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House of Mirrors: The Waco Police/Biker Gang Debacle

By Kay Whitlock

  image from static1.squarespace.com

Think of it as instructive as well as tragic public spectacle, the bizarre eruption of violence between police and members of biker gangs in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks Restaurant in Waco, Texas on May 17, 2015 that produced a wide swath of casualties—all of them bikers.

Nine people were killed by gunshot, 18 people were sent to hospitals, and approximately 170 were thrown into the clink on felony charges related to the commission of organized criminal activity, with absurd bail set of $1,000,000 per person.

This unusual armed confrontation among predominantly white participants produced competing (and ludicrous) storylines—about victimization, persecution, danger, and safety—that drove the sensational media story. In largely unexamined ways, the Waco debacle also illuminates the dynamics and public discourse that keep the dominant American imagination stuck in the mire of false assumptions about violence (and who perpetrates it) and public safety.

We might well regard the lethal Waco events, the politics, and the mass media discourse surrounding the violence as a house of mirrors.

A traditional mainstay of carnivals and amusement parks, a house of mirrors is a disorienting maze of passageways crafted of mirrors—convex or concave, in varying configurations—that produce distorted reflections and confounding obstacles to straightforward movement. The viewer’s appearance and everything else she or he sees is somehow contorted. In public discourse, we might think of it as a situation in which it is difficult to distinguish between reality and illusion—or between conflicting versions of reality.

For this particular house of mirrors, the show talker’s spiel, intended to capture our attention, stir our imaginations, and get us inside, emphasizes fear and what must be done to save ourselves from danger and keep our enemies at bay.

For this particular house of mirrors, the show talker’s spiel, intended to capture our attention, stir our imaginations, and get us inside, emphasizes fear and what must be done to save ourselves from danger and keep our enemies at bay.

What Really Happened?

Beyond a few undisputed facts about those who were killed, injured, and arrested, we don't really know what happened. Police accounts, central to mass media narratives, have not inspired confidence. “We're guessing, that, in the coming years,” writes Craig Malisow in the Houston Press, “the Waco authorities' handling of the Twin Peaks biker gang shootout in May will become a textbook example of how not to handle an emergency situation.”

It is known that members of an unknown number of biker groups—among them the Cossacks, Bandidos, the Scimitars and others—gathered at the Twin Peaks restaurant for some sort of regional motorcycle club meeting. That meeting and date were already on an online calendar.

At some point, gunfire broke out in the patio/parking lot area, and all hell broke loose. Police, who were monitoring the groups, were clear that they themselves fired some of the shots. But it has not been announced with certainty (and may never be publicly known) whose bullets, police or bikers or some combination of both, killed people.

Police initially claimed the violence started inside the restaurant, offering a vivid blood-drenched restroom scenario, but then began to hedge. Waco police spokesman Sergeant W. Patrick Swanton described those arrested as “criminal elements” who “came here with violence in mind.” Police have criticized restaurant management for permitting the meeting. The restaurant management, in turn, disputes at least some aspects of the police narrative. A restaurant surveillance video that has not been released to the public but shown to investigators and the Associated Press is said to show one biker shooting as others run away, ducking under tables, and scrambling to get inside. 

Police initially announced the discovery/confiscation of more than 1,000 weapons, including firearms, pocketknives, "assault" knives, brass knuckles, and chains with padlocks, an estimate later downsized to about 300.

In the days immediately following the lethal outburst of violence, local and state law enforcement authorities announced that, in retaliation, biker gangs had authorized “hits” on Texas police officers, troopers, and their families. Even worse, police claimed, Bandidos (the only gang with a name evoking people of color) members in the military “are supplying the gang with grenades and C4 explosives” and also threatened the use of Molotov cocktails and firearms. These threats, described as “credible” by law enforcement, were based on unsubstantiated information from an anonymous informant. These threats, characterized as "credible" by law enforcement, came not long after President Obama announced limitations on the kinds of military gear and equipment that would be provided to local law enforcement units. (Nationally, police responded to this by saying the president was jeopardizing their lives.) Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) were called in.

Three days after the violence exploded, figures were released to buttress the idea that mayhem was created not by Texans—bikers and/or police—but by interlopers and outside agitators. Only 25 percent of those arrested were said to be from central Texas, an apparent fact with virtually no real significance.

Welcome to the House of Mirrors

We will probably never know what really happened. The police account, firmly fixed in the narrative of murderous, malevolent, criminal biker gangs bent on destruction, continues to morph. Some of the bikers present that day undoubtedly share responsibility for the violence. But so do the police who, that day and in the aftermath, became a mirror image of their announced "biker gang" enemy. Regardless of who fired the first shots, police also exhibited the same traits they attributed to the bikers: they were an organized group relying actually and symbolically on the use of violence to intimidate others, respond to perceived threat, and defeat a despised opponent.

But that’s not the worst of it. Both the police and aggressive biker groups are unsettling reflections of American culture and society fixated on fear of domestic and global enemies and the creation of safety through violence or the threat of it. Like it or not, we are all dragged into the house of mirrors and invited to contemplate our own distorted reflections.

Police violence is structural, not the result of a few bad apples, and it has a long history that extends back to colonial times. It did not arise in a social, religious, and economic vacuum. It exists because a pubic and political consensus exits that police violence against less powerful and more marginalized groups is permissible.

Like so many other recent, tragic events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and elsewhere, the Waco story connects to a much larger discourse about the structural, often race-based nature of police violence and killings. Because local, county, state, and federal law enforcement authorities do not keep accurate count of the killings, and seldom hold officers accountable even for the killing of unarmed people, others (initially, people of color), most recently, the Guardian, have taken on this responsibility.

It connects to the reality that the so-called “militarization” of police is nothing new; it has always been a part of American society, though usually directed primarily against communities of color, people organizing for the rights of labor, and political dissenters.

It connects to the perhaps unintended hypocrisy of a culture that expresses shock over the discovery of so many biker weapons even as it promotes violence and weaponry as necessary to create “safety” and politicians champion “open carry” and “stand your ground” laws. Whose safety are we really talking about?

It connects to the structural racism that runs like an artery through American civic and economic life. Even though this was a clash involving predominantly white bikers and police, Waco connects to the use of racialized frames and subtext in naming violence. Such frames are always present in public discourse about crime and violence in the United States; they are the product of white supremacist beliefs and practices, and the subtle and overt ways in which these are embedded in dominant American ideas about crime and criminals, violence, and justice.

This goes far beyond the obvious double standard at work when police and many commentators characterized young, black protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore as criminal "thugs," and characterized protests against police violence as "riots" but described the Waco violence as a "melee" or a "brawl" or a standoff. 

Law enforcement violence always relies on rallying support by demonizing—and rhetorically dehumanizing—its enemies. In the case of Waco, the deployment of fear named “gangs” as the enemy. It wasn’t difficult. Fear of high-profile, aggressive biker groups—forever fixed in the American cultural imagination as Hell’s Angels—with such a visible public presence is easy to stoke.

But talk about gangs evokes much more than images of bikers. Law enforcement use of "gangs" as a signifier of menace and brutality resonates deeply in the public imagination and builds support for expansion of police authority and resources. Regardless of the race of people identified as gang members, the use of this signifier consciously and unconsciously evokes racist criminal archetypes. False but sensational predictions of waves of out-of-control gangs of “inner-city” (read: black) juvenile “superpredators” drove a “tough on crime” agenda in the 1990s that swept youth of color in massive numbers into the criminal legal system and made it much easier to send them into adult courts and prisons. Today, the California prison system uses unreliable methods of gang member identification to encourage prisoners to inform on one another and determine who will be sent into torturous long-term solitary confinement.

What does it mean to a society that the very system it invests with authority for creating safety and justice routinely relies on fear, massive weaponry, intimidation, and violence—that is, on war and the mindset that only war against those we fear can produce peace—to pursue its agenda? What does it mean that we, as a society, tolerate this?

Accountability really begins with us, with you and me holding ourselves responsible for what happens next. And what happens next has to be more imaginative than a handful of reforms—gun control, mandating the reporting and analysis of police killings, limiting the kinds and amounts of military gear provided to police departments, prohibiting racial profiling in law enforcement, and the like. Unless the mindset that legitimates that violence is changed, reforms will only morph into new distortions in the same house of mirrors.

Without transforming the American imagination, we cannot hope to create a less violent, more just, more caring society. 


About the Author

image from www.beacon.orgKay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana.