California and motorcycles go way back: from Marlon Brando’s star turn as an outlaw biker in 1953’s "The Wild One" to the current TV hit "Sons of Anarchy," set in the fictional town of Charming, California. Real-life California is packed with motorcycle clubs, from the notorious Hells Angels (founded in Fontana, with its best-known chapter in Oakland) to the hundreds of clubs that crisscross the state on bikes today. That includes dozens of African-American groups, like Oakland’s East Bay Dragons.
This year marks the Dragons’ 55th year as a motorcycle club, and they enjoy elder statesman status among the black motorcycle set.
California’s black clubs descend on Fresno each October, convening to celebrate motorcycles. The weekend is known as the Halfway Run -- because of Fresno’s location roughly halfway between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
In Fresno, the Dragons team up with two L.A. clubs to rent out a Days Inn. The motel is just off Highway 99, and the low din of car traffic from the road is regularly punctuated by roaring motorcycles. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people pack into the parking lot. The clubs are grilling food, lounging by the swimming pool and checking out each other’s rides. There’s gridlock, with motorcycles of every color glistening in the sun and blasting music.
In front of his hotel room, Ali Ar Rasheed takes in the scene. Rasheed is a member of the East Bay Dragons. A consultant by day, he helps manage the club’s finances. “Riding is sort of like an active form of meditation,” Rasheed says, smoke rising off the cigar in his hand. “If you ride -- and you’re serious about riding -- you’re not worried about bills. You know, that’s not your focus, mentally. It’s the traffic, it’s the people you’re riding with.”
The Dragons' other business manager goes by the name "Tug Boat." He’s a solidly built man with a shaved head. Like Rasheed, he stresses that the image of bikers as outlaws doesn’t apply to the laid-back gathering in Fresno, which crosses generational lines. Not that the police get the message. “I don’t think any cop has a day off when we’re in town," Tug Boat says. For Tug Boat, the gathering represents unity. We all enjoy one thing, and that’s riding motorcycles," he says.
Bikers at the Halfway Run all give their own reasons for riding motorcycles. MC Raw, a Fresno-based rapper, calls a motorcycle “a missile with handlebars.” Watts-based construction worker Blackie says “being on a Harley is like having sex.” And G-14 Classified, who rode his Suzuki Boulevard 1500 from Sacramento, calls riding a bike “almost like a low-level flying. I enjoy the feeling of the wind, the music and sometimes even solitude.”
Many of the riders here are affiliated with clubs, like Los Angeles’ Divided Time and Chosen Few, Sacramento’s Aftermath and Fresno’s Unknown Riders. A handful of all-female clubs, like Compton’s Red Pearls, also make the trip to Fresno.
The motorcycles they fly around the state on are bigger and brighter than the ones the Dragons rode through Oakland in the 1950s. But through all the changes, the Dragons stuck with the same man as president: Tobie Gene Levingston. He goes by “Prez” to club members.
Levingston grew up in rural Louisiana, the son of a sharecropper. After World War II, his family moved to Oakland. “I had some brothers, and they was all behind me. And they was kind of crazy!” he remembers. “So I started a car club to work on old cars and get their mind occupied working on cars.”
It worked, and the club began attracting other kids from the neighborhood. Levingston and the Dragons made the switch from cars to bikes in 1959. He says bikes were cheaper, and they didn’t get hassled by cops as much on two wheels.
The Dragons adopted their own uniform. They wore black, grease-stained Levi’s and vests with their signature patch: a green dragon against a gold background. The club’s name and hometown are in bright red stitching: "East Bay Dragons OAKLAND CALIFORNIA”.
The Dragons are an all-male, all-black club. And they ride only Harley-Davidsons. “Because it’s made in America and they keep jobs here,” Levingston explains. “That’s the reason I ride the Harley Davidson.”
He looks back fondly on the early days of the Dragons: going to dances in the '50s, and partying with hippies, Hells Angels and Black Panthers in the '60s. At the group’s clubhouse in Oakland, pictures of old dances, parties and motorcycle “runs” cover the walls.
The toughest moments for Levingston and the Dragons came in the 1980s, as crack ripped through East Oakland. “I seen a lot of good men, I mean a whole bunch of them, get hooked on that s---" Levingston recalls. "I lost a lot of good friends behind that s---.”
But the club survived, and continues to attract new members. More than 50 made the trip to Fresno, including Levingston. He’s had health problems in recent years, including a bout with cancer, so he wasn’t able to ride his own Harley to the Halfway Run. “You know it’s like an old car,” he says. “You wear out man!” But he’s still there. “I ain’t never gonna get rid of my bike, man.”
Many Dragons are decades younger than Levingston -- a few are in their 20s -- and he gives them all the same message: “I want ya’ll to keep it going on when I’m gone. All I say: Don’t you get your butt outta here and get in and get out and jump and run off. Carry it on.”
For now, though, Levingston’s going strong at 80, and looking to buy his next Harley: a three-wheeler.