The recent events in Waco Texas involving biker gang violence has brought a plethora of pundits speculating about gangs and their members. Biker gangs, self identifying as motorcycle clubs, and street gangs are usually all male, hierarchical, with members referencing each other as brother. According to reports of former members, gang speak includes words of loving their brothers. Even though fiercely heterosexual members often greet each other with hugs and occasional kisses. Why are gangs so successful in attracting new members and command so much media attention?
Obviously for some gangs and their members engagement in illegal activities – drug dealing, gun running, extortion – is a source of untaxed income. However, that is an insufficient explanation. Many gang/club members are employed in day jobs and also participate in gang endorsed community service activities. In addition, it appears that many gang members, especially bikers, are veterans. This fact helps one understand the real attraction of gang membership. Men need the company of other men. Gang membership provides a sense of community and male companionship that is hard to find elsewhere. Historically, men have had many opportunities to be in the company of men. Most indigenous societies emphasized male only lodges and initiation practices guided by older men to prepare young men for their adult male roles. There are countless examples throughout history of men finding ways either informally or institutionally to be in the company of other men. However in our post-industrial world opportunities for men to affiliate with other men has diminished. In his seminal work, “Bowling Alone” Robert Putnam points to the decline in membership of organizations like the American Legion and volunteer fire departments where traditionally men spent part of their non working hours in the company of other men. No doubt the feminist revolution has contributed to the decline of male only groupings. With some justification, women view male only structures as contributing to patriarchy and sexism and contrary to gender equality.
It should not be surprising that the few remaining male only institutions are drawing membership from men who experienced the closeness of other men in the military. Younger men who have not served are also seeking the camaraderie and bonding of an all male grouping that is difficult to find in our communities. The take away is that instead of marginalizing the concept of gang affiliation with criminal and anti social labels media should focus on how gang/club membership is need fulfilling for so many men and how these gangs/clubs can change their image from outlaws to community activists. Wearing a patch and enjoying the open road in the company of other like minded men should not define a man as a miscreant. How he contributes to his community should be the defining aspect of his masculinity.