Swarmed and Destroyed by ‘Army’

By Trevor Ballanger

The Moped Army wants you, and they want you now. Think of staring up at a banner of Uncle Sam pointing into your face, only he’s fishtailing his way through a sea of moped-riding gang members to do so. Their tagline is simple but empowering: “Swarm and destroy.”

Before jumping to conclusions, these aren’t your typical nihilistic, leather-and-chains gangsters. The majority, rather, are more keen on toting Pabst Blue Ribbon and finding economical modes of transportation in Chicago.

The Moped Army began as “The Decepticons” during the mid-nineties in Kalamazoo, Mich., before branching out to surrounding states. Former member Jamie Berg joined in 1998. She said the movement took on a life of its own when its creator, Derek Biek, led a group of 20 around the area in the winter and organized summer barbecues that epitomized moped culture.

Curt Cameruci was there for the birth of the movement and brought it with him to Chicago in 2000. Living in Bucktown, he learned how to properly care for and maintain his moped and eventually started his own gang called Peddy Cash in 2003.

“It’s like crack on wheels,” Cameruci said. “Once I first rode [my moped] after spending all that time working on it, it just felt so good. Then a bunch of my friends started getting on it [and] riding mine, and from then on we started Peddy Cash. The rest

is history.”

Becoming sanctioned members of the Moped Army involved a democratic process that lasted more than a year. Cameruci said there needed to be at least four starting members for Peddy Cash to be considered an official branch. The gang would later grow to approximately 25 members throughout the years.

The gangs today are generally considered “hipsters,” a term Berg said suits them well. Thom Suzumoto, co-founder of Chicago moped gang the Hot ‘N’ Readyz, said the group is a “funny little culture” of people having a good time despite struggling to make their way in the city.

“People started to see a collector mentality of these things,” Berg said. “That’s when they started to fall in love with it and also the people. Because, you know, they were all young, hip, cool, attractive and smart. It was just really diverse. It brought in this little subculture, which is really cool.”

Suzumoto and the Hot ‘N’ Readyz’ congregate in Pilsen at a former funeral home known as “the castle” where he hosts rallies for more than 200 members from across the country. He said while the home is great for hosting get-togethers and hanging out, his goal is to turn it into an art school and gallery within two years.

As the moped trend continues, people have the same mentality as the original members. Cameruci said they are essentially a bunch of broke kids trying to pioneer an avant-garde culture.

“That’s initially what it was, and I feel that’s [how it starts] with any trend,” Cameruci said. “It starts out underground and very organic. Then hip people will take notice of that and be early adapters to it. I think that’s what’s happening with it now.”

While Peddy Cash and other members of the Moped Army shy away from the intimidating stigmas that typically follow traditional gangs, one Chicago group has chosen to remain separate from the rest.

Nigel Holt, a former member of Peddy Cash, started Murder Club eight years ago. Holt said while he was friendly with Cameruci and the Moped Army, he wanted to start his own moped gang on his own terms because Peddy Cash lacked the camaraderie he needed.

“I come from real gangs,” said Holt, who remains on good terms with the Moped Army. “I assumed that kind of loyalty and ‘help each other’ mentality was gonna be in this crew. I handpick every person that comes into Murder Club. We take care of each other by any means necessary. We were there for each other.”

As the only black member of Peddy Cash, he said he wanted to make a gang that was more open to diversity. He said the group he formed is more involved with everyone’s well-being and is always looking to find new members. In this way, the gang was defined less by its mopeds and more by its actions.

According to Suzumoto, several members of his group are artists, welders and sculptors, and starting an educational program with them will help keep gang violence off the streets.

“I guess all gangs have to run some sort of business at some point,” Suzumoto said. “Our plan

is to [educate] kids in the arts as a way to move away from violence and [real] gang culture and also to give us a way to produce stuff we love and make money doing what we love.”

Holt said these qualities only proved to him that the Moped Army and its members were passive-aggressive and unlikely to stand up for each other if they were chastised or disrespected.

“I’m a gangster,” Holt said. “I need to be around other gangsters all the time. I can’t be around soft people. It just irks me. Basically, the mentality of a moped [crew] before Murder Club was nerdy kids that drink PBR and tinker with toys all day. When [Murder Club] stepped on the scene, we changed all of that s–t.”

Rather than dwell on the negative attention they may receive, Cameruci said the main idea of Moped Army is to allow people to be who they want to be and express themselves in a new way without disparaging other people’s styles.

Between souping up vintage mopeds and cruising town recruiting new members, Cameruci said the moped experience has left him speechless. He described riding them as an “in-between realm” of reality similar to an addictive drug.

“We ended up falling in love with them,” Cameruci said. “They’re so much fun. When you first ride one, you can’t even describe it. It’s this weird feeling of freedom. It’s cool because you’re only going 30 miles per hour at first. You get to hear, see and smell a 360-degree view around you. You experience things [differently].”