Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Hell’s Angels enjoy a lovely weekend at Bass Lake

In the summer of 1965, the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club decided to spend their Fourth of July Weekend at Bass Lake, a small resort area located in the Sierra National Forest approximately 14 mi (23 km) from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. Coming off one of the most notorious years in their existence (including being charged with gang-raping two young women in Monterey, CA), the Hell’s Angels of California picked Bass Lake as the place they would celebrate Independence Day by spitting beer in the face of all that rural Americans consider decent. Despite their best efforts to keep their holiday destination under wraps, the “word” had gotten out, and the rural residents of Bass Lake were on alert. The “word” was that a large horde of medieval barbarians, riding iron horses were coming to burn their village down in a drug-fueled frenzy. The citizens of Bass Lake were certainly doomed. Certainly, that is unless the police and civilians of Madera County could find a way to simultaneously subdue and appease the roving crew of 100 plus leather-clad chain wielding demons.

For the Angels, runs like the one to Bass Lake are primarily parties, not raids where local women are captured and churches burned to the ground. Once provoked however, the Angels are not the sort who back down from a confrontation. Try to consider however, the viewpoint of the local small town sheriff. Who, with a police force of only twenty-five men, gets word that between 100 and 500 motorcycle outlaws are converging on his town in a matter of hours. The worst things he has had to deal with in his career are highway accidents, and weekend drunkards brawling at the local saloon. What will he do “[W]hen 500 delegates from some apparently subhuman species converge on a peaceful community and begin pissing in the streets, hurling beer cans at each other and racing loud motorcycles in the village square?” In Bass Lake, California in 1965 the local police handled the situation exceptionally well. I will attempt to explain how by interpreting the chapter “The Statutory Rape of Bass Lake” in the book: Hells Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson.

“The trick is to control them without any provocation, but outlaws are easily provoked.” Hunter S. Thompson

The first measure taken by the law enforcement of Madera County was to issue a vague preliminary injunction aimed at the Angles, the thing was titled: ORDER TO SHOW CAUSE WHY PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION SHOULD NOT ISSUE AND TEMPORARY RESTRAING ORDER MADE. It named as defendants “John Does 1 through 500, Jane Does 1 through 500, individually and as associated under the name HELLS ANGELS or ONE PERCENTERS.” The police had established road blocks on all the roads leading to Bass Lake prior to the Angels arrival. When the Angles did arrive, they were photographed and handed a copy of the injunction. The injunction prevented anyone receiving it from “(1) violating any public law, statute or ordinance or committing any public nuisance… (2) any conduct offensive to the senses…(3) carrying or possessing weapons of any kind…” An injunction of this type did two things, it served to confuse the Angles, and to put them on notice that the law was watching. After being handed a copy of the injunction the Angels were all sent to a predetermined location where law enforcement lined the only way in and out of the isolated campsite. The police also imposed a strict curfew at 10PM which in effect kept the brutes caged like trapped lions at the zoo.

The local police brought in reinforcements from surrounding counties, and their numbers totaled around 100. The key to this law enforcement team was a towering Sheriff named “Tiny” Baxter. Thompson described him as 6 foot 6 and built like a NFL defensive end. He was in charge of the entire production, which he viewed as an army against army standoff. He preferred peace, that much was true, but he was prepared for war. His attitude was of emblematic of the classic rural sheriff, the kind who would strike fear in the heart of any petty lawbreaker who came to his town looking for a good time. He was pure redneck, and he was going to be dammed of the Hell’s Angels burned down the town on his watch. Luckily, he had enough brains to back up his brawn. He knew that it was far better to provide the Angels with a space of their own, and give them a fair opportunity to purchase enough beer to get them through the night (an amount totaling some 80 cases). Tiny’s tough nature was emblematic of the locals in the area, for they were “mountain people.” Mountain people, the descendants of miners and lumberjacks are simple people who don’t mess around once their simple existence has been threatened. They can rally as quickly and fiercely as any small town KKK chapter, complete with axe handles, hunting rifles, and a maddening rage.

The Angels quickly noticed it was not just the police they had watch out for, the jacked up holster wearing locals were prepared to fight the Angels to the death. It seemed every able bodied young man had been summoned to the town center, as if Paul Revere himself had rode through only an hour earlier. The locals were at the liquor store waiting to meet the invaders head-on. All they needed was an excuse. Tiny Baxter and six of his deputies escorted the Angels in and out of the camp site in order to maintain the peace. It was apparent that no local man was going to surrender his wife and daughters to the heathens without a good old fashioned bludgeon—fest.

The smartest thing Sheriff Baxter did to keep the peace was to converse with the Angles’ leader, Sonny Barger early and often. And most importantly, he did it with respect. The Sheriff kept a dialogue with Barger, and agreed to any reasonable request the Angels made, but he also laid down the law.

“If you play it straight with us, Sonny, we’ll play it straight with you. We don’t want any trouble and we know you guys have as much right to camp on this lake as anybody else. But the minute you cause trouble for us or anyone else, we’re gonna come down on you hard, it’s gonna be powder valley for your whole gang…But there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy yourselves here like everybody else. You guys know what you’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with you. We know that.”

The effect of this treatment put Sonny Barger in an unusual position, instead of leading the riot, he assumed a responsible fatherly role, one that was necessary to maintain order amongst his pack. Barger knew that the Angels might win the initial skirmish with the locals, but it was a long haul back to Oakland and Los Angeles. They would likely be picked off one by one as they tried to escape through the mountain roads, not to mention the California Highway Patrol. So in the end, Hell’s Angels were allowed to have their party. The booze flowed; pills & marijuana were consumed; and those who brought “old ladies and mamas” were able to find 20 minutes of privacy amongst the trees. Miraculously the whole scene was well contained. No one from the town was hurt, and only one or two Angels were arrested.

“In retrospect, there was unanimous agreement that both the press and the police had done a spectacular job. There was massive publicity, a massive police presence and massive beer drinking to justify all their concern. In a galaxy of nationwide riots and civic upheaval, Bass Lake was a star of peace.”


lauren said...

Interesting post, this is the first time that I have heard this story. I wonder what the reaction on the part of the Hell's Angels was both in relation to the unwelcome attitude they received, but also to the mediating role that the sheriff took on in order to keep both sides safe. Did they ever vacation at the Lake again?

Anonymous said...

They go there every year.

Dusty said...

I appreciate this example of the law and the outsiders meeting in the middle. The bikers didn't cave to the legal pressure, and consented to this in between mediation and the cops took a creative approach instead of an offensive and probably ultimately violent one. I wonder if this would happen today, if the bikers would settle for less police intervention or if the police would have more built in profiling of such populations. I know anytime I have attended large outsider gatherings, the police presence was heavy, on the offense and not aimed at hard reduction as these efforts seem to be.

The Egoist said...

Thompson also makes it abundantly clear any skirmish would have been disastrous for the locals and almost totally one sided. Sure some locals were carrying guns and the Angels had none, but Thompson points out that those guns would have been little help to them.

He makes a point of speaking about the armed citizenry at Bass Lake having no understanding of the Angels all or nothing rules of engagement. They simply did not follow the Doctrine of Proportionate Response and gouging a man's eyes out was seen as a valid first strike. Once the violence starts, Thompson points out, the Angels, knowing their opponents had guns, would instantly escalate to lethal violence in such a shocking manner that even the toughest of the mountain people would break and run.

And earlier in the book he talks about how bad it is to bluff an outlaw with a firearm, and the level of carnage and outright torture they're willing to inflict once the they've called the bluff.

As it turned out Baxter and Barger saved Bass Lake's citizenry from itself, proved by the fact that the only assault was an Angel getting cold-cocked with a length of pipe by a couple of mountain kids with more balls than brains.

Anonymous said...

I was there. on my 47 buckle head.I was 18 years old.it was cool. everyone had a good time. there were no real problems.

Anonymous said...

I was 13 years old and staying at my grandparents home in Willow Cove at Bass Lake the first time the Angels came up. They pretty much kept to themselves on one of the fingers at the back of the cove. I have two strong memories of that weekend. When the first of the Angels arrived, one of them parked his bike, jumped off of it and took a flying leap into the lake, clothes and all. I also remember tooling around in the cove with my grandfathers runabout. A couple of Angels were trying to paddle an inflatable canoe with limited success. They waved me over and offered me a beer if I gave them a ride. There I was, hanging out and drinking beer with a couple of Hells Angels. I thought I was the coolest 13 year old kid in the world!
Memorable times!

Anonymous said...

Just read that "Tiny" Baxter passed away Aug. 31, 2009. His real first name was "Shirley".

Anonymous said...

I lived at Bass Lake my whole life. When they were here it was no big problems. They dont come here every year but worst things happen up here at the lake. And also,, don't ever think that us mountain folk don't stick together,, because we have and will..Respect.

Morry Lauder said...

I was camping with my family at Denver Church, Bass Lake over the 4th in 1965. The only time we saw some of the Hell's Angels was when we were at Willow Cove. We watched across the cove as some bikers with a pickup truck came down a very steep road a little upstream of the rope swing.

When they tried to back up the road the truck kept slipping closer and closer to the water. They had a good audience of beach goers and boaters (some of whom swam over to help) as they struggled to save the truck. The last I saw the truck was more than half submerged and alone.

My Aunt had a place near Ducy's and she said The Chamber of Commerce, or someone, paid the Hell's Angels to go somewhere else next year. True or False? She was kind of a story teller.

Unknown said...

Went to Willow Cove about 15 years ago, stood there and just thought about what all went down there at the time, it was very spooky.

Anonymous said...

It was 1965, I was 9 years old, finally on summer vacation at the lake. Dad let me rent a paddle board at Denver church. I'm in the water, watching planes land at the old airport, when they drove in from the valley. Seemed like it took an hour. All the grown ups seemed nervous. One of the best memories I have of the lake, besides a red beer at the forks.