A SWARM of motorcycles closed in on a black SUV carrying a family in Manhattan last week, leading to an enraged encounter, a chase, a beating, and injuries. Police went looking for the bikers, who police say instigated the confrontation after the SUV accidentally struck a motorcyclist. They were but one contingent in a huge mass of motorcycles that had aimed at converging on Times Square in an end-of-summer display. Police had succeeded in heading off the central rally, sending numerous squads of the two-wheeled Harleys, BMWs, and Triumphs across the city. Having had the bad luck to cross paths with the wrong pack, the hapless family in the SUV ended up against a threat no one deserves to face: a frenzied mob that simply can’t be reasoned with.
Motorcycles occupy a conflicted place in the American imagination, carrying associations of rebellion, power, freedom, danger, noise — all embodying a certain kind of hypermasculinity. James Dean’s “Rebel Without A Cause” featured suicidal car races; while Dean died in a sports car, his iconic photo has him on a motorcycle. Evoking him, one news report referred to last week’s biker gang as “rebels without a clue.” Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” enshrined the motorcycle as a symbol of revolt in one decade, and, in the next, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper sealed it as a counterculture icon in “Easy Rider.” Arlo Guthrie’s “Motorcycle Song” was a kind of anthem to all of this: “I don’t want a pickle; I just want to ride my motorsickle.”