Credit it in part to the toughness of the leather or the reverberating thunder and rattle of the engines, but bikers get a bad rap. Ideas of motorcycle clubs tend to elicit Sons of Anarchy-esque images of brawls, illegal activity – and just a buffet of debauchery in general. Expectations of a wild party or two or three is likely prophetic, but in the vast majority of situations, "club" is not interchangeable with "gang."
Detroit has a rich history of black motorcycle clubs, and one of the oldest and most cemented is Boogie Down Motorcycle Club, formed in 1975. They've since spawned 20-plus chapters across Michigan – Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Jackson and Ypsilanti – and across the country in cities like Memphis and Charlotte, North Carolina. You won't find Charlie Hunnam – sadly – or much else besides a love for riding, a family-like loyalty amongst its members and a fierce dedication to community.
Club president Hammer joined 32 years ago when he was 24 years old. He didn't have any interest in a leadership role in the beginning; instead, it was just about "being with a group of people that liked doing the same thing that I like doing" – riding motorcycles, of course. Hammer's been on bikes since he was 14, when his father taught him to ride. As the years passed with Boogie Down and he got better acquainted with the politics of the club, administration became more attractive. Hammer admits he was also seduced by the attention and prestige that comes with being president.
Presiding over a mother chapter comes with more responsibility, because he's creating policy and procedure that'll be adopted and implemented by the other chapters. "We set the tone and the pace for the rest of the organization," Hammer says. Day-to-day responsibilities include overseeing his officers, ensuring safety and running the club, which is open to the public on Monday nights – sort of.
Not as many off-the-street civilians show up to party as in past years. It's mostly just bikers and associates. Hammer explains, "The police don't like to have a lot of civilians in the space. If anything happens, really, they want somebody they can hold responsible. We talk to the police every now and then about different things that go on." He edits himself. "Well, they talk to us," he says with a laugh. It's sergeant-at-arms Peewee's job to ensure that the night is free from incident. "That's a standard," he says. "Safety is the No. 1 issue. If we don't have safety, then we don't have nothing. Our concern is for the people, basically."
This month, all the chapters will descend on Detroit for a family reunion of sorts called "a breakout." It's held somewhere different each year; last time was Arlington, Texas' turn to host. They also try to hit Daytona Beach Bike Week or Black Bike Week, an annual rally that can attract nearly 400,000 black motorcycle riders to Myrtle Beach during Memorial Day weekend.
Black Bike Week runs back-to-back with Harley-Davidson Week, a mostly white assemblage – and some, including Hammer, charge city government and local businesses with racial discrimination due to contrasting treatment, like different traffic rules and levels of policing. In February, the NAACP filed suit against Myrtle Beach. Officials defended the differences in a 2003 New York Times article by citing the greater number of attendees and the lack of scheduled activities at Black Bike Week. Legalities aside, Peewee ties up Boogie Down's activity by saying, "We ride and party, we ride and party, we ride and party – " and new member J Nutty joins in for a few more bars of "we ride and party."
Boogie Down parties with and takes care of the community, too. Each year the club throws an Easter party for the kids in the neighborhood. They've participated in Coats for Kids, and on the walls of the club hang blown-up photos from a 2011 Christmas celebration at Cobo Center where they gifted needy children with toys and clothes. On Thanksgiving, members cook a feast and invite the area's most downtrodden.
"They come in and sit down and listen to some music and have dinner. (They) eat all they want to," Hammer says. "It's important for us to have a good image with the people in the neighborhood, even though our neighborhoods are getting thinner and thinner." Boogie Down's clubhouse sits on Harper Avenue just north of I-94, a poverty-stricken area of Detroit's east side. When they moved there in 1987, Hammer says, "Everything was basically populated. Like I said, everything has thinned out. It doesn't make it no less important. It's always important to have a good energy with the people."
Unsurprisingly, they ride – pun intended – for each other just as hard; more so, even. "If your bike ain't up to code, you don't go nowhere," Peewee says. This means good tires and brakes, and working lights and turn signals. "We basically enforce the same thing that the police would. We try to keep it to where if you do get pulled over, you don't have to be ticketed for anything," Hammer adds. But, "That's the small part of it. The big part is the safety part."
Hammer says he's seen several people get seriously injured and one rider die from a blown-out tire. It's equally important that members know the universal hand signals and they don't let anyone ride who's inebriated or under the influence of drugs. Hammer explains, "If we see that you're impaired, we'll take your keys from you."
Hammer has been involved in a few accidents himself, but he admits that each time, he was doing something he probably shouldn't have. The worst was right out front of the club in the late '90s. Before he joined the club, he'd been a street racer – cars, though. Once in, Hammer saw that they raced motorcycles.
"I wasn't too keen on racing bikes when I first got in because you didn't have nothing to protect you. But that quickly changed, and I just became a maniac after that." Well, one day while the maniac and his challenger were barreling down Harper at 100 miles per hour, a car pulled out from the curb and directly into their path. The collision was unavoidable. He was left with a broken wrist requiring seven pins and a fractured knee, but says, "Other than that I was all right."
He says he didn't hesitate getting back on a bike after the mishap. "I was still too young and stupid at that point." And, of course, the thrill of the ride was too much to part with. No one BLAC spoke with for this story seemed able to find the words to capture the feeling of being on a motorcycle. It seems it's somewhat indescribable to those who haven't experienced it for themselves. "Free" kept coming up, though. Peewee recalls riding his Honda Gold Wing out to the Gibraltar Trade Center – or so the plan was, but he got so hypnotized by the open road that he rode "damn near to Chicago."
Women can become affiliated with Boogie Down in a couple different ways. They can be sponsored by a male member, which doesn't mean full member rights, but they're allowed to hang out and participate in events under the guidance of their sponsor. These women are referred to as "property." Or ladies may actually go through the 90-day probationary period, pay the monthly dues and be recognized as members. Hammer says, "We're one of the clubs that's a co-ed club, (but) do (women) have full rights?" He lets his own question linger a while to suggest a de facto versus de jure situation.
"They do allow us to have a say-so," says Kautious; she's been a member for four years. But "say-so" comes with air quotes and a bit of side-eye. "It's a struggle. They treat us equally but differently, if that makes sense." Hammer says, "Generally, in the MC world, women don't have the same rights as the men." His club included. He goes on, "If it was a problem that happened out here on the streets or on a party night, a female from my club couldn't settle a situation with another club. They're not allowed to do that. It would have to be handled by a male member." Kautious would like to dispel any sexist misconceptions. "We ride," she says. "We're no different than men."
The club as a whole would like to dispel any delusions about rowdiness or gang-like activity. Most members grew up around the club, watching friends or relatives participate in the life, and a lot of people in the neighborhood have current connections to the club through active members. "We've got lawyers, bus drivers, plant workers, school teachers," second-year member Dub Dub emphasizes. "It's all one common goal. We love motorcycles and we love to ride. We not out in the community trying to cause trouble. We're trying to give back."