Flights of Angels 

Law enforcement weighs in on a heavy weekend

“When we do right nobody remembers. When we do wrong nobody forgets,” reads an old Hells Angels business card.
The saying, long a club proverb, recently fell out of common use by members of the international motorcycle fraternity, but locals might hear it uttered once or twice this summer beside the roar of smoking Harleys. The outlaw club of Altamont and Laughlin River Run infamy will descend on Missoula July 31 through Aug. 3 in numbers estimated by local police at between 400 and 500.

As the weekend approaches, law enforcement agencies and local government officials are running numbers and making arrangements for what promises to be an especially wild stretch of summer. The city of Missoula recently allocated $139,000 for extra police to deal with the Angels’ visit, a sum that will be joined by an expected expenditure of $15,000 by the sheriff’s department and a still-undisclosed state highway patrol contribution.

The city’s budget allows for $63,000 in officer overtime and $35,000 for food and lodging expense to bring in 25 cops from Helena, Hamilton, Bozeman, Billings and Kalispell. For law enforcement countywide, points of particular interest include Missoula’s downtown, the defunct Marshall Mountain ski area—where many of the Angels will camp—and the Rock Creek Lodge, home of the annual Testicle Festival.

Rock Creek Lodge owner Matthew Powers moved up the date of the infamously bare-breasted and booze-filled Rocky Mountain Oyster feed in 2007 to take advantage of the August climate and net some of the riders migrating toward the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota. Now heading into its second year in the mid-summer time slot, the Testicle Festival is slated to coincide with the Hells Angels rally. The so-styled “eclectic event” historically heats up on Saturday night—a perfect weekend cap for the rally-goers.

“The Testicle Festival always has been and probably always will be unpredictable, so it is impossible to predict what effect, if any, the addition of the Hells Angels will have,” says county Sheriff Mike McMeekin. “Assaults and other incidents resulting in injury or death [are the department’s biggest concerns]. The Testicle Festival is neither promoted nor attended by the people responsible for dealing with the inevitable results of that much concentrated alcohol consumption.”

Asked by the Independent if he’s worried about the Hells Angels possibly introducing a dangerous reactant to the Testicle Festival’s already wild distillation, Powers coolly indicates that he’s heard that question before.

“Every year we’ve had biker gangs up here, and this year most have rallies outside of the area at that time,” Powers replies. “We’ve had Hermanos and Banditos here before and I can’t think of one incident involving the bike gangs; they police themselves. Every fight we’ve ever had out there was because of some college kid drinking too much.”

For natural disaster lovers, the weekend could prove to be disappointing. When throwing public events, the Hells Angels have made a proactive effort in recent years not to contribute to the club’s violent reputation. In fact, the last time the Angels came to town, in 2000, it was a group of local after-set revelers that triggered the weekend’s famous riot.

The sting of the 2000 rally for many Missoulians wasn’t the Saturday night cop clash itself, but earlier in the day when police aggressively shut down a peaceful protest. Out-of-state officers brought in—primarily from Utah—to augment the police force stirred much of the discord. After the rally, it was revealed that the city violated a state constitution clause forbidding the use of non-Montanan law enforcement. The code was authored in response to the atrocities of anti-union headbusters employed by early 20th century copper barons.

“One of the things that we learned from 2000 is that when there are concerns about police activity that we will sit down and listen to what people have to say,” says Police Chief Mark Muir, adding that a 2000-esque public confrontation is less likely since the city, obviously, will not be bringing in out-of-state help.

Still, in light of the Hells Angels’ relatively good behavior during recent rallies, some Missoulians wonder if the police reaction to the upcoming convergence is overkill. For instance, in Cody, Wyo.—host of the 2006 rally—officials planned for Armageddon and instead got a leather-clad picnic. In the end, residents complained more about the cops than the bikers, just like after Missoula’s 2000 rally edition.

Muir says the sword cuts both ways. When police departments underestimate the danger and chaos breaks out, the result is usually public criticism that law enforcement officials put citizens at risk.

“The only known successful preventative efforts—keeping the community safe and free from violent incidents—has been a significant police force,” Muir says. “A Missoula resident has a different impression of what a high-level police presence looks like than a Hells Angel.”

Police also insist their mission that weekend is just as much to prevent the isolated incidents of violence as to quell possible riots. The challenge is that such outbursts are, by nature, unpredictable. At the Testicle Festival—where, last year, police charged a woman with stabbing two people in a fight that broke out because she allegedly flashed a married man—the atmosphere seems especially charged.

“Am I worried about some kid trying to prove he’s tough by punching a Hells Angel?” Powers responds. “Not really. If he did, we’d have security there to solve it.”
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