Postcard — August 13, 2015, 3:22 pm

Bloodbath & Beyond

After the Waco massacre
Motorcyles sit in the parking lot of the Twin Peaks restaurant, the scene of a motorcyle gang shootout, May 18, 2015 in Waco, Texas. A shootout between rival biker gangs began in the afternoon May 17, led to nine dead, many injured and 170 arrerested. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

Motorcyles sit in the parking lot of Twin Peaks restaurant, in Waco, Texas, on May 17, 2015. Photograph by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Two summers ago my family and I moved from the anonymous suburbs of Chicago—Generica, a friend of mine calls such places—to Waco, Texas, where I had taken a job as a professor of humanities at Baylor University. As we drove in to the city, Siri gave us directions and noted that we had arrived in Wacko. “The jokes write themselves,” I told my wife.

As a native of Birmingham, Alabama, I already knew something about living in a place that has contemptuous narratives permanently affixed to it. Mention Waco, and the first thing that comes to most minds is the 1993 destruction of the Branch Davidian compound—or rather, the very existence of such a cultic compound, which for many Americans seems to be the really troubling thing about that event. Never mind that the violence was done to, not by, the religious weirdos; never mind that it wasn’t in Waco but ten miles east. Some fifteen miles north is West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant exploded two years ago, destroying a good chunk of the town and raining debris onto the cars flying up and down I-35. But the network news usually said “Near Waco, Texas . . .”

“It’s a nice place,” we said to our friends and family. Lots of live oaks. Good Tex-Mex food. Hole-in-the-wall taquerias and an emerging food-truck culture. A terrific coffee-shop-and-cocktail-bar (called Dichotomy, neatly enough). You can sit outside and drink your pour-over Ethiopian coffee in January sunshine then take long walks through the trees along the Brazos River. And rush hour lasts for fifteen minutes at the most. We like it here.

I was back in Chicagoland visiting friends when the news broke: dozens, maybe hundreds, of motorcycle gang members shooting at each other and the police in the parking lot of a restaurant called Twin Peaks. (Think Hooters, not David Lynch.) I had never been in the restaurant, but I had driven past it many times. It had been open less than a year, occupying a brand-new building in the Central Texas Marketplace, a shopping center at the junction of the interstate and a major state highway, featuring a Starbucks, a Panera Bread, and a Bed Bath & Beyond. The place was miles from my house, and there was really no possibility that my family could be in danger, but I texted them about it anyway. They hadn’t yet heard. We discussed the situation for a few minutes. There was certainly no need for them to alter any of their plans in the slightest: the shoot-out was over, arrests had been made, the wounded had been taken to hospitals. Our own daily habits never took us in that direction anyway. “Maybe y’all should stay home for the rest of the day,” I texted.

“Biker gang” is the usual shorthand, but they call themselves “motorcycle clubs.” The best known in Texas is the Bandidos, or, formally, Bandidos Motorcycle Club. There are about 2,400 Bandidos around the world, but Texas is where they’re famous, and dominant. They have a long history of extreme violence, but like their Californian counterparts, the Hells Angels—with whom they’ve had their share of clashes over the decades—they claim to have become somewhat domesticated, even bureaucratized, over time. They get regular counsel from lawyers who are themselves motorcycle enthusiasts. They belong to a national organization of like-minded groups called the Confederation of Clubs. According to one of those biking lawyers, William A. Smith, of Dallas, chapters of the Confederation meet fairly regularly to discuss “motorcycle safety and awareness” as well as to socialize. Many of them bring along their wives or girlfriends, who call themselves PBOLs: Proud Bandido Old Ladies.

Waco is a perfect location for regional chapters of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents to meet: ninety minutes south of Dallas, two hours north of Austin, and three hours or so from both Houston and San Antonio. And Twin Peaks is just off the interstate, offering easy access for all concerned. Jay Patel, operating partner of the Waco franchise, seems to have seen in these meetings a windfall for his newly opened restaurant. He had already established a weekly Bike Night for local club members, but a chapter meeting is a much bigger deal: a couple of hundred bikers and companions can drink many gallons of beer and eat mountains of Buffalo wings. So when the Confederation approached him about holding a chapter meeting there, Patel agreed.

The potential trouble involved the Cossacks and their bottom rockers. The Cossacks, a comparatively small and new club, have for some years now been operating in Texas more or less by permission from the Bandidos, to whom they have paid a regular tribute (“dues”) for the privilege. But the Cossacks don’t want to pay tribute any more. They want to be independent operators in Texas, which is where the bottom rockers come in. Most bikers wear leather vests with the name of their club across the top and the name of the state in which they operate along the bottom. When the Cossacks started wearing bottom rockers reading “TEXAS,” the Bandidos grew very, very unhappy. But the Cossacks were committed: either the Bandidos would acknowledge their legitimacy and independence or there would be fights.

On May 1 the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a bulletin: “Tension between Bandidos OMG [Outlaw Motorcycle Gang] and Cossacks MC remains high in Texas.” “The conflict may stem,” the bulletin read, “from Cossacks members refusing to pay Bandidos dues for operating in Texas and for claiming Texas as their territory by wearing the Texas bottom rocker on their vests.” On the basis of this bulletin and other intelligence gained locally, Waco police approached Jay Patel to discourage him from allowing the Confederation chapter to meet in his restaurant. They claim that he was not receptive to their pleas.

1 At least one Cossack biker has disputed the claim that his club was not invited.

The chapter meeting was therefore held, as scheduled, on Sunday, May 17, around lunchtime. The Cossacks were not invited—they do not even belong to the Confederation of Clubs—but they came anyway, presumably as a declaration of independence.1 Some say the conflict started in the restaurant’s men’s room, some that it began in the parking lot when a bike ran over a foot. Waco police were already there, but the gangs, as they had promised, were undeterred from confronting each other. They went at each other with chains, bats, clubs, knives, and guns—though some of the gang members at the scene said that the police fired the first bullets. Soon nine were dead—all either Bandidos or Cossacks—with twice as many wounded and more than a hundred arrested. Word got around that more bikers were converging on the city to continue the fight, but nothing happened. By the time I returned to Waco the city was quiet, and the shoot-out had its own detailed Wikipedia page. 

Waco Police Department spokesman Patrick Swanton was remarkably blunt in his criticism of the people who ran the restaurant. “The management wanted them here,” Sergeant Swanton said. “Management knew that there were issues, and we were here, but they continued to let those groups of people into their business.” Patel posted a statement to Facebook saying that he had had “positive communications” with local police, but Swanton called that statement “an absolute fabrication.” A day after the shoot-out Twin Peaks announced that “the Waco location will be closed and will not reopen.”

In all Sergeant Swanton’s communications with the public—and he was on TV and radio often in the days following the shootings—his frustration rumbled just beneath the surface, occasionally erupting into plain sight. Local and state law enforcement knew exactly what was coming, he said, but could do nothing to prevent it. They knew where and when the danger would be greatest; they knew that the bikers would be armed, even, perhaps, beyond the generous allowance of firearms that is made by Texas law; they knew that Central Texas Marketplace, at noon on Sunday, would be filled with families coming from church. But no crime had been committed, nor had an explicit threat to the public been made. There appeared to be no basis on which the police could act. They were dependent on voluntary cooperation from the management of Twin Peaks. When that cooperation was not forthcoming, the police had little choice, they say, but to show themselves in the danger zone on the appointed day.

Whether they could have found a less deadly way to intervene in the conflict is something that, as I write, cannot be known and may never be known. Did they fire the first shots? When they fired, did they have good cause to do so? It seems strange, in our time, to have a civic tragedy of this kind unfold with so little social-media evidence to sift through. We have quickly grown accustomed to images and reports tweeted and Instagrammed to the world then shared and debated—but almost all we have to document the Waco shoot-out is a series of photographs of gang members sitting in the Twin Peaks parking lot, casually overseen by police, checking their cell phones, a few feet from sheets of yellow plastic covering dead bodies. 

Just a few weeks before the shootings and just a few miles from where it would happen, I sat in a seminar room and talked with my students about the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Nearly four hundred years ago, in the midst of civil war in England, Hobbes argued that, if we are to avoid “the war of every man against every man,” it is necessary to create a political Leviathan: a single entity (perhaps a person, perhaps a group of persons) in whom all power is concentrated. Leviathan, Hobbes believed, is the only way we can be saved from our worst selves, saved from lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” By the beginning of the twentieth century the great sociologist Max Weber claimed that that was just what had happened in the intervening centuries: we had granted a Gewaltmonopol des Staates—granted to the State a “monopoly on violence.”

But in America today all fifty states allow at least some people to carry concealed handguns; and forty-four states allow some form of “open carry” (for which some, but not all, require licenses). Especially in the South and West of the United States there are a good many people who think that even those laws do not go far enough in allowing citizens to compete, as it were, with the government in the possession of weapons of deadly force. (The political-theory wing of the Tea Party often contends that the founders meant for American citizens to be able to rebel, militarily if necessary, against their elected government, should that government grow tyrannical.) Many people will see what happened at Twin Peaks as illustrative of a Texas, or more broadly a red-state, “gun culture,” and while that’s not inaccurate, it makes more sense to see the gun use in this case as accidental: firearms merely provided the technology by which a body of beliefs were made manifest. By carrying guns, the Cossacks and Bandidos made concrete the claim that the state neither should nor does have a monopoly on violence.  

But the outlaw gangs are, implicitly, making another claim as well: that the state’s sovereignty doesn’t extend to all of its citizens in all circumstances. When, in the months before the Waco shoot-out, tensions were building between the Bandidos and the Cossacks, some of the gang leaders sent a clear and simple message to police: Stay out of this; let us sort it out. This goes further than laying claim to the right to use force. The more deeply embedded a person is in biker culture, the more he exists in a kind of parallel dimension, an alternate moral universe with its own laws and mores. That universe is a territorial shame-and-honor culture, in which it seems obvious to the Bandidos that, thanks to their large membership and venerable history, they should be able to dictate what other bike gangs wear on their vests and should be able to exact tribute for the privilege of a “TEXAS” bottom rocker. That view came to seem less than obvious to the Cossacks, but not because they believed such a system to violate the freedom of Americans; rather, they understood that such a system of territory and tribute depends utterly on the strength of those who would attempt to enforce it. When the kings grow weak, or their rivals grow strong, the time has come to test the existing hierarchy of power. And that’s what the Cossacks did.

The problem, though, is that biker gangs don’t actually live in an alternate universe. They live in the same universe with the rest of us, who might want to get a nice lunch after church on a spring Sunday. They came fully armed to a new restaurant just off the interstate, and confronted each other a few feet from families eating enchiladas. The sound of gunfire jolted people who were buying towels. And if there were any nonbikers in Twin Peaks that Sunday, they must have been utterly terrified.

In the end, though, the bikers were the only ones who suffered injury and death. After the shoot-out and the arrests and the towing-away of bikes, Waco police, along with other law-enforcement agencies, investigated the wrecked restaurant. They discovered that many of bikers had discarded weapons they didn’t want the cops to find on them. Weapons were dropped in toilets and stuffed between sacks of flour. There were bats, clubs, brass knuckles. At the end of the third day after the shoot-out police had discovered, in the restaurant and in the bikers’ vehicles, 157 knives, 118 handguns, and one AK-47 automatic rifle.

Meanwhile, Texas legislators began, as scheduled, a debate about allowing “open carry”—yes, until June, when the legislation passed, Texas was one of only six states in which firearms could not be carried openly. Governor Greg Abbott said: “The shoot-out occurred when we don’t have open carry, so obviously the current laws didn’t stop anything like that,” which is certainly true. Indeed, the shoot-out at Waco had nothing to do with any existing laws, but rather arose from the dynamics of a subculture broken apart by rivalry and hostility but united in its belief that it should be allowed to function to a considerable extent outside the government’s laws.

When we hear about events like this shoot-out, we’re inevitably reminded of how unpredictable our lives are, how vulnerable we are to the contingency of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But we ought also to be reminded that we live in a society in which the government has only some of the guns, and in which a great many people think that the government exerts far too much power over their lives. And as long as that is the case, those of us who prefer to remain unarmed risk getting caught in the crossfire—perhaps quite literally. Another law recently passed by Texas legislators requires state colleges and universities to allow concealed weapons to be carried on campus. Officials at Baylor University, my employer, have said that concealed carry will not be permitted on campus, which is a relief. Too many ironies intrude when I contemplate discussing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes with people who are packing heat.

As I write, the consequences of the shoot-out are unfolding, in a chaotic parody of process that will continue for months, probably years. The Mexican restaurant next door has sued Twin Peaks; Sergeant Swanton has promised that video evidence will prove that the Waco police did everything right; bikers are suing to prove that the police did a great deal wrong; prosecutors are preparing their cases; families are grieving their dead.

When I got back to town and drove past the shopping center, I saw that police had set up barriers around the Twin Peaks parking lot, and for several weeks there were always police cars parked there, though perhaps just for show, with no one in them. A bank of stadium lights had been towed into the lot, and when the sun went down they were trained on the restaurant to deter vandals and the overly curious. All the restaurant’s signs were removed, leaving the bare building. When the rest of the shopping center grew dark and quiet, and the lights so brightly illuminated this one small space, Twin Peaks looked like a weird unattended shrine.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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