Among the Thugs: In Bullies, Alex Abramovich Tracks Down His Grade-School Nemesis, Subjects Himself to Being Brutalized All Over Again

Photo: Ceridwen Morris

In 2006 Alex Abramovich came across the name Trevor Latham in a high-school alumni note: “I moved to California, became a bouncer, and started a motorcycle club.” As boys on Long Island in the early 1980s, Abramovich and Latham had been children living with unhappy, damaged fathers, and at school they took it out on each other. Abramovich, “young for my grade and small for my age, bookish, and sad,” was at a disadvantage. He started coming home from fourth grade with bruises inflicted by Trevor. These aren’t the sort of memories that go away, so when Abramovich discovered that “my grade-school nemesis had become a professional bully,” he called him up, flew across the country to see him, wrote about him for GQ, then moved to Oakland, and for four years joined his scene, hanging on the fringes of the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club, which Trevor founded in 1994. Bullies: A Friendship, the story of their long reunion, is an immersive study of casual, ritual, and sometimes criminal violence. Oakland is revealed to be a city that survives through a constant process of self-demolition. (On his desk Abramovich hangs a photograph of a Victorian house being knocked down in the 1960s by a tank.) A book that begins with spirited bar brawls broadens to take in the Your Black Muslim Bakery murder trials as well as Occupy Oakland, and becomes an impressionistic history of the city.

Abramovich was an editor at Feed, one of the first online magazines (it was great, and it shut down in 2001 before it had the chance to deteriorate, and standards for online writing have been declining ever since). Those of us who’ve followed Abramovich’s career (I’ve worked with him as an editor) have been waiting for his first book for some time, and a magnum opus on rock and roll is still in the offing. Bullies might have been a different book if Abramovich hadn’t fallen off a motorcycle the first time he tried to ride one. Training in the parking lot of a horse-racing track, he unintentionally pops a wheelie, loses his grip, flies over the handlebars, breaks his fall with his hands, and lands on his stomach. He’s game to get back on the Kawasaki, but he finds that his left thumb is broken. (The injury would require hours of surgery, months of physical therapy, and thousands in medical bills, some of which, we learn in the acknowledgements, were fronted by his GQ editor Joel Lovell; Abramovich doesn’t dwell on his recovery, but we can trust it was grueling.)

So the author won’t be riding and he won’t be fighting, and with the stunt possibilities of participatory journalism shut down, the book veers into the more difficult work of close observation. Bullies isn’t a heartwarming tale of self-discovery via leather and chrome. And, despite its title, it also doesn’t advance anything like a general theory, or philosophy, of bullying, personal or otherwise. The reader is left to make connections, and that’s one of the book’s pleasures: Bullying is an elastic concept, from schoolyard tussles to gentrification to politics. The first half reads like anthropology, and in his fieldwork Abramovich gets close enough to his subjects, the Rats, for them to trust him, but he doesn’t quite go native. A sometimes explosive portrait of a subculture of mostly noble knuckleheads yields to the history of a city in a state of permanent turmoil, and then with Occupy we watch the Rats enter history.

The Rats are something of an Oakland institution. They are famous for their acts of public demolition (“Once, they’d dragged a full-size fighter jet engine out into the avenue, angled it upward, and used it to incinerate the neighborhood lampposts”) and infamous for their vandalism (“not only had the Rats tagged whales that had washed up on the shore in San Francisco; they’d also climbed up on top of the whales and fucked them, with strap-ons, in their blowholes”). They throw popular fight-night parties that draw big crowds and harness an ambient rage in group boxing matches that feature big bruisers, skinny and vicious punk kids, and not a few women. The fights rarely last long, as most of the fighters are smokers. Initiation into the Rats involves a beatdown at the hands of all the members simultaneously. “There’s blood,” Latham tells Abramovich. “Sometimes broken bones. But when else are your friends going to pay so much attention to you?” Many of the Rats are combat veterans, and many come from abusive homes. All of the Rats legally permitted to do so own guns. There are Hispanic, African-American, and Jewish members, and some who’ve made their way into the white-collar world of Silicon Valley. But most are working-class. “We’re together because we’re sitting here together in the lower bottom of society,” a Rat named J.J. says.

After finishing his reporting for GQ, Abramovich returns to New York, but after a couple of years he and his girlfriend realize that nothing is tying them there, so they decide to try living in Oakland. By the time they move, some things have changed. Two Rats have died, and J.J. — unlike the rest, a self-declared outlaw biker, one of the so-called one percent — has been kicked out of the club and become something like its roving nemesis. Some members have married, had children, and moved to the suburbs: “a very fast club that had slowed to a not-quite standstill.” Trevor is grayer, his limp more pronounced, and he’s developed an obsession with having children he can homeschool and teach to hunt. The story of the Rats entering middle age is more interesting than their prime of mayhem. Abramovich ties it conceptually to the history of motorcycle clubs and the evolution of Oakland. With a light touch he traces the city’s story from Spanish settlement, through U.S. annexation, squatter settlement, and consolidation, into the semblance of bourgeois order in the 1850s. “Oakland is the Staten Island of the bay region,” the poet Bayard Taylor wrote, but it was also the place where San Francisco’s grandees went to fight their duels.

In 2010 the chief of police announced that the force was stretched so thin it would no longer respond to 911 calls for, in effect, anything but violent crimes in progress. (Other violations are to be reported online.) This leads to something of a revival for the Rats, who are keen to see what they can get away with now that there’ll be no trouble with noise complaints. They burn couches, scooters, and a piano in the street. Fight nights pick up. Abramovich homes in on the tensions between the Rats and the neighborhood’s roving “recyclers” (Trevor refers to them as “crackheads”), who scavenge for bottles and cans they can trade in for payment by the pound. Over the course of Bullies, Abramovich witnesses a lot of fighting, most of it ritualized and inside rings, but also a few extracurricular beatdowns. Most of them leave him with the impression of something like civic self-regulation: Someone steps out of line and is checked. But one of them, when the Rats gang up on a recycler who’s come too close, leaves him feeling disturbed and helpless:

“They knocked the man down to the pavement, kicked him and punched him and dragged him, by the scruff of his shirt, into the middle of San Pablo Avenue. The recycler scrambled back to his feet. They knocked him down again and again. ‘I need to go stop this,’ I said, out loud, to no one. But I didn’t go, and when I did go, I didn’t run, and by the time I’d gotten to where the Rats had dragged him, the man was no longer there. Somehow, he’d crawled over the median strip. On the far side of San Pablo he stood up, then fell over again. I heard an engine start. Then a Rat rode his bike around the median, up to the man. He rocked the bike back and forth, nudging with his front tire, rolled back a few feet, gunned the engine, and rode his bike over the recycler’s body.

“I turned away. I wished that I’d turned away sooner. When I turned back, I expected to see something terrible. But there was nothing to see. The recycler was gone. The street was empty. And though we stayed at the clubhouse for another half hour or more, the police did not come around.”

Throughout Bullies, Abramovich’s narrative persona is artfully restrained. He takes the measure of Trevor and the Rats’ effect on him, but knows it wouldn’t be right to make himself the center of this story. He has in common with Geoff Dyer — another writer expert at mixing memoir, history, reportage, and cultural criticism — an impeccable instinct for his best material. He’s distilled his years of hanging with the Rats into a couple of hundred pages, but you have the sense that he left out many more hundreds of pages of scenes and stories that could easily have been slotted in.

The angle widens in the second half of Bullies, when he turns to Oakland’s 20th-century history and comes to understand the Rats as the latest manifestation of a brutal lineage. He tells the story of the Knowland family — the California Republicans who owned the Oakland Tribune and dominated city politics for decades — in a litany of fragments that ends with the patriarch’s suicide (divorce, debts to the mob) in 1974. Abramovich talks to cops and digs into the library’s archives. He locates the origins of the image of the rampaging motorcycle gang in an issue of Life from 1947, in a story about a rowdy weekend in Hollister, California, 90 miles south of San Francisco, accompanied by a photograph of an overweight, seemingly drunken biker that many believed was staged. “[T]he photograph didn’t articulate the 1%, outlaw aesthetic,” Abramovich writes, “so much as bring that aesthetic into being.” Before the war, motorcycle clubs had in the popular mind been practically genteel. Abramovich traces the new image of the hell-raising biker through popular culture through The Wild One to Mad Max, a canon that the Rats themselves hold dear, and connects it all convincingly to the century’s history of labor strikes and jilted war veterans: “Perhaps it’s as simple as that: if war was the condition that gave rise to modern motorcycle clubs, then the reason that so many clubs—the Rats, the Hells Angels, the East Bay Dragons, and countless others—felt at home in Oakland was that, in Oakland, the war had never quite ended.” This formulation is a little too easy, but it’s true to the Rats’ mentality.

In something like the book’s finale, the narrative turns to Occupy Oakland. Trevor and the Rats join the movement enthusiastically, serving among the security squad for the encampment at City Hall Plaza. “What are your politics anyway, Trevor?” Abramovich asks. “I voted once,” Trevor replies. “Libertarian. Took the sheet to a gun shop to figure out who else to vote for.” But making strange bedfellows was one of the goals of the 99 percent, and Abramovich reports the story from the ground, noting the protesters’ pedigrees and the fissures between the various radical sects, the gradual muddying of the scene. Trevor is at the center of things when the eviction begins, police from all over California massing with tear gas and crowd-control guns. Slipping past the barricades, Abramovich writes, Trevor “seemed like the freest of men.” Abramovich witnesses a former Marine, protesting with “Veterans for Peace,” being shot in the head with a bean-bag round by police. “Combat should not take place here,” the man tells him later. “It’s one thing to experience it in a war-torn country. It’s something else to see it here.”

Alex Abramovich Among the Thugs