Underneath the Leather Jackets and Chrome Pipes: Research into a Community of Local Bikers
by Alberta Negri
It’s 8:56 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, and from my 3rd floor dorm room, I can once again hear the aggressive growls of 600-pound motorcycles as they roll into the parking lot of the Shell station across the street. The riders meet every night around 9:00 and face the usual apprehensive looks from bystanders. Conventional wisdom says that these men are thrill-seeking threats, and that staying away from them is the best decision. Beware the bikers. Media accounts sketch a recognizable portrait of the typical motorcycle gang: from the boozy and lawless pandemonium of the infamous Hollister Riot reported in Life magazine in 1947 to articles in the Journal of Criminal Justice describing a group of bikers as a ‘deviant club’ interested in criminal activity (Dulaney n. pag.). In his well-known memoir Under and Alone, William Queen gives accounts of fellow riders during his undercover journey into a “treacherous motorcycle gang.” The author writes, “His powerfully muscled arms were sleeved out with a web of prison tattoos, and his right hand clutched a 9-mm Glock semiautomatic. Behind him, six other Mongols…all in various states of drunkenness and highs, were slapping magazines into their Glocks and Berettas” (4). But my neighborhood bike crew, the Shell Station Squad, as I have dubbed it, far from fits that description. Instead, it is an amalgamation of men and a handful of women, ages 19-54, who meet to ride together and enjoy the company of those who have a similar passion for powerful engines and night rides through the illuminated streets of downtown Cincinnati. Most of the press coverage that has captured the public’s attention over the years has feature sensational portrayals of riders, keeping readers engaged in the story. In other words, most accounts further a stereotype. Few investigations have been done from within the biking community; even fewer have examined the inner workings of the communication among members.. In his ethnography A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers, Daniel Wolf points out the realization that the majority of bike-related media content continues to portray motorcyclists in the same negative light: “The national exposure that was given the Hollister incident by Life magazine and others resulted in the stigmatization of an image: the motorcyclist as deviant” (Wolf 5). The following research makes the effort to peek into this unexplored group and discuss the less action-packed qualities, including its status as a discourse community, the process of club enculturation, and how a member’s new identity can complicate their previous social roles.
Methods and Background of a Discourse Community
While I am not directly involved in the Shell Station Squad, I was able to collect the data for this exploration because of a personal connection to one of the group’s new recruits. A close friend, Thomas (not his real name), was recently invited to join their community, giving me access to conduct primary research. I had the opportunity to analyze the different genres they use, from strings of text messages, to private Facebook groups, to flitting hand signals. Furthermore, I was able to interview a pair of the men who make the nightly ride, one a seasoned veteran, the other, my friend Thomas, a fresh addition to the crew. In order to seek insight on how Thomas’s new affiliation affected his previous identity, I organized a group discussion with his roommates and friends, asking about their new perceptions of Thomas and any opinions they had on the matter. It is important to note that all individuals that I refer to in this piece have been informed of and have agreed to the research process. All names have been changed to protect their identity.
Before delving into an analysis, a strong general understanding of the population in question is required. The gathering of riding enthusiasts that meet nightly can be broadly described as a community. However, this group can be better described even more specifically. In “The Concept of Discourse Community,” John Swales, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Michigan, lists the following six criteria that must be present for a group to qualify as a discourse community: it pursues and upholds a set of common goals; it has an established network of communication among members; it readily exchanges information and feedback; it typically employs specific genres to communicate its goals; it features its own distinct vocabulary; it is composed of a sustainable diversity of members, each with varying levels of experience (220-222). By characterizing a group as its own discourse community, it is possible to hone in on its specific aspects, allowing for a more strategic and meticulous study of the inner workings. Breaking down a composite into the six criteria as identified by Swales inevitably brings to light the nuances of the community.
Analyzing the Motorcycle Group as a Discourse Community
To begin this analysis, it is easiest to start on the macro level. What do these men have in common? The riders of the Shell Station Squad have separate personal lives: full-time gunsmith, engineering firm representative, college student and Call of Duty gamer among them, but each plans to meet every night., and anticipates their 9 p.m. ride all day. Their passion to ride is often their only unifying characteristic. There is no need for them to begin each ride with a preface, stating the goals for ride for the night, or what they hope to accomplish as a team. There is a simple, unspoken understanding that if you pull into that gas station parking lot, you’re there for the chance to revel in the thrill of weaving through streets on a motorcycle, while flocking as a group to make the experience a little safer for all involved. Theirs is a much tamer goal than what a passerby might assume. When my friend was first approached by an active member of the Squad, his apprehension was evident: “I remember thinking, like, ‘I can’t be associated with them, they’re a crazy group of hoodlums. It’s just bad news, I’ll get into so much trouble…’” (Thomas). However, through further experience with the other characteristics of this discourse community, Thomas’s mindset was completely reversed as he ventured in.
Swales’ next three criteria revolve around the concept of communication: how and through what media the members speak with each other. These media are all the means by which new bikers, even the most skeptical, are enculturated into this union of group-riding. Their primary mode of correspondence is Facebook; they use easily accessible social media to create a private group to discuss matters such as driving routes and safety updates. The weekend before Halloween night, the Shell Station Squad organized the annual Hallo-Wheelie ride, where hundreds of bikers swarm the streets of downtown Cincinnati to ride in a fanfare of costumes and LED light accessories (see figure 1).
Important information is sent through the grapevine via postings from all members, not just those who are seen as veterans or seniors. A montage of videos, family pictures, and American Motorcyclist Association links spans the group page. Through the connection of Thomas, I was able to filter through the Group Message that was established among the members: there is no clear pecking order through this genre of communication. Whether this is just a quality of this particular squad, or perhaps motorcycle groups in general, the peer-appointed leader never dominated the discourse. More often, he would push for more interaction from those who were recently recruited: personally addressing questions to them to get individual opinions, inviting them to special weekend rides. He went as far as directly introducing new riders, texting, “Guys: new kid with us tonight. Thomas is a student at [the university], new rider, let’s make sure to make him feel welcome tonight, alrite? Good kid, i think” [sic] (Lucius). His digital diction was a tad gentler in these interactions compared to his brash joking with the more experienced riders.
Throughout each mechanism of intercommunication, the idea that everyone was considered an equal was heavily stressed. This could be a possible reason why enculturation for Thomas was so seamless. Humans enjoy being valued, and we crave people’s respect. This discourse community offered an environment for two-way feedback. If a rider was feeling apprehensive about the length of the ride that night, he or she could easily message the ‘leader’ to express concern, and the route would be adjusted. In the other direction, if the ‘leader’ was concerned about possible reckless behavior from another rider, a quick phone call between the two of them before meeting up that night would be an acceptable and expected course of action. Initially, Thomas viewed the biker culture as a rough-housing pyramid, where one top-dog ordered around his posse, yet within a week he was gushing about all the plans he had with his new friends. Because he was seen and treated as an equal so early on after being initiated, Thomas was able to adopt a new ‘biker’ identity more readily; once the erroneous preconception that the Shell Station Squad was a hierarchal pack disappeared, there were little to no barriers preventing him from amicably mixing with the group.
One of the primary research methods for this study involved open-ended discussions: talking one-on-one with individuals who could speak about Thomas and his relation to biking. No list of interview questions, no steadfast structure on how and what to talk about. I simply introduced myself as an objective student interested in learning more about what it means to be a part of the Squad. From these informal interactions, one of the most exclusive forms of lexis in this discourse community was revealed: hand signaling. While riding, if a motorcyclist passes another going the opposite direction, they flash an exclusive hand signal to one another as a sign of respect. The motion looks like an ‘A-OK’ sign held at hip height, yet a subtle difference in the index finger sets it apart. As a pack, those riding in front will throw back specific gestures to those who are following, each flick of the wrist indicating a certain command. Through tedious observations of the Shell Station Squad as they momentarily zipped by on Calhoun Street, I was able to witness a flurry of these motions, but as I am not an insider of the group, the lexis made no sense to me. The same applies for other people who catch these motions, and their uncanny similarity to gang signing most likely leads to misinterpretation, thus furthering the stereotype that bikers should be labeled as “up to no good.” Because I am not a true member of this discourse community, I cannot know, and therefore will not be taught the secrets behind some of their communication mechanisms. Perhaps this is another driving force behind Thomas’s swift enculturation: the more energized both parties are in regards to initiating one into the other, the more efficiently it will go. The biking group was excited to have a new, young recruit who would be around for a few years as he progressed through college. The more the merrier. For Thomas, the idea that, if initiated, he would be entering a sphere of support and learning an exclusive lexis was a powerful motivator. Any teenager would relish an opportunity to feel so valued and included. Inside access to a group of hot-shot bikers, with their secret lingo and sense of brotherhood awaited if he simply allowed himself to be absorbed into the group.
The final criterion John Swales lists to qualify a group as a specific discourse community involves having members of different experience levels. This aspect is not as easily observable as one might imagine. All members come equipped with their helmets and safety attire, looking like identical enthusiasts on their revving engines. All riders must have a strong level of expertise in riding bikes, no matter how long they have been riding; being an unskilled rider means being at high risk for crashing and even dying. However, after a thirty-five minute interview with one of Thomas’s closest friend in the Squad, it became more obvious that there is a true gradient of skill level in this group. “[There are] definitely some guys out here with us that could put us all in our place… Always popping wheelies and pushing their engines so fast your head would spin. They do a lot of that in smaller groups on Saturday nights. Then we got kids like Tom and I, newbies that would freak with pushes like that” (Jackson). He went on to say that the older gentlemen in the group have been around for years, and are obviously the most comfortable when riding. The newer men are able to ride simply, following street laws to a T. Between the two extremes, two other main demographics exist: upperclassmen undergraduates who joined in their earlier college years, and men who moved into the area two to three years prior then immediately found the group as they were settling in. As college members graduate and move away, the discourse community is able to find new freshmen to fill the open spots, thus ensuring a sustainable crew population.
The Consequences of New Community Assimilation
Through a broken-down analytical approach, it has been shown that the Shell Station Squad qualifies as a discourse community. It seems though, that a final condition is that once an individual joins a discourse community, his or her identity is inevitably altered, for better or worse. Ann Johns, a professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at San Diego State University, describes this as the “cost of affiliation.” In her article “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity,” she writes, “[Members] often must drop, or at least diminish in importance, their affiliations to their home cultures in order to take on the values, languages, and genres of their disciplinary culture…[and] must make choices between their communities and academic lives” (Johns 513). In other words, a newbie’s role in this different community may clash with a previous role. He or she begins spending less time with one of them and eventually this gets noticed, and interactions may become slightly more tense as he or she ends up missing out on things. However, another cost is a transformation of identity. Like Ann Johns, Elizabeth Wardle, a writing professor at Miami University, agrees that being a part of multiple discourse communities can cause social problems. In “Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in New Workplaces,” Wardle explains, “[P]articipation in new communities requires accepting for oneself identities that are odds with the values of other communities to which one belongs” (289). The process of enculturation re-socializes an individual to value and act in a new way, and thus his or her identity is re-shaped accordingly.
In Thomas’s case, both side effects came to realization. It was most obvious in his community of friends, with whom he would normally spend the evenings, playing videogames and working out. During an interview with three of the guys closest to him, it was apparent that they were all feeling a little disconcerted with Thomas’s interest in the new discourse community. They commented on how rarely they saw him around the apartment, only knowing when he returned by the creaking of the front door at 1:00 a.m. after long rides. He missed dinners, forgot chores. “There really was a time when I didn’t see him for three straight days, which is insane since we were so close and I’m literally his roommate and always used to see him. But I mean I figured he was just having fun so I didn’t say anything about it, I guess” (Andrew). In any situation, adding a new hobby will always force a sacrifice of the amount of time to spend in other activities. Joining a new discourse community, however, is a much more extreme case. An entire new way of life is adopted, complete with new habits and commitments. Unfortunately, Thomas’s new lifestyle of evening escapades completely conflicted with his usual commitments with his friends, so the conflict of affiliation was even more intense.
His newly remodeled identity was the biggest unintended consequence, both for his original community and Thomas himself. All three of his roommates agreed that their friend’s personality had undergone some change after joining the Squad: he was more boastful and riskier on the road when he would drive them on their bi-weekly trek to the grocery store (Andrew, Weston, & Nolan). I myself noticed that he would always talk about bikes: “Look at this new model”; “Do you like this color scheme for an R6?”; “The guys I ride with did the craziest things last night.” In regards to his housemates, there seemed to be a general impression that they were not as happy with the ‘new’ Thomas, though this could be for multiple reasons. The first is that they genuinely thought he was an entirely different person that they could not mesh with. The second could be that they were simply hurt by the fact that he was spending less time around them, causing some tough feelings between the two groups. The final could be another type of bias, related to the stereotypes around motorcyclists discussed earlier in the paper: because their friend had begun to associate himself with a group generally labeled as “reckless,” this involvement may have influenced how they saw him as an individual. Just as Thomas had done earlier in the semester, judging the Squad as a group-to-avoid, his friends were applying the same thought process to him.
Regardless of the reason, Thomas felt their change of attitude as well. He confided in me, “The guys treat me so badly now. The second I get home from work, they just harass me about my bike and how they think I am so obsessed with it. They just don’t understand what it’s like. I can’t describe how it feels to ride, and I really wish I could show them. I know they’ll just laugh” (Thomas). From his point of view, his identity hasn’t changed; he simply feels misunderstood by those who are not a part of his new discourse community. There is a disconnect that comes with all instances where one person is a member of a group and someone else is not. One of them is looking from the inside out; the other, from the outside in. The opposing perspectives make it difficult for one side to acknowledge why the other acts a certain way or values certain things. Thomas’s friends believe it is unwise for him to be riding around at night with dangerous men on motorcycles, yet Thomas can’t understand why his friends are dealing him so much disapproval for having a new hobby.
Conclusion: Weighing the Options
Through hours of qualitative observation and multiple half-hour interviews, I was able to get a closer look to the inner workings of the Shell Station Squad biking group. By breaking down the details and following John Swales’ criteria, I determined that it qualified as a discourse community, complete with common goals, specific communicative mechanisms, and differing levels of experience in its members. Though being a part of these groups offers advantages such as support and camarederie, there inevitably comes the undesirable outcomes of enculturation: a cost of affiliation and a change in identity, as subtle as it may be. Different communities have different habits and ideals, and trying to simultaneously be a part of such groups leads to tension between an individual and their original community. John Swales suggests that the fact that individuals participate in a group does not necessarily mean they need to be assimilated: “Spies are only successful if they participate fully in the relevant speech and discourse communities…if they assimilate, they cease to be single spies but become double agents” (225). In many cases, though, the individuals will completely immerse themselves, and the double agent identity wreaks havoc on their social stability. The inability to comprehend another discourse community’s goals, lexis, and organization impedes more peaceful, effortless coexistence. Thomas’s decision to cloak himself in a leather jacket and power up the chrome pipes forced him to lose touch with the friends he confided in most. In the end, it’s up to the individual to decide what is worth the conflict and what sacrifices to make when joining a discourse community.
Alvarez, Andrew, Weston Castein, and Nolan Grouter. “Observations of Thomas.” Personal interview, 17 Nov. 2016.
Dulaney, William. “A Brief History of ‘Outlaw’ Motorcycle Clubs.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. vol. 1, issue 3. 15 July 2016. http://ijms.nova.edu/November2005/IJMS_Artcl.Dulaney.html
Johns, Ann. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 499-518.
Johnson, Thomas. Personal interview, 16 Nov. 2016.
Queen, William. Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America’s Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. Random House, 2005, p. 4..
Stevenson, Lucius.Text Message. Received by A. Negri, 13 Sept. 2016.
Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Writing About Writing: A College Reader, edited by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 215–227.
Jackson. “Life of Biking.” Received by A. Negri, 19 Nov. 2016.
Thomas. “Observations of Self.” Received by A. Negri, 16 Nov. 2016.
Queen, William. Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America’s Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. Random House, 2005.
Wardle, Elizabeth. “Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in New Workplaces.” Writing About Writing: A College Reader, edited by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 284–290.
Wolf, Daniel R. The Rebels: A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers. UP of Toronto, 1991.
Alberta Negri Jimenez is a junior at the University of Cincinnati, majoring in chemistry and Spanish. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in pediatrics, working specifically with Hispanic populations. This essay was initially written for her Honors Intermediate Composition class during her sophomore year, then went on to receive the first place award in the UC Writing Contest and the UC Libraries Research Award.
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