The melee that left nine dead in Waco, Texas, on May 17 looked like an update of The Wild One, the 1953 Marlon Brando film that made bikers the ultimate scofflaws. But was it? The gunfire came at a Confederation of Clubs, a gathering to discuss shared concerns like traffic law, often with a lawyer on hand.
Words, then shots were exchanged between the Bandidos, who control Texas, and the Cossacks, who refused to pay fealty and showed up uninvited, “completely acting out of what’s the norm in the subculture,” says William Dulaney, a biker and professor at Air University.
The ensuing battle drew on what bikers call the core elements of outlaw life: brotherhood, hierarchy and pride–tribal values that are symbolized on club members’ embroidered vests known as “colors.” The TEXAS on Bandido vests declared dominion over the state. When the Cossacks added TEXAS to their garb, it was read as a challenge.
Dominant clubs, Dulaney says, “have responsibility to enforce peaceful coexistence in that area, because if they don’t, law enforcement will come in and be all over you.” Which, with 190 arrests so far, it certainly is.
This appears in the June 01, 2015 issue of TIME.