colors, a common name, insignia, flag, [or other] means of recognition,” saying motorcycle-club members could be snared on that basis alone.

The association also has “major concerns” about the Patriot Act and the Patriot Act II. “A lot of American citizens do,” Rabe said. “From librarians to the ACLU to the Hells Angels … a lot believe [the Patriot Act] shouldn’t have passed. We’re concerned about our civil rights being violated.”

Sgt. Justin Risley, spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department, was more circumspect when it came to discussing the reigning perceptions vs. realities surrounding motorcycle clubs.

While confirming there was no history of arrests during previous MMA toy runs, Risley added, “You’ve got to remember they’re putting their best foot forward; we don’t expect any problems. More power to them for doing something positive for the day.”

To Risley’s thinking, however, one day’s good works isn’t enough to earn full credibility. Although not speaking of the MMA or its members specifically, Risley said, “Call them whatever you want to call them—motorcycle club or gang—but these people, individuals and groups, have been involved nationally in illicit behavior for years.

“It’s no secret—certainly not to the people who have studied this for years and to law enforcement,” Risley continued. “You don’t have to look far to see examples of criminal prosecution—nationally and internationally—and not just with the Hells Angels.”

Further, Risley dismissed the notion that individual clubs and their missions—there are several Christian motorcycle clubs, and there’s another club locally called Bikers Against Child Abuse—add credibility to the membership of motorcycle clubs as a whole.

“You can’t just lump a weekend Christian motorcycle group in with the folks who are well-known to have engaged in illicit acts,” Risley said.

City Parks and Recreation employee Teresa Roche, however, prefers to focus on the good she sees every year from MMA. “They do a lot for the community that goes unnoticed,” Roche said. “They’re involved in many community events; this is just the one they spearhead.”

When MMA’s Bobbie Smirl told Roche the ride might be off this year if the group couldn’t find a way to defray costs—the group must pay for street closures, permits, traffic control and police-officer overtime (to the tune of $43 per hour), to name a few—Roche said she enlisted others in the Department of Parks and Recreation and secured Miller’s Park as a staging area. The cost: a nominal $275.

“She was our angel,” Smirl said. “Last year, Raley Field charged us $1,500 for a muddy parking lot quite a way from the stadium. We couldn’t afford that. The city really came through.”

“I didn’t want to see the event fall apart,” Roche said, crediting other department officials with making Miller Park a reality. “It’s a good cause, and it’s great the way [the MMA] gives back to the community.”

Still at issue, however, is a $2,500 charge the city’s waste-management department billed MMA for the loss of five Porta-Potties, which were burned to the ground the night before the 2003 toy run. Although police had no suspects and the destruction occurred before MMA members came to town, the city stuck the organization with the bill—a charge the organization says it’s still fighting to get off its credit report.

“Before this, we had good credit,” Smirl contended, adding that although the Salvation Army was contractually responsible for renting the bathrooms, the MMA erroneously was charged for their destruction.

It’s a sign to Smirl and others that, for some, motorcyclists continue to be easy targets.

Hamilton wishes more people shared Roche’s viewpoint.

One of the more persistent myths, according to Hamilton and others, is the assumption that two or more bikers together equal trouble. Bikers report similar reactions from fellow citizens on the street: distrust, suspicion and uneasiness.

“I’m not kidding,” Hamilton said. “Women will clutch their purses tighter if I’m walking next to them on the sidewalk.”

Yet, Hamilton points to his home, which was just appraised at $275,000; his 14-year ownership of a landscaping business; and his recently opened S&S Coffee and Beverage, a mobile coffee station he takes to fairs, bike rallies and other events.

“I’m raising my daughter as a single dad. I’m heavily involved in charity work,” Hamilton said. “What does it take?”

MMA members acknowledge problems, at times, between the various clubs—especially Caucasian, Latino, African-American and Asian groups. But members say even that is changing.

In 2003, for example, the Wicked Wheels Motorcycle Club in Oak Park was running short of toys for its holiday charity event. The MMA called its members and within hours had gathered a truckload of toys.

“Traditionally, the white, black, Mexican clubs are pretty separate,” Hamilton said. “Now, it’s all about hugs and handshakes, and that’s a good thing.”

On the walls of MMA’s modest clubhouse, sandwiched between a golf center and tattoo shop, hang dozens of plaques, given in appreciation of the MMA’s work on behalf of the Sacramento Police Athletic League, the California Highway Patrol and others.

After all costs are tallied, Smirl expects to spend about $10,000 hosting this year’s event.

“That’s about what we’ve got in the bank, exactly,” she said. “We really need more people—even people who don’t ride bikes, but who support this cause—to come out and help. It’s about the kids.”

For information about donating toys or other goods to support the Toy Run, call (916) 473-6981.