|Bikers on lockdown after the brawl in Waco, TX on Sunday|
But disparities in mainstream media coverage and the response by police to both events offers valuable insight into how race affects perception in this country.
Take a look at the picture to the left as two officers casually stand next to a large group of bikers being detained after a huge brawl that included weapons like hand guns and brass knuckles; contrast that response with the highly militarized police presence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore where police in riot gear, helmets and body armor walked in phalanxes like soldiers next to heavily armored vehicles amidst clouds of tear gas.
I count about 23 or so bikers in that photo above and I don't see police pointing weapons at them as they did at protesting citizens (including women and children) in Ferguson who were unarmed.
Is it fair to compare the examples of civil unrest that took place in Ferguson and Baltimore and Waco? Did they merit different levels of police response and media characterization of those taking part in the unrest?
The recent news about the deadly biker brawl between rival gangs that took place both inside and outside the Twin Peaks restaurant on Sunday was pretty scary stuff, but after the initial reports and video clips of the deadly aftermath of the incident that were replayed on cable and broadcast news, it's taken a couple days for the facts to start to get out.
Earlier this evening on a rebroadcast of today's "On Point", the progressive news analysis program with host Tom Ashbrook on NPR, the first segment titled, 'The Biker Gangs of Texas', covered the Waco biker incident in detail and offered some really fascinating insight into not only what actually happened on Sunday; but the deeper causes that led to the incident.
|Waco Police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton at a press conference|
Sgt. Swanton also said the incident was the most violent he had seen in his 34 years as a police officer.
If you Google the word "COC's," pretty much every state in America has one; some states, like Pennsylvania or California have more than one chapter.
As the guests on "On Point" explained, COC's are essentially coalitions of regional biker clubs that meet regularly to advocate on behalf of bikers.
In some ways they're like any other social organization. They pay dues, conduct social events, do charitable work, monitor local, state and national legislation that impacts bikers - and they discuss other issues related to the interaction between different biker clubs and the "rules" that govern them.
For example, if you take a look at the Website for the Texas Confederation of Clubs & Independents, the group that was meeting when the brawl broke out on Sunday in Waco, there's a fairly balanced and reasonable public statement that affirms the group's purpose as benevolent and social; and expresses regret over the "senseless violence" that occurred.
But as Tom Ashbrook's guests (including Steve Cook, Executive Director of the Mid-West Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs Investigator Association) explained, while COC's do allow "weekend" bikers, independent bikers not affiliated with "1%-er" clubs, or purely social biker clubs to join, they are essentially umbrella organizations that enable the nation's largest biker clubs to control biker activity in a given region.
They're not unlike regional Mafia families.
I was surprised to learn that you can't just buy a Harley, put a "patch" for a motorcycle club on the back of your jacket and go riding; if you wear a patch (or "colors"), you have to have permission from the biker club that controls the region in which you live to do it; or you'll face serious problems.
In the case of the Texas COC, they are controlled by the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, one of the largest biker clubs in the world and rivals to the Hell's Angels.
According to the experts on tonight's panel on "On Point" as well as from some informed callers, the trouble on Sunday started when members of The Cossacks, a biker group that is not a part of the Texas Confederation, showed up at the meeting uninvited.
The Cossacks are allegedly aligned with, or trying to align with, the Hell's Angels; which does not sit well with the Bandidos, who are more dominant in Texas, the southwest and west coast; Bandidos exert huge influence inside the California prison system.
The majority of those 9 people shot and killed in Waco outside Twin Peaks on Sunday were members of the Cossacks.
Rumors are swirling that the 18 to 22 SWAT and state police officers who were stationed outside the restaurant before the meeting happened somehow instigated the brawl in order to intentionally shoot down bikers, but Jimmy Graves, the head of the Texas COC&I (and a national officer of the Bandidos...) who was leading the meeting on Sunday has said publicly in an interview with Texas TV station KXAN that there is no truth to rumors that Bandidos plan to take revenge on police officers in response to the shootings on Sunday.
|A member of the Bandidos MC sports his colors|
They were founded in San Leon, Galveston County, Texas in 1966 by a dock worker named Don Chambers, who named the group after Mexican outlaws.
Chambers was a US Marine who served in Vietnam and he patterned the club's distinctive colors (pictured above) after the Marine Corps emblem.
Like many other biker groups, Bandidos and Hell's Angels have strict rules about race in terms of who can be a member; they do not allow blacks, Hispanics or Asians to join.
|Bandidos members in Austin, Texas|
The name "Confederation" of Clubs is not unintentional and versions of both the traditional "Stars & Bars" Confederate flag and the Nazi swastika (pictured left) are sometimes seen on the jackets of "1%-er" members of Bandidos, Hell's Angels, Outlaws, Pagans, Nomads or any number of other biker clubs that exist in America and around the world.
As the events in Waco showed on Sunday, many bikers are heavily armed - and remember the remarkably conservative Texas legislature recently approved a bill that would make it legal for people with concealed handgun permits to openly carry hand guns on shoulder or hip holsters in Texas.
So try and picture what happened in that restaurant in Waco on Sunday except with dozens of bikers legally armed with handguns thanks to Texas Republicans and Tea Partiers.
For me the interesting thing in the media coverage of the violent brawl that started in the bar area of the restaurant and spilled into the parking lot and included bikers fighting with chains, brass knuckles, clubs and guns, is how different the tone of the news coverage of the violence is.
It's certainly true that the wide-scale civil unrest that erupted in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's funeral resulted in far more damage in terms of buildings, cars and local businesses that were destroyed, burned or looted by some protesters.
But the actual damage was caused by a fraction of the total number of protesters; the vast majority of whom were peaceful.
Some members of the media as well as the President were quick to condemn the groups of enraged young people in Baltimore as "thugs". Others called them "criminals".
But what's interesting in the coverage of the violent biker brawl that took place in a crowded restaurant where there were families (including women and children) present, is that I haven't seen the media, or any leading politicians or pundits condemn the bikers as "thugs" or "criminals".
Even though Bandidos are regarded by the FBI and INTERPOL as one of the largest organized crime groups in the United States known to be involved with manufacturing and distribution of crystal meth, prostitution, murder, and the trafficking of guns, cocaine and marijuana in cooperation with Mexican cartels - media pundits are still calling their organization a club.
These violent biker's public "turf war" that erupted on a sunny Sunday in a restaurant ended with 9 people dead of gunshot wounds, many injured and over 192 individuals arrested - many were injured but no one was killed in the unrest in Baltimore that lasted six days until May 3rd when the curfew was lifted.
But the enraged young men in the streets of a Baltimore City that has marginalized them and their communities for decades, people who've seen years of excessive abuse of authority by the same police department that took the life of a innocent young man in police custody who almost had his spine almost severed - they are labeled the "thugs".
Thugs or clubs? In America I guess it's all a matter of perspective.