Angels, Protesters, and Patriots

What a long-ago skirmish involving the Hells Angels says about love of country.

  • As UC Berkeley linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg notes, “To describe oneself as a patriot is to suggest that others are less so.”
    Photo by Charlie Nguyen

Lately, I’ve been thinking about an incident that happened in 1965, seven years before I was born. It centered on an antiwar protest in Berkeley, California, one of the first of countless such protests to come. Though just a blip in the grand scheme of Vietnam era turmoil, it seems to point to something important about America and the nature of patriotism.

It starts with a guy named “Tiny.” Tiny was 6’7” and 300 pounds. And he really liked to fight.

He was first into the breach that fall afternoon in 1965, punching his way through the front of the seven-block-long peace march on Adeline Street, near the Berkeley–Oakland border. Tiny was a member of the outlaw motorcycle gang Hells Angels, and more than a dozen of his brothers followed in his wake, ripping down antiwar signs and screaming, “Go back to Russia, you fucking Communists!”

By the time things calmed down, six Angels were in custody—including Tiny, who took a nightstick to the skull and on his way to the pavement broke a cop’s leg.

Later, the Angels held a press conference at their bail bondsman’s office. Oakland chapter leader Ralph “Sonny” Barger, an Army vet with slicked-back hair and an air of casual menace, called the protesters a “mob of traitors.” The Angels would take the high road, however, and absent themselves from future protests because, Barger explained, “Our patriotic concern for what these people are doing to our great nation may provoke violence by us.” Then he read a telegram he claimed to have sent to President Lyndon Johnson, volunteering the Angels for behind-the-lines “gorrilla” [sic] duty in Vietnam.

The Angels, at first blush, seemed unlikely patriots. Though not yet well known, they had a reputation with law enforcement for drinking, smoking dope, and sacking towns like modern-day Visigoths, answering to no authority higher than their East Oakland clubhouse. But now there they were, waving the flag. Their form of patriotism was gut-level, atavistic, loyalty to nation through blood and fire. Their group persona, meanwhile, was the stuff of American mythology, a grab-bag of frontier clichés sprung to life—they were contemporary cowboys, John Wayne’s unwashed, scofflaw cousins.

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