River Valley BACA
@story Marla Cantrell
On a balmy night in 2001, a man called Tree was throwing back a few at a bikers’ rally in Oklahoma. He remembers the way the band sounded, the hodgepodge of tents set up just yards away, the tips of the cigarettes glowing orange in darkness. But mostly he remembers wondering what the hell BACA meant. The four letters were spelled out on the back of the vest of the man in front of him.
“It was two in the morning and I was so drunk I could hardly stand up. I’m not proud of that; that was my past. I’ve grown a lot since then,” Tree says, looking at the toe of his bulky boots. “I’ll never forget that man – he belonged to an Oklahoma BACA [Bikers Against Child Abuse] chapter. He talked to me, maybe for an hour or an hour and a half. But he was being a wise ass because he thought I wasn’t serious. He said, ‘If you really want to find out, go to my tent.’ Kind of challenging me. So at eight o’clock that morning I was at his tent.”
What Tree learned during that meeting was like the parting of the waters. “I’d been single my whole life and I kept wondering, Why am I here? Is it just to take up breath? There’s got to be a purpose.”
The purpose, for Tree, was BACA. He came home and started meeting with agencies that dealt with children and abuse. He found other bikers who wanted to help and the River Valley BACA chapter opened for business.
He is a bear of a man. He sits on a pew in a former church where the River Valley BACA chapter is meeting, his legs splayed out in front of him, reaching halfway across the tight space. “I got the name Tree when I was still a kid playing first base. They’d point at me and say, ‘If you can’t throw that ball over a tree you can’t get it past him.’”
On this Sunday, there are eighty men and women gathered to discuss chapter business. Outside, a row of motorcycles wraps the old building like a mechanical ribbon. Inside, there is more black clothing than you’d see at a funeral, and more leather than at a good sized rodeo.
They look tough, and that’s kind of the point. Their job is to help abused kids through a heartbreaking time. Each BACA member goes through an extensive background check, and follows the strict rules of the organization.
Once BACA is contacted, an assessment team goes to meet the child and the guardians. They are the only members who hear what happened to the child until the bikers show up in court. No one ever talks about what they hear. If they do they’re asked to leave the organization.
After the assessment, the group gathers, climbs on their bikes and head to the child’s house, showing up in a procession so loud and flashy it drives the neighbors out into their yards to watch. The child is given a “road name” to protect their identity, and then taken for a ride, along with a guardian, to initiate them into the club.
“We’ve bought school clothes, Christmas presents, Thanksgiving dinner,” Tree says. “We pay for a week at therapy camp if a kid needs it. It may not sound like that’s part of our mission, but we’re trying to show these kids there are adults who care, who’ll stand by them, who won’t ever turn away.”
The bikers are big enough and burly enough to convince these kids that the scales have just tilted in their favor. “They’re scared to death. But they look out in the courtroom and see ten or twelve of us sitting together and they can tell the truth without being afraid. DHS [Department of Human Services] can’t sit at a kid’s house 24/7. We can. We can escort them to school, take ‘em back home, whatever it takes.
“I remember my first time in court. It was in Talequah, Oklahoma, and we were there for a seven-year-old girl. She was so scared, so we went up and we made a human wall between her and her abuser. She went to court and her testimony was strong and they put him away for twenty-five years. On the way out I heard her call, ‘Tree, Tree,’ and she grabbed me around my leg and just hugged and hugged,” Tree says, and clears his throat. “It’ll get you,” he says.
“We aren’t vigilantes. We don’t condone violence. We don’t want to do anything that would affect a court case. We’re there to stand by that child. When a kid is so scared they haven’t slept for days and you show up on their porch and say, ‘I got you.’ We stay the night, and later you’ll hear him snore. He’s been so tired. We empower them. Kids are so much stronger than adults, but they don’t realize it. We give them the strength,” Tree says, jabbing the air with his finger, “to say that person done that to me, without being afraid someone will come back and get them.”
“They’ve seen the very worst in life. We want to show them the best. Child abuse is an epidemic in this country,” Tree says, and points to another BACA member whose ropey braid reaches his waist. “See that patch he’s wearing? The one with the number four on it. It means four kids will die today from abuse in the U.S. Multiply that by a year and you have enough kids to fill Southside High School [in Fort Smith]. Think about that,” Tree says, “that many kids that didn’t have to die.”
The River Valley BACA chapter covers about sixty miles, but they’ll go wherever they’re needed. “In 2006, we went to Noel, Missouri. This little girl was abused by a man and the man told her if she pressed charges he would kill her family, he would kill her dog. He’d been driving by her house. She and her parents had gone out to dinner and they came home,” Tree says, “and there was their dog. It had been skinned and was hanging on the fence by its collar.”
“We were there for three weeks. Six or seven from this chapter went. BACA had members from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Kansas. There were about 300 of us that took shifts over those three weeks. We surrounded the yard. We let her know she was safe, twenty-four hours a day. After that, the guy got forty-five years in prison and his family hasn’t messed with that family to this day.” Tree stops, adjusts the bandana holding back his shoulder-length hair and continues, “His family understood, you don’t mess with our kids.”
It’s been a wild ride in the nine years since Tree learned what BACA meant. He’s never again questioned what his mission is. “I thank God that He gave me this chance. I’m nothing without this group. ..It’s all them. They’ll do anything for a kid. They’ll spend their own money. They’ll stay up all night.”
And then he points out the youngest member of the River Valley BACA chapter. “He’s just twenty-one. He used to be one of our kids,” Tree says. “We’ve seen the Round-Robin. That was the proudest day of my life when he got his patch. To watch a child who’d been served by us, who saw we do what we say we’ll do and have him want to sign up, it was proof that what we do works. His life will be different than it could have been.”
As the group files out, Tree reaches out to many of them. Some hug him, in that manly way, hitting each other on the back so hard you can hear it. A woman with five rings on one hand and four on the other, twists her inky black hair into a tortoise-shell clip. Engines rev. Bikers in chaps pull on leather jackets and hit the road, filling the street with a long line of bad ass bikes.
They look ominous – like they’re out to find trouble – but all they’re looking for is the next child who needs a hero. Because they have plenty of them, each identified by a simple patch with these four letters - B.A.C.A.
For more information log onto www.bacausa.com.