Bad Groups That Weren't Evil Originally
People are good. Groups of people are awful. Get enough angry people in a formal organization, and it's only a matter of time before your nana's knitting circle is impaling their enemies with their needles. We're not saying that anarchy is the only good choice (anarchists can also knit up a murder-spree), but it's incredible just how many terrifying groups started out innocently ...
The Hells Angels Started As A World War II Veterans' Group
Motorcycle gangs, like so many subcultures, are a strange little phenomenon. Oh, motorcycles are cool, that needs no explanation. It's just less obvious why such a symbol of freedom and individualism would be linked to a group with rules and hierarchy, and why joining one means you then automatically have to end up dealing meth.
The reality is we owe motorcycle culture to the US military. Uncle Sam got Harley-Davidson to manufacture some 100,000 bikes for them back in World War II, where they became the vehicle of choice when it came to recon or carrying messages. After all, it hadn't been so long since soldiers rode on horseback, and the motorcycle was the horse's direct successor -- minus the pooping and Spielberg movies.
When the war ended, the Army began selling off its surplus bikes dirt cheap -- right at a time when a whole lot of men came home armed with experiences of riding and boredom to fill. Thus, many big motorcycle clubs, like the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington, consisted of veterans that found post-war comfort in the idea of accepting a rank and putting on a uniform. A group of Bastards broke off, and began calling themselves the "Hells Angels" after a nickname for Air Force squadrons. It makes more sense when describing fighter jets flying through the air, but whatever, you do you.
The early Hells Angels got into mild trouble in the form of bar fights but had nothing to do with organized crime. The transformation came when non-vet Sonny Barger formed the Oakland chapter and realized that if he had a whole lot of men at his disposal, he should probably get them to do something productive, like running guns and cocaine. Barger set the rules for the whole organization, and other motorcycle gangs used the Hells Angels as a model. An so the stage was set for them to turn to pimping, murder, plotting to assassinate Mick Jagger, etc.
The Jonestown Cult Began With Decades Of Legitimate Charity And Racial Activism
There's a fair chance that any cult who recruits you starts with vague promises about all their good work, to the point that whenever you hear some group luring you in with talk of charity, you're justified in asking "Hold on ... Is this a cult?" But the fascinating thing about the Peoples Temple (the Reverend Jim Jones' cult, much like the Hells Angels, hated apostrophes) was that their charity was genuine and a huge deal ... even if Jones eventually turned into a demagogue and his ministry became a dictatorship.
As a young man, Jim Jones fought hard for racial integration, losing his position in the legit church as a result, and opened his own church for both black and white folks. Church members then worked to expand their radical idea of the races mixing to other businesses and restaurants. We're not joking about this being a radical idea -- Jones was doing this back in the 1950s when black people breathing within 100-feet of a white business was considered a jailable offense. This caused the bulk of Jones' congregation to be African Americans, most of whom were drawn in by his church's views on race.
Those who didn't join the church still made use of all the charitable services it offered, including legal advice, health care, and just plain no-strings-attached money. The Temple ran care homes for the disabled. It got poor people into housing. It opened a cafeteria to offer free food to anyone who wanted it. All of this went on for decades. To fund the charity, they received donations, but they also grew grapes and sold them to a company that made wine.
Even when they opened their compound in Guyana, the Jones gang had the most idealistic of motives -- aiming for a racial paradise beyond what America seemed capable of creating. But making the undeveloped jungle livable meant a whole lot of work. So with the Temple having provided so much to its members, it seemed only fair to a power-mad Jones to demand labor in return ... whether the workers were willing or not. Paternalism became authoritarianism, and the utopia became a prison. We're not going to argue that ritual mass slaughter was the logical conclusion to all this, but now you know why plenty of people assume any system of sharing will inevitably lead to death camps.
The Somali Pirates Originally Fought Illegal Sea Activity
In the 1990s, Somalia had a whole lot of criminal stuff going down in the Indian Ocean to the east. If you've ever heard the phrase "Somali pirates" before, you can probably picture exactly what was happening. Criminals with guns in motorboats, waylaying giant freighters, climbing aboard, and looting all the cargo they had, right? Not quite. The lawbreakers in this case were actually the seaman in the giant commercial ships, and all that cargo was really booty they'd stolen.
See, every country owns the waters immediately off their coast, so if another country creeps in and tries lollygagging there, the government in charge usually shuts that all down. But since the Somali Civil War began in 1991, Somalia had been a little vague when it came to the question of whether it had a government at all. It certainly didn't have an active Coast Guard. So ships from countries like Japan and South Korea to the east and Spain to the west swept in, sometimes to scoop up tuna and lobster, other times to illegally dump nuclear waste.
The fishermen of Somalia were getting screwed. Their fish stocks were shrinking, and what fish they did catch now probably looked like the three-eyed one from The Simpsons. With no military enforcing the noble field of maritime law, the fishermen took up arms and went after the criminals themselves. They couldn't exactly arrest the perps, so what they did was charge each captain a fine -- or a "tax," as they called it. The captains were more likely to characterize this payment as a "ransom," but they rarely reported the shakedowns to their own governments for fear of revealing their own criminal activity.
It didn't take too many of these rendezvous for the Somali fishermen to stop seeing the foreign ships as dreaded invaders and start seeing them as floating piggy banks. Pretty soon, one of these anti-pirate vigilantes said, "I'm the pirate now," and they expanded to robbing any ship that came by, even the ones licensed to be there. Loot's loot, after all. We could all take this as an important lesson on why we must leave law enforcement to the state ... except, when legit law enforcement sees the same opportunity to strip people of their valuables, they often turn into pirates too.
The KKK Were Originally College Pranksters
Here's another tale of young men who came home from war and, with nothing better to do, decided to form a club. The war, in this case, was the Civil War, and lacking convenient motorcycles to grab their attention, these young ex-soldiers took to the other bored dude pastime: pranking. A note, we do mean young, because though they were Confederate vets, the KKK's six founders were college students. When they formed the Ku Klux Klan in 1865, club activities included "putting on wacky disguises" and "riding around in the middle of the night."
For a couple of years, the group grew and functioned as a fraternity, right down to having their name shortened to three easy-to-pronounce letters. By 1867, they figured the various chapters needed to unite under national leadership, and they picked as their new leader a former Confederate general named Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest became their first Grand Wizard (he'd had a reputation for being a "wizard of the saddle").
From the start, the Klansmen's literal horseplay scared people, which suited the members just fine -- cause, you know, pranks. It especially scared ex-slaves, which was a surprise but not an unwelcome one -- cause, you know, racists. As more bitter ex-Confederates kept filling up their ranks, they were more than happy to begin targeting ex-slaves on purpose. And when Forrest took the reins, he pulled all the informal social groups together into an organization that officially made slave terror its primary mission. They attacked voters, because even before the 15th Amendment explicitly recognized the right, some ex-slaves did vote. Once the 15th Amendment did pass, ex-slaves voted for Republicans in droves, so the KKK stepped up their efforts by turning from intimidating voters to murdering them.
But here's a weird twist: When the KKK got super violent, it was apparently beyond what even Forrest had envisioned. Fed up with what his men kept doing, he ordered the disbandment of the entire organization. After the members countered with a "U mad, bro?" Forrest offered his services to the governor of Tennessee in apprehending or killing the outlaw Klansmen. You can't count on your extremist followers just getting a little extreme, Forrest. That's not what "extreme" means.
The Zetas Were Special Forces Trained By The US To Fight Terrorism And Drugs
The US Military's complex at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is enormous. Tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed there regularly, along with loads of whole families. When the personnel isn't preparing for war or lip-syncing to Lady Gaga songs, they conduct training sessions, including those for operatives from other countries. In the early '90s, they offered training to Mexico's Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (Special Forces Airmobile Group), and if you've read this far, you can already guess this didn't end well.
It was very useful training by all accounts, the sort of training that we'd want the Mexican military to have. The overall goal was to teach them how to carry out counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations. This meant starting with Boy Scouts basics like learning how to read a map, then building up to military stuff like how to use automatic weapons and machine guns. More than 500 recruits from GAFE got this training.
But if you're skilled with a gun and head back into Mexico looking for a career, more lucrative opportunities than the army await you. The giant drug syndicate known as Gulf Cartel had recently been having issues with pesky rivals like the Juarez Cartel and the Mexican government, so they brought in Arturo Guzman Decena, a former GAFE dude who had enough skills to take on everyone. Decena hadn't trained at Fort Bragg, but he knew a whole lot of people who had, and he got them to desert and join up with the cartel.
That'd be a complete enough tale of how a team trained in North Carolina went bad, but Decena's guys didn't stick with the old-school evil Gulf Cartel. They split and formed their own group, Los Zetas -- which you may have heard of due to their reputation as psycho killers even by Mexican cartel standards. They post torture videos online, kill random teens at birthday parties, stick heads on spikes, and break the unwritten cartel rule against slaughtering pregnant women. One time, they pulled 200 people off buses for no apparent reason, made the men fight to the death, then buried everyone in mass graves.
The name "Zetas," by the way, comes from Decena's radio code back when he was an officer. So, we have yet another gang title taken from the founders' military history. Somebody should really start giving veterans hobbies so they don't go forming gangs. How much does a PlayStation Plus subscription cost nowadays?
The Crips Began As An Anti-Gang Neighborhood Watch
In 1971, Stanley "Tookie" Williams realized his neighborhood had a gang problem. Not a Mexican drug war-level gang problem, but there had been gangs in South Central Los Angeles for decades, and Williams had made some headway into joining them before getting hauled off to juvie for stealing a car. He'd even thought about becoming a gang leader. But now, he had another idea: What if he got together some promising young recruits who hadn't joined any gang, and they started a sort of neighborhood watch? They could rid their street of gangs altogether!
Now, if you're thinking to yourself that "a group of youths who fight gangs" sounds suspiciously like the exact definition of a gang ... well, good job, you're right. Tookie's group gained strength and established a formal identity, and their encounters with gangs generally involved fighting them with decidedly gang-like tactics. Eventually, the Crips, oops, became one of the largest gangs in the world themselves.
When it comes to the Crips' lofty original goals, we pretty much just have Tookie's own words to go by, so you're welcome to remain skeptical. Keep in mind though, when he shared these thoughts at the end of his life, he wasn't exactly some crook looking to garner sympathy. He was on death row with zero chance of earning his freedom. By that point, he'd written several children's books and had been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yes, really: He'd been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times (and for the Literature prize once) for his efforts to fight gang activity -- which included brokering a truce between the Crips and Bloods, and speaking to at-risk teens about not joining up. In the end, he really was committed to countering the organization he himself had founded. You might even call Tookie Williams the black Nathan Bedford Forrest ... if, you know, you're a complete dumbass and want the Crips to come murder your ass.