Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Moral Panic in Northern Virginia

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about sixties motorcycle gangs in NOVA during the mid and late sixties. Reading the WaPo’s coverage from 1965-70 is reading a classic example of the media molding a moral panic out of youthful disturbances. The WaPo especially takes aim at the Pagans as the motorcycle gang grew from a few young men to a huge regional club. The coverage culminated with the murders of Newland and Hartless in 1970.

The first article to mention the Pagans that I’ve found is from late 1965. Warner Ray Cockerille was arrested at the Social Circle dance hall in Centreville for his involvement in a brawl. The article mentions as an aside that he was part of the “pagan motorcycle club”. This article lays the first building block in the construction of a moral panic by alleging Cockerille fought a group of girls despite his 6'9" stature. In constructing a moral panic, it is critical to show them as living outside the norm and showing them in extreme deviancy such as fighting a group of girls.

In April 1966 the Fairfax City Times had an article about a gang fight in Fairfax City. The article describes the conflict between the “greasers”, “collegiates”, and the “pagans”. It’s interesting to see the use of the word greaser, which was a hidden national subculture among blue-collar kids from the 1950s-70s (see the Outsiders). Greasers typically had a fifties look, were into hod rods and motorcycles, and despised hippies. The “pagans” were described as an outside group, but were actually the beginnings of the Pagans coalescing into a gang in Northern Virginia. The article describes the groups in the typical language of moral panics in which they are described as engaging in deviant behavior that is contrasted with the “good kids” that warned police of a huge brawl behind the A&P across from the old Fairfax High School (now Paul VI) with the usual outrage from the adult squares.

In June 1966, the WaPo hit moral panic paydirt when the greasers (now called the Avengers) and the Pagans had a shootout behind Safeway at the Lee-Harrison Center in Arlington. The event had all the trimmings that the community needed for a full-blown moral panic. The adult squares saw out of control marginalized young men, strangely dressed, with no regard for the community’s norms. Add to that the allure of motorcycles, guns, and gang symbols and you’ve got a recipe for a sensational story. The result was the usual investigations by the County Board, the letters to the editor, and the conversations about what to do about these delinquents. While the rumble between the Avengers and Pagans established the Pagans as the dominant gang in Northern Virginia, it also began to change the nature of the gang. On that day, it began as transition away from a hard drinking, brawling, fun-loving group of young men towards the criminal enterprise it is today. Unfortunately, moral panics in the media often fuel the fire and the media coverage attracted new members to the Pagans. The interesting contrast in these articles was the “fruits”, which an Avenger girlfriend assures us does not mean homosexual, but refers to the kids that care about college. Again, this coverage of moral panics needs a bearing for the squares to establish the deviancy of the Pagans and the “fruits” served this purpose.

Following the Arlington rumble, the WaPo did a number of profiles of the Pagans. They ranged from the bizarre to the sinister, but they added to the allure of the gang and solidified the Pagans as the folk devils of Northern Virginia. In one article they profile Earl “Moochie” Swicegood and the article tries to reconcile the look and attitude of bikers with the squares’ world. At one point Moochie declares that he believes in paganism and then a policeman asks him if his swastika symbolizes anti-semitism which Moochie denies. The reporter also asks Moochie if the Pagans are basically hedonistic; you can hear the snickering by the reporter coming through the newsprint as he writes that Moochie scrunched up his face and didn't understand the word. When the reporter explained the word, Moochie said “Yeah its one big party baby”.

From this point forward, anytime a Pagan was involved in trouble, the media covered it and mentioned the Pagans. Occasionally the media gave readers a review of all the crimes committed by Pagans to make sure they understood the deviancy of the organization. This solidified the Pagans as NOVA's folk devils and merely mentioning in an article that someone was a Pagan was enough to feed the moral panic. The media coverage couldn't see any nuance in the Pagans and tended to protray them as monolithic and uniform in beliefs and behavior. For exampel, the Pagans that intimidated Vietnam protesters got a brief mention without analyzing how this behavior was at odds with the paper's strict portrayal of Pagans as deviants.

As I wrote in an earlier post, in 1970 a group of Pagans murdered members of a rival gang called the Saints. The Saints were an outgrowth of the Avengers, so this was a continuation of the early rumbles in Fairfax and Arlington. By now, the Pagans were huge and had become a much different gang than they were four years earlier with many members involved in drug dealing, prostitution, and other criminal activities. After the murders of Hartless and Newland, you can see a transition in leadership in the Pagans. One of the original Pagans, Richard Scarborough, declared himself retired because the gang had moved away from its origins of a group of guys attending races with their wives. This is probably an overstatement by Scarborough. The coverage of the murders further solidified the Pagans as a murderous,deviant and sinister gang by the media. Therefore, any trouble where Pagans were involved confirmed them as a threat to polite society and usually those involved were assumed guilty.

This was shown in the 1974 court case involving a late night fight in Georgetown between members of the Pagans and a group of African-Americans. Two Pagans were sentenced to long prison terms based on false testimony that was never questioned because the squares assumed that Pagans were inherently violent, racist, and deviant. The two Pagans were recently released when irregularities in the trial came to light including false testimony by an ex-girlfriend.

The point of this post is not to declare the Pagans as an entirely innocent organization. No doubt they were hard drinking roughnecks that had some members involved in criminal activities since at least the late sixties. However, there has been a long tradition of young men being hard drinking roughnecks and involved in criminal activities, which made the Pagans seem a bit more normal than the media portrayed them. In many early articles Pagans said they did not seek trouble, but just wanted to live their lives free of the shackles of regular society. The media couldn’t read this as a subtle request to butt out and let them live by their own code good or bad.


  1. I really need to speak with the perso who wrote this article.

  2. You can contact the owner of the blog at the address on the right. Kewaywi at gmail.com