People tend to be wary when a group named for one of history’s most savage conquering armies comes to their town.
This weekend, that town will be Excelsior Springs.
About 200 to 250 members of the Mongols Motorcycle Club are expected to congregate for a meeting in the Clay County city.
Coming a week after the deadly brawl in Waco, Texas, that left nine motorcyclists dead and nearly 200 under arrest, the gathering understandably has drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies.
Representatives of the Mongols have reached out to officials about their meeting, said Excelsior Springs Police Capt. Clint Reno.
“They gave us a heads-up that they were coming and reassured us they did not want to bring trouble to town,” Reno said.
The gathering will be a first for Excelsior Springs, Reno said. But unlike Waco, where members of several clubs came together, only one group is expected.
“Typically when there’s one group, they’re fine,” Reno said. “It’s when they co-mingle where you could have trouble.”
A spokeswoman for the Excelsior Springs Chamber of Commerce said business owners are not unduly concerned.
Still, police will have an enhanced presence, according to Reno. Deputies with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and troopers with the Missouri Highway Patrol will be standing by to assist city police if needed.
The Mongols, founded in California in 1969, is considered one of the four major “outlaw” motorcycle clubs, according to professor Don Haider-Markel, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Kansas.
The outlaw biker groups occupy a gray area between political extremist groups and organized crime organizations, sharing some of the characteristics of both, said Haider-Markel, whose research areas include extremist groups and terrorism.
“These groups operate in much the same way as most extremist groups in that most people join and stay for similar reasons — they are looking for camaraderie in worldview and social interaction,” he said.
However, the motorcycle groups typically do not embrace a political agenda. Political extremist groups usually are not engaged in criminal activity to support themselves and the group.
“Many biker gangs would disappear if members weren’t engaged in criminal activity,” Haider-Markel said.
Their criminal activities center on drug trafficking, firearms and stolen motorcycles, he said.
Like organized crime groups or political extremist organizations, they are extremely difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate and successfully prosecute for their criminal activity, he said.
One man who has seen biker gangs from the inside is Steve Cook, a detective with a Kansas City area police department who heads the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Cook said he has participated in undercover operations with outlaw groups and trains other police officers around the country on how to combat the groups.
He said many people, including police officers, embrace a romanticized view of outlaw biker groups as “just tattooed, long-haired guys who like to ride motorcycles.”
“The reality of it is they are long-haired, tattooed guys who ride motorcycles and sell a hell of a lot of methamphetamine and murder people and steal motorcycles and extort people and beat people up in bars for no reasons,” Cook said.
Even before last weekend’s incident, Cook was aware of the brewing tension between some of those groups. That’s why he had scheduled a gang investigators training seminar next month in Waco.
“Maybe it’ll be time for law enforcement and the public to take the blinders off and recognize these groups for what they are,” he said. “Criminals.”
Of course, the majority of motorcycle riders are not involved in criminal activity.
Even within the so-called outlaw groups, most members are not committing crimes, Haider-Markel said.
“They do want to be seen as living on the edge of society,” he said. “They are there for the camaraderie and brotherhood.”
But as Waco showed, members are capable of engaging in extreme violence.
“They will defend their clubs and their club’s territory against others much the same way as street gangs or the Mafia,” he said.
The threat they pose to the general public is minimal, Haider-Markel said.
“Most people aren’t hanging out at motorcycle club bars,” he said.
Although the Waco incident occurred in a busy public venue, Haider-Markel called that an anomaly.
“These are groups that like to stay out of the public eye and not gain the attention of law enforcement,” he said.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, law enforcement across the country will be paying attention to numerous planned motorcycle gatherings.
Rallies involving thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts are being held from South Carolina to New Mexico.
The gathering in Excelsior Springs is much smaller than some of the others, which are expected to draw tens of thousands of people.
But it does involve a group that bills itself on its website as “the baddest” such group known worldwide. It boasts chapters across the United States and in many European and Asian countries.
So police will be watching, just in case.
“We want a quiet Memorial Day,” Reno said. “We hope they will come and go, and it will be an uneventful weekend.”
The Washington Post contributed to this story.
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