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LA motorcycle club 'The Defiant Ones' faces uncertain future

The Defiant Ones are the oldest black motorcycle club in LA. For 55 years they've had the same clubhouse in Watts, but as the club ages and no younger members join up, the future of the club is uncertain.
The Defiant Ones are the oldest black motorcycle club in LA. For 55 years they've had the same clubhouse in Watts, but as the club ages and no younger members join up, the future of the club is uncertain.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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The Defiant Ones clubhouse takes up a full city block in Watts at 81st and South Central where it’s been for 55 years.

Faded photos of young men line the red and yellow walls. The same faces in the photos dot the crowd, but they’re older now. Men pop open beers while playing dominoes.

Painted in six-foot letters across the wall is the club’s motto: The Power of Togetherness. That’s why Nathan Beasley, known here as Nate, or Nate Dogg Beasley, decided to join the club.

"When you had nowhere else to go, this is where you can come and lay all your troubles down. You know, lay your burdens to the side, come here relax, kick back and feel at home."

The club bills itself as the oldest black motorcycle club in LA. Most of the original Defiant Ones, also known as The DOs, were WWII servicemen. After leaving the ranks they wanted that same camaraderie, adrenaline and brotherhood. Pee Low Jr. joined the club in 1978 after serving in the Navy.

"Well when you go out on a ship you’re out at sea and you don’t see land for days. So when you’re on that bike you see land, but looks like the world is just yours."

Their love of bikes, beers and riding beyond the city limits has always tied the club together. Every Friday night they open the club doors to the entire biker community and party until the sun comes up, but these parties aren’t filled with the rampant violence and drugs that get associated with bike gangs in pop culture.

TV shows like FX’s Sons of Anarchy show a grittier side of riding. But sometimes violence does creep into the scene. On February 11th, 2012 two men were shot outside the DOs clubhouse during one of their Friday night parties. Geography can be destiny in a place like Watts, where violence has a long history. Still, the club is a far cry from The Hell’s Angels and The Mongols that have a storied past of organized crime.

"We have club brothers, some were Crips, some were Bloods, but when you come here, guess what, you’re neither one. You’re a brother of the DOs -- a Defiant One. You put all that aside. You know guys who were mortal enemies in the streets while they were gang banging are now brothers."

To join the brotherhood of the DO’s, the first absolute rule is you must ride a Harley. Next, someone in the club has to vouch for you. Ty Bud joined the club through his best friend, who had been going to the club with his father for years.

“Lot of guys that come through this club are family or close friends of one another. We don’t go out and recruit club members. We don’t go out and recruit people.”

But that tactic is becoming a problem. Today, pretty much everyone in the club is over forty and most of their conversations start with “back in the day.” Harley’s just aren’t the counterculture icon they used to be in the 60s and 70s and they’re expensive. Young guys aren’t ready to shell out ten to sixty grand on an old man’s bike. Original riders like Pee Low Jr. worry about the club’s future.

"Too much hard work and stuff has been put into this club for it to just go down the drain man. And I can’t stand by and see it."

John McCollum, known as PeeWee, was one of the godfathers of black biker culture in Los Angeles and served as the President of The DOs for many years. When he died this past February over 600 bikers from all over California flocked to his funeral.

His grandson Andrew Thompson, known in the club as Lil PeeWee, wants to carry on his grandfather’s legacy. He’s the youngest Defiant One by fifteen years and he’s got big shoes to fill.

"When he walked, it looked like he was still riding a motorcycle. That’s how much of a rider he was. You know I’m going to put my heart and soul into it and try to be that man he was plus some more."

Lil PeeWee is creating a new line of custom Harley’s that he hopes will entice younger guys to join the club. His latest project is a bike shaped like a soaring eagle with headlights for eyes and feathers etched into steel. On weekends he invites friends to join in on The Defiant One’s parties and outings.

In April, Lil PeeWee and The DO’s ride out to Lake Elsinore for their annual family picnic. The turnout is smaller this year, but there is a younger generation in tow eyeing their father’s bikes. For now, the Defiant Ones in training are still riding their ten speeds.

KPCC's Mae Ryan reporting.