“You Gotta Be Dirty;” A New Book on the Outlaws Motorcycle Club’s Violent and Vicious History in Milwaukee

Feb. 13, 2017
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Michael Grogan’s new book You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin is an eye-opening look at an ugly part of the Cream City’s past (and present) and sheds new light on an under-recognized aspect of Milwaukee’s cultural history. In general, crime in Milwaukee has been under-explored historically and the four-decade reign of the Outlaws was something with which I was not very familiar. But the Outlaws Motorcycle Club – the first rule for membership was “You gotta be dirty” – was as vicious as any of Milwaukee’s Italian mobsters and as criminally diverse as any street gang. Partially adapted from his master’s thesis, Grogan spent two years researching the Outlaws and motorcycle culture for the book.

You Gotta Be Dirty was published by Badger Wordsmith Publishing, who have a small number of titles to their credit, mostly true crime and many with a local angle. I had some reservations getting in to the book. While print-on-demand services and ebooks have opened up a lot of doors for authors with limited-appeal topics (I took this route myself with my latest book), it also opened up doors for a lot of people who – God love them for trying – are just not very good at what they do. While the topic intrigued me, I was a little put off by the cover of “Dirty,” which shows a car driving through a burst of flames and a bloodied man in an Oxford shirt – an odd choice for a book about a biker gang. But getting into the actual material, I was taken both with the story and the author’s meticulous research. This was an important story to tell, and Grogan was the one to tell it.

The cover of "You Gotta Be Dirty"

In Dirty, Grogan takes us from the infancy of motorcycling as a hobby to the string of high-publicity post-war incidents that gave rise to the image of the biker as a modern outlaw to the emergence of the so-called “one-percenter” riders (taken from the claim that 99% of bikers were honest citizens) who actively and eagerly participated in a criminal and often nihilistic lifestyle. Organized one-percenters first emerged in Milwaukee in the mid-1960s, with these gangs eventually taking up the patch of the Outlaws MC of Chicago. In one of the most interest parts of the book, Grogan compares the attention local police gave to these increasingly troublesome bikers to that of the groups associated with the New Left and the Civil Rights Movement. Unsurprisingly, the Outlaws – pro-military, anti-hippie, and solidly whites-only – did not rouse the kind of anger from Police Chief Harold Brier as did fair housing marchers and east-side longhairs. Also of particular local note was the strange connection between the Outlaws and American Indian Movement of the early 1970s, which involved an Outlaws member selling stolen firearms to an increasingly militant AIM wing.

By the 1970s, however, as the Outlaws began to use violence and intimidation techniques to overtake rival gangs and stepped up their organized criminal actions, the MPD found themselves at the beginning of a multi-decade war that would often prove overwhelming. Like the la cosa nostra’s “omerto” that forbid its members to ever go to or cooperate with the police, the code of the Outlaws and their rival gangs made investigating their crimes very difficult. Many of the Outlaws’ most brutal crimes took years to solve. Others, including the death of a 14-year-old paperboy – killed by a package bomb meant for a rival gang member – are still open cases. It was not until the 1990s, after a long and costly turf was with the Hell’s Angels, that a slate of federal indictments wiped out much of the gang’s older leadership and forced the Outlaws to adapt a much lower profile.

Grogan does very well in using the public record, unsealed documents, and interviews with former MPD detectives to balance what has (or has not been) proven in court with what actually happened. It is a remarkably complete history for a topic that is shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Those limitations do, however, slow down the narrative in some places. Most of the people in the book are unknowable characters, reduced to their actions as recorded by law enforcement or by fellow gang members who eventually turned against them.

As the title suggests, much of the action in the book takes place outside of Milwaukee. Still, Dirty offers a fascinating look into an often-terrifying pocket of the city’s underbelly. The vicious nature of the worst of the Outlaws depicted in the book – their unabashed racism, their hateful and violent attitudes towards women, and the disregard for human life – makes this a difficult read in places. But Grogan’s work is an important addition to the body of work on Milwaukee’s history.

Buy You Gotta Be Dirty online here.

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