The Hells Angels won’t say for sure if they’re coming to Missoula this year for a summer idyll, but a member of the notorious motorcycle club (don’t call them a gang, lest you irritate the distinguished gents) contacted recently by an Indy correspondent at the Colorado Motorcycle Show in Denver acknowledges they’re laying the groundwork.
A Hells Angel who identified himself as Jimmy from Richmond, Calif., says nothing’s decided yet, but the club has been talking with Missoula Police Chief Rusty Wickman about a potential visit and even lined up a shop to work on their motorcycles while they’re here. He said the Hells Angels want to come play, have fun, spend lots of money and stay out of trouble.
Hey, just because they’re outlaw bikers with a demonic moniker doesn’t mean they’re incapable of observing the niceties. The Hells Angels, Bandidos, Mongols and Sons of Silence all had impressive “hospitality booths” at the Denver biker convention, allowing members of the general public to buy T-shirts and meet club members. The scene sounds so positively business friendly, the Missoula Chamber should consider putting together gift bags for the fellas when they arrive. After those long rides, they’d probably appreciate some moist towelettes and a real estate brochure.
Local law enforcement is doubtless planning its own welcome for the club. Back in 2000, when the Hells Angels encamped at the Marshall Mountain ski area for a weekend in late July, the bikers encountered a formidable, almost paramilitary response. Out-of-state muscle supplemented the local forces, and together they shadowed the bikers everywhere they went, creating the impression of a truly fearsome armed occupation of the town.
And of course, it all ended horribly in the wee hours of a Sunday morning when dozens of riot-ready, baton-wielding, pepper spray-happy officers violently dispersed a large crowd of revelers from downtown, arresting 63 people and roughing up many others. The Indy remembers it as one of ugliest chapters in Missoula history, when the people trusted to protect and serve turned aggressively on the citizens and then refused to own up to their egregious mistakes. Subsequent opinion of the law around these parts hadn’t sunk so low since the residents of Bannack strung up Sheriff Henry Plummer back in the 1860s.
Nobody wants a repeat this time around. Whatever dangers the Hells Angels present, Chief Wickman and his colleagues must plot a response that safeguards public safety without compromising public trust. The front line officers—men and women who do difficult, unpleasant work as a matter of routine—need a reasonable chance to dignify their profession. And the people of Missoula need a show of restraint that inspires respect for the police department, not contempt.