SONS OF ANARCHY: FACT vs FICTION
Sons of Anarchy ("SOA") is a great television show. Gritty and violent at times, humorous and gut wrenching at others. Although I discovered it well after its initial debut, I now watch it weekly.
BACKGROUND: In 2010, I represented one of 27 members of a motorcycle club that were arrested on multiple federal charges. The government had conducted a two year undercover investigation across several states. The 12-count indictment alleged the Outlaw Motorcycle Club engaged in attempted murder, kidnapping, assault, robbery, extortion, witness intimidation, narcotics distribution, illegal gambling and weapons violations. I reviewed nearly a thousand pages of investigative reports. For the better part of a year I delved deeply into the world of "1-%" motorcycle clubs. My client was one of four that were not ultimately convicted of any crimes.
I have to admit that I am biased. My client was innocent of all charges. I came to like him and believe his representations on the 1%er way of life. The club members I dealt with were humble and respectful. The national president of the motorcycle club ("MC") in my case was in no way similar to the murdering, lying Clay Morrow. The national president of the Outlaws MC was a hardworking businessman and devoted grandfather with no prior criminal record.
There are more than 300 outlaw MCs in the United States ranging in size from single chapters with five or six members to hundreds of chapters with thousands of members worldwide. My opinions below are not based on any research other than my experience as a defense attorney. I can't speak for all MC's and cannot make any generalizations.
First, I don't bash SOA for being a television show. It is Hollywood. Like any TV show, the players are more beautiful and less authentic than their real life counterparts. If I physically bumped into lead actor Charlie Hannum in a bar, I would expect him to be the first to say "excuse me." Real MC members LOOK like real MC members. Believe me when I say that when you see them and talk to them you know they are the real deal. Common sense tells you that these are not guys you want to unnecessarily provoke.
Also, I forgive the show for ludicrously fortuitous series of events and the "dues ex machina" that plague most serial dramas. Even the most realistic drama exaggerates the daily excitement of any life-style (example Indiana Jones-archeologist). Rather than focus on superficial challenges, I'll just address whether SOA does as good of a job as a drama should do in telling an entertaining story about a real lifestyle.
THE FACT: The show introduces neophytes to many basic MC club terms: (e.g. 3-patch, patch-overs, rocker, prospects, church, hang-arounds) and the organizational structure. The show also depicts my experience that in contrast to their anti-social anarchist proclivities, many MC members have strong unique moral codes. Despite a lack of formal education, MC members are often as strikingly intelligent, well-spoken and charming as any other group (including lawyers.). The show also accurately shows that local law enforcement frequently befriend area MC's. Accordingly, like in the show, real life MC prosecutions are often Federal RICO actions.
The amount of violence on SOA is not exaggerated. MC culture is extremely dangerous. Conflict between rival MC's is fact. The show correctly reflects that rival MC's resolve disputes with bombs, fires, guns, melee weapons and fists. Real MC's are very territorial and brutal.
The brotherhood between MC members exists. These guys love their club and are fiercely loyal to each other. The TV show rightly shows that like any group, however, MC's do experience betrayal and dishonesty. When the Feds came down on the Outlaws, MC some members made deals but others refused sweetheart plea offers and exposed themselves to great risk by going to trial.
The internal conflict over the rewards of being a MC member is also accurate. Some MC members lose interest and get out of the life as they age and priorities change. SOAs depiction of conflicted members questioning their future with the club due to age, health, and changing morality accurately reflects the experiences I've observed.
THE FICTION: The TV show softens the protagonists so that viewers won't completely despise them. Although SOA acknowledges that the SAMCRO is "whites only" many outlaw MC members are more outwardly intolerant. Real MC members often have neo-nazi tats and symbols in their homes, clubs, and on weapons. Quite a few are former Klan members SAMCRO members are more subtle and PG-13 with their racism. The SOA storyline surrounding a member trying to conceal his mixed heritage closely resembles a true story where a MC club member was violently assaulted when his "brothers" learned of his ethnicity.
Also, the show is too nice to women. SOA shows a few graphic acts of domestic violence. MC misogyny is worse. SAMCRO's characterization of the "ol ladies" as Lady Macbeth planning and ruling the club from behind the scenes is pure fantasy. Real MC women are club property. Club women wear clothes or tats that leave no doubt as to their devalued status. Brutality to women is accepted and sometimes encouraged. Quite a few women are pimped out to support their man's MC Lifestyle.
The show undersells the intensity of the initiation process and the image of prospective members. On the television show prospective members are portrayed as sheepish scared kids hoping to get into SAMCRO. Real life prospects are far different. A MC doesn't ask a person to "prospect" unless he has already shown himself to be capable of being a member. "1%" prospects are hard-core lifestyle bikers that have demonstrated a disregard for authority that sufficiently justifies a sponsor staking his reputation on that person. Prospects have usually been standout members of smaller clubs. These guys are eager to show the club that they are ruthless enough to be admired by and admitted to brotherhood with the main MC.
SOA does not sufficiently portray the love that MC members have for mayhem and the anarchist lifestyle. MC members revel in their hatred for authority and convention. Members join partially to participate in the debauchery, parties, drugs, alcohol, and women. The most important aspect of membership is the love of motorcycles. Although 1%ers clearly feel that they live outside of the law, most members focus on these ideals and eschew profit making criminal enterprises. The guys in SAMCRO rarely ride and the bikes on the show are little more than a means of transportation.
The criminal culture inside SAMCRO focuses on the club's drug and gun running enterprises. In real life many MC members do not directly participate in these crimes. The only crimes in which members are required to participate are violence undertaken in the name of the club. It might get boring on TV to watch MC members continually attacking each other over turf and retributive issues but this is what they really do.
On SOA, the audience cheers or agrees with the SAMCRO acts of violence. The audience is made to believe that SAMCRO is justified and the recipients of attacks get what they deserve. In real life many tasks of violence and aggression by a MC members are for seemingly petty things. MC members have been attacked and or killed for reasons that are senseless to 99% of society. The level and intensity of violence in real a MC war is wholly disproportionate to what the rest of society would condone.
Finally, the legal wrangling between the MC members directly with prosecutors and ATF agents is hokey. In the Outlaw MC trial, several extraordinarily brave federal agents infiltrated the club to gain information necessary for prosecution. On SOA the club avoids prosecution by blackmailing and outthinking federal agents. This is ridiculous.
SOA is by no means an accurate portrayal of the life of a MC club member. By definition the life of the 1% biker is too far outside the norm of what people can swallow as acceptable behavior. A TV audience could not consistently follow the logic and rationale of a real 1%MC member. As a result, I do not think it would be possible for Hollywood to use a true MC member as the protagonist of a weekly TV show.
SOA is good because it doesn't try to be perfect. It is an awesome show. It uses true aspects of the 1% biker culture to tell fantastic stories. The show depicts an antisocial lifestyle in a social way. There is enough authenticity for me to say that a casual viewer is seeing more fact than fiction.