What did you research exactly?
“The Netherlands’ handling of criminal biker gangs – also referred to as ‘outlaw motorcycle gangs’. I’ve written a historical description of how the government’s approach to biker gangs shifted between the ’70s and today. The Hells Angels were already causing a lot of problems in 1974. Generally of a different nature though: in those days, they were mainly charged with disturbing the peace and with violent crime, against other youth groups, for example. The members at the time were around 18. In Amsterdam, the municipal administration felt it had to do something about this, and the Hells Angels got their own clubhouse where they could –put simply – horse around. Now the authorities are doing everything they can to prevent them from getting their own clubhouse: basically a complete turn-around. The policy has shifted from social inclusion to exclusion.”
How did this work out in ’74?
“At the time, the Hells Angels were consciously assigned to a location on the outskirts of the city. Before that, they frequented a lot of youth centres – which would then have to close because they were being a nuisance. That’s why they were given their own place. It was in line with the youth policy of the time: these issues with violence were seen as a consequence of the disadvantaged social position of working-class youth. The government wanted to help, support and guide them, so the Hells Angels were also assigned two youth workers who helped them manage the clubhouse. They were a problem that had to be solved by society – that’s how things were done in the welfare state.
“It didn’t take long before the clubhouse became a ‘free state’ where the gang stayed on until 2012. In the meantime, the Netherlands had changed into a ‘pre-crime society’, where we primarily try to prevent issues from developing beforehand and try to limit risks as far as possible. By now there were far more biker clubs than there used to be, and this was accompanied by a radical shift in policy. Nowadays, these gangs and their members are excluded from society as far as possible. By barring them from operating a clubhouse, organising events or wearing their club jackets in public. The underlying idea is that these clubs are criminal gangs.”
“That’s a difficult question to answer. Yes: in a number of clubs, many of the members have criminal records and are involved in organised crime like the drug trade, money laundering, murder, etc. A lot of people wouldn’t hesitate to call them criminal organisations for that reason. In 2014, the police identified fifteen specific clubs as ‘outlaw motorcycle gangs’. But if you look at what the police knew at the time, and combine this with our present-day insights, you see major disparities in these clubs’ degree of criminal involvement. One the conclusions I reached in my study is that this designation has instilled a belief in public authorities – including mayors – that biker gangs are criminal organisations, even though the picture is far more nuanced in practice. You need to keep distinguishing between the two, in other words – including in your policy. There are a few clubs where many of the members have a criminal record, but this also includes convictions for traffic violations and incidental violent crime, for example. This isn’t organised crime per se: it’s a different beast altogether. Nevertheless, many of the mayors I talked with were convinced of this.”
Has this public perception become more entrenched over the years?
“Definitely. But the problems have changed too. From the 1980s on – and into the 1990s, as the members of the Hells Angels grew older – they became increasingly involved in more serious crime. They also gained more and more of an exceptional status in society, in which they were basically free to do what they wanted. They would ride through town in convoys of hundreds of bikes without giving way to anyone. The first attempts to ban the Hells Angels date back to the 2000s, initially to no avail. From 2012 on, there has been a nationally coordinated and administrative approach, in which local mayors in particular are expected to do everything they can to ensure that the clubs can’t gain a foothold in society. A year later, I wrote my master’s thesis on this subject during my internship at the police.”
“At first glance, this approach appears to be working: the gangs are less visible and there are fewer violent incidents in the public space. It remains to be seen whether the members have actually said goodbye to crime. You can also engage in specific activities without a jacket, clubhouse and events. Nor has it been proven that all criminal activities are organised in a club setting.”
Where did the phrase ‘Raising Moral Barriers’ in your title come from?
“The government’s handling of biker clubs isn’t just about preventing crime. It’s a moral battle between on the one hand the government, which believes everyone should abide by the rules, and on the other hand the outlaw motorcycle gangs, who are literally and figuratively giving the finger to society. Indeed, more than anything, the current policy is about who’s boss in the Netherlands. That’s a moral battle: what is right and what is wrong? For me, the eye-opener was an interview with a mayor who said: ‘It’s about who runs this city. That’s me. And when they walk in a V-shaped line through a street full of bars and act all tough, they’re acting as if they run the place.’ That’s a different discussion than simply preventing crime.”
One of your propositions was to set a maximum word count for dissertations.
“I was taking the micky out of my own work: having just written this thick tome of over 400 pages. You need to keep it clear and concise. Scientists often want to share a mass of knowledge, and they don’t hold back when it comes to writing it down. But it remains to be seen whether everyone will read it too. In my process, I have had a lot of moments of insecurity in which I wasn’t sure whether I was heading in the right direction and whether I’d make it. My supervisors let me grapple with the material in my own way. Looking back, I’m glad they did – but that’s easy to say now that it’s behind me. The process could get quite stressful, but it did help me become more independent.”