In a world where reality is an ever more elusive concept, image is everything. What is happening to the Thunderguards Motorcycle Club in Wilmington, Delaware exemplifies our brave, new world of lies and flickering shadows.
The Thunderguards are a black motorcycle club founded during the Vietnam war which maintains cordial relations with the Pagans Motorcycle Club and whose members recognize and live by a masculine code shared by every man who wears a three piece patch. They are hardly antisocial. Mostly they are old fashioned.
But they are a motorcycle club and because what happens in motorcycle clubs is largely secret they are easily portrayed as stock villains. It doesn’t help that individual members of these clubs often adhere to attitudes about recreational drugs, about the relationship between citizens and police and about individual liberties and responsibilities that date to the Johnson Administration and that are increasingly at odds with current attitudes about who men should be.
The Thunderguards were founded in a city that was never particularly appealing and that has grown much worse since Vietnam as America as a whole has declined.
All categories of Wilmington, Delaware’s crime rate are multiples of the national average. Nationwide, there are about 4,500 major crimes in any year for every 100,000 people. Wilmington has about 10,500 crimes per 100,000 residents. The murder rate is triple the national average and the robbery and assault rates are more than six times the national average. There is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that much of this misery is connected to youth gangs and particularly to young men who have never been mentored by older men.
Crime in Wilmington can be appallingly sensational and sordid. For example, last September two women aged 24 and 32 were gang raped in a city park by a dozen black teenagers aged 12 to 16. “The new criminal we’re seeing, they’re bold, they’re brazen, and they have a total disregard for life,” a city councilwoman remarked to CBS about the attack. Of course, that crime has never been solved.
Wilmington police are not very good at solving crimes in general. Crime clearance rates lag behind the national averages in every category. Rape is one of the crimes local police are comparatively good at solving. Police make an arrest in about a quarter of all sexual assaults. The overall clearance rate for all major crimes is 18 percent.
Obviously, Wilmingtonians are afraid and looking for someone to rescue them. And that’s where a couple of politicians named Beau Biden and Dennis P. Williams enter the story.
Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III was born a couple of years after the Thunderguards and he is now Delaware’s Attorney General. His father is the Vice President of the United States and he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He went to an exclusive school called Archmere Academy. He graduated from an Ivy League University and he followed his father’s footsteps to Syracuse University College of Law. Then he became a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia.
It is unthinkable that he doesn’t have national political aspirations so, in cooperation with his father, he has carefully cultivated his public image. Unlike the Vice President who successfully avoided service in Vietnam when his contemporaries who would join the Pagans and the Thunderguards could not, the younger Biden has frequently been portrayed as a “warrior” and a “hero.”
The younger Biden does serve as a lawyer in the Delaware National Guard so he has been frequently photographed in camouflaged fatigues with the sides of his head shaved in the manner of airborne rangers. He was deployed to Iraq as an Army lawyer in a signal brigade where he was visited by his Dad. The elder Biden spoke as if his son might actually be making a sacrifice that at some point could put him in danger rather than simply adding a few lines to his political resume. “I don’t want him going” the Vice President said as if Beau was about to jump out of an airplane over Normandy. “But I tell you what, I don’t want my grandson or my granddaughters going back in 15 years, and so how we leave makes a big difference.”
Beau Biden initiated the current campaign to vilify the Thunderguards and while it might be theoretically possible that he is acting in what he sees as the public’s interest his life so far suggests that he is acting on behalf of himself.
Biden’s ally in the campaign to vilify the Thunderguards is Dennis P. Williams, a former state representative who for the last year and a half has served as Wilmington’s mayor.
Williams’ path to politics couldn’t have been more different from Beau Biden’s. He graduated with a degree in criminal justice from Delaware Technical Community College and then became a Wilmington cop. Eventually he worked in homicide. His clearance rate is unknown.
After leaving the police force he ran for the state legislature as a Democrat and defeated his Republican opponent by the astounding vote of 1757 to 897.
When he ran for mayor in 2012 he promised to reduce crime in the city and he boasted about his police background. He was endorsed by the Police and the Firefighters’ unions, won the Democratic primary and was unopposed in the general election.
Motorcycle outlaws make dandy scapegoats. Critics of the club culture never see these clubs as a traditional way of being a man. Politicians and police usually portray this culture as pathological rather than honorable and tenets of this lifestyle – like a stubborn refusal to cooperate with police or to back down from a physical confrontation, like sexism and a shared contempt for drug laws and the Panopticon state – are increasingly at odds with contemporary social orthodoxy.
As Williams was being elected mayor the Delaware State Police carried out a public relations stunt called Operation Thunder Clap. Five members and associates of the club along with one woman and two white men were arrested for having in their joint possession two kilos of cocaine, five ounces of marijuana and $42,000 in cash. This law enforcement coup culminated an inherently shady, three-month-long undercover investigation.
Operation Thunder Clap did not make Delaware a place in which women might sit in a park without fear but it did generate a lot of headlines that were intended to make it appear that the police were accomplishing something.
Citizens do fear motorcycle clubs because their members rarely back down from physical confrontations and when they fight they often fight dirty. And once the Thunderguards were identified as public enemies no one with a public voice rose to their defense. Little by little, the Thunderguards mother chapter clubhouse in a decaying and crime infested neighborhood began to be seen as the reason the neighborhood was decaying. The truth was the opposite of that. The neighborhood around the clubhouse had changed for the worse in the last 45 years. And it is likely that the mere presence of the Thunderguards made that piece of Wilmington safer – as clubhouses throughout the world always make neighborhoods safer. It was a place that belonged to the Thunderguards so to prey on the club’s neighbors was to attempt to prey on the motorcycle club itself.
Politicians Spring Into Action
About five weeks ago, on April 11, the impeccably public spirited Biden and Williams filed a civil suit to close the Thunderguards clubhouse and a couple of neighboring locations under Delaware’s Criminal Nuisance Abatement Act. The suit argued that the clubhouse was the scene of “ongoing and violent criminal activity.”
“No resident of Wilmington or visitor to our city should be at risk from the ongoing pattern of violence that has been occurring on this property,” Biden said. “Today’s action accomplishes our first goal of immediately closing the property to protect the safety of the public. Over the next several weeks we will closely monitor this property in order to hold the defendants accountable to their obligations and we’ll continue to prepare for a hearing later this year to determine the permanent status of the site.”
`“For years, violent crimes, including multiple shootings and homicides, have been committed at the Thunderguards Motorcycle Club clubhouse, The closure of the clubhouse is not only good for the City, it is also good for the citizens living in or near the neighborhood,” said Mayor Dennis P. Williams. “We are pleased this property is now closed, and the City’s Law Department will continue to support the Attorney General’s Office in the Nuisance Abatement Complaint court proceedings.”
The Nuisance Abatement Suit
The lawsuit complained:
“The Property is generally known in the surrounding community as the main clubhouse and social gathering area for the Thunderguards, a motorcycle gang. This activity has been ongoing and continuous since at least 2006.”
“The Defendants use the Property as a site for illegal drug transactions. On October 22, 2006, following a shooting on the Property, law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at the property. During their search, they observed illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia in the Clubhouse (in addition to locating nine firearms).”
“On October 27,2007, an individual was shot in the parking lot adjacent to the property. The victim was in the parking lot attempting to purchase drugs.”
“In 2012, Delaware State Police officers conducted an investigation into the illegal activities of the Thunderguards Motorcycle Club…. On October 11, 2012, police officers intercepted a telephone communication between two Thunderguards members for the purchase of five ounces of cocaine…. Police officers conducted surveillance and followed the seller to the buyer’s residence. After the drug transaction took place, police officers followed the buyer to the Thunderguard’s clubhouse.”
“On December 27, 2008, a Thunderguards member physically assaulted his girlfriend at the property.”
“On March 10, 2012 an individual attending an event at the property attempted to enter the clubhouse while unlawfully carrying a concealed firearm.”
“On November 4, 2012, the Wilmington Police Department received a complaint that an individual was displaying a firearm in the clubhouse. When officers arrived, they discovered two individuals with gunshot wounds. One individual died from his wounds.”
“On February 2, 2007 a 17-year-old male with mental disabilities filed a report with the Wilmington Police Department alleging his foster father paid a woman to engage in sexual intercourse with him at the Thunderguards’ clubhouse. The case was closed due to lack of evidence.”
“On August 11, 2007, an individual was standing in the parking lot of the Property when gunfire broke out. As he attempted to flee he was struck in the knee by a round. No suspects were identified.”
“On October 27, 2007, an individual shot and killed a person in the parking lot used by individuals frequenting the Thunderguards’ clubhouse. He also wounded two other people. The three individuals were in the area to ‘meet females.’ One of the victims wounded by the gunshot was in the parking lot attempting to purchase illegal drugs.”
“On May 10, 2008, an individual visiting the Thunderguards’ clubhouse was shot at when he exited his vehicle in front of the property. The victim stated an unknown person approached him, and shot at him from a distance of five feet. As the victim ran away from the suspect, he heard additional gunshots. A member of the Thunderguards flagged down a police officer who had also heard the gunshots. No suspects were identified.”
There are 24 pages of that.
Fighting The Suit
The Thunderguards tried to fight back publically. Hoping to attract sympathy from local news media, the club and a few of its supporters held a rally outside Wilmington City Hall on May 10.
Spokesmen for the club complained that it was unfair to blame the Thunderguards for their neighborhoods deepening woes. They told the cameras that the club was being made a scapegoat for problems that were beyond the Thunderguards control and spoke about “safe” parties given for neighborhood children, turkey giveaways at Christmas and Thanksgiving, toy drives and other donations the club made to enrich the neighborhood.
National club Vice President Edwin O. Mitchell complained, “The area that we’re in is full of violence…. Control the city, Mayor. Control it…. You keep looking at the messenger because we ride bikes…and because there are mothers of the neighborhood that think we don’t know what we are talking about. Stop looking at the messenger and listen to the message.”
Several speakers called Wilmington the “the most dangerous small city in America.” But the most insightful comment may have been made by a minister named Derrick Johnson. “We believe the city of Wilmington has missed and is trashing an opportunity” Reverend Johnson said. “The Nation of Islam has been received and respected all over the country because of their ability to go into the war zone and be effective. Well in Wilmington the Thunderguards are the ones who have that kind of credibility and ability and they do have a history of helping the community.
The politician’s were unmoved. A spokesman for Biden named Jason Miller told the Wilmington News Journal, “There can be no question that persistent and sustained violent criminal activity has taken place over a period of several years on this property, and that activity triggers our ability to use this law by asking a court to order the property shuttered in order to protect public safety.”
The Club Gives Up
Without the resources to fight the nuisance law suit, the Thunderguards gave up last Wednesday. The club agreed to voluntarily vacate the clubhouse they have occupied since 1968 by this Thursday. Of course it didn’t end there.
Biden resent his original press release to the papers and let them quote from that. “No resident of Wilmington or visitor to our city should be at risk from the ongoing pattern of violence that has been occurring on this property. Today’s action accomplishes our first goal of immediately closing the property to protect the safety of the public.”
Having learned a little about how the game is played, the Thunderguards attorney, a man named George Evans, spun reality back at the Attorney General and the Mayor. “They (the Thunderguards) want to take this timeout to make renovations on their property and at the same time they want to follow through with a dream that they’ve had for some time…to establish a boys’ aftercare arena,” the lawyer said, “which would consist of tutoring for young males, table games and also hopefully to open up the avenue of some community policing relationships with the neighborhood.”
Despite all this political theater, Wilmington remains horrifyingly dangerous.