~~Moved from GR~~
Under and Alone
by William Queen
Before I read this, I admit I never really thought about motorcycle gangs. Had I considered them, I think I would have associated them more with empty boasts and petty crime rather than "domestic terror" and serious felonies. I found this on audio at my library, and, as an inveterate hardboiled and police procedural reader, thought it would be interesting to hear the perspectives of an ATF undercover agent who had spent time living as one of these apparently fearsome outlaws. According to Wikipedia, Queen's multiyear stint undercover in the Mongol motorcycle gang was one of most successful ATF gang penetrations to date.
I have to admit that after reading it, my opinion on biker gangs has basically gone back to my pre-book views. On closer examination, this "most successful," multi-year undercover operation led to 54 convictions, most of which had sentences of less than three years. Despite Queen's tendency to refer to the gang as "monsters," they seem rather more like a fraternity gone out of control rather than an insidious force with steel talons gripping society's heart. Queen tells us that the Mongols had incredible influence over their communities, but if that were the case, wouldn't they have been a little more successful? Instead, these bikers seem to live hand-to-mouth, riding about on broken-down bikes and returning at night to cheap hotels or shanties. Queen talks about drug operations, but from his story, it seems like local nickel-and-diming and self-supplying rather than one of the massive drug trafficking webs. No matter how sensationally he paints it, I felt a little underwhelmed. For example, he describes one of the raids, when the police uncover guns (guns!! In America?!? Who'd a'thunk?), drugs (well, marijuana. But drugs!!!), and cash (well, $1400. But cash!!) I lived in Colorado briefly, and I suspect a few random raids in hunting/medical-marijuana country could uncover the same amount of wild lawlessness. In the end, one has to wonder what the two-year undercover sting operation actually achieved. All of the men Queen put away are out by now, probably with a few more prison tats and experiences behind bars to boast about over beers. The U.S. prison system isn't precisely known for its ability to reform, and it isn't as though a huge number of secret operatives were uncovered--just a single lowish-level state official who took bribes. In the end, it seems that all the Mongols really received was fifty-four wrist-slaps and quite a lot of free publicity of their general "badassery." One has to wonder how much their organisation has grown after the furore.
Queen's portrayal made it quite difficult for me to view the bikers as formidable foes. He takes as given that everyone has some sort of horrific fear for bikers (which... I just don't think is a norm), then portrays the gang members themselves more like a fraternity gone wild rather than a horrific mafia-style gang with tendrils everywhere. For example, Queen recounts one instance in which one of his close relatives died, and each of the bikers in turn gives him a big hug and tells him, in these very words, "I love you, Billy. I just... can't be particularly terrified by men who are so ready to go into full-out bromance mode. To be fair, much of the book deals with Queen's own inability to reconcile the various facets of his biker bros. He calls them "monsters," but is, on the whole, sympathetic. For example, he speaks with disgust of how bikers treat their women, but quickly adds that all the women he saw wanted to be there and wanted to be treated like that--they wanted to be raped, beaten, abused, and misused by these men. According to Queen, the woman so trapped by circumstance that she appeared to enjoy playing strip pool with the guys "wanted" everything that happened to her, so what's a man to do but step back and enjoy the view?
Queen himself appears uncomfortably well suited to his life amongst the bikers; he can't help but refer to the men as his friends, seems impressed by their various escapades, and seems to revel in the outlaw life. Part of my issues with the book was a certain distaste for Queen himself. To me, he came off as a swaggering, coarse, anti-authoritarian, profanity-obsessed, and self-satisfied egotist. Nothing he ever does is in the wrong; despite politeness or righteousness or law-abidingness, the rest of the world is always misjudging him. Despite cleverness and badassery, the bikers are always undervaluing him. Despite extreme heroics and courageousness, his bosses are always misusing him. I do think Queen's actions took an incredible amount of courage, and I also think that perhaps his daredevil, self-assured personality was a necessity for the undercover roles he took. His evident fascination with the lifestyle, however, made me uncomfortable, because it brought into sharp relief the parallels between the freedom of those who ignore the law and those who deal it out.
In the end, I found Queen's viewpoint interesting, but was rather depressed by the futility of the whole venture. Queen paints a portrait of a bunch of wayward sons who seem feckless rather than fearsome. An interesting read, but if you take this one up, be prepared for some serious biker attitude from the narrator.