I suppose that by now everyone in the motorcycling community has heard about and/or seen video from the unfortunate incident in upper Manhattan last weekend involving a number of motorcyclists and the driver of a Land Rover. If you somehow have managed to avoid awareness of this little conflict, take a look HERE. Without getting into cause or responsibility (CNN, FOX News and the others seem to be handling that in their typical fashion) there are some important questions that we , as motorcyclists, need to consider. Most importantly, is the community of motorcyclists once again “on Probation” and being harshly judged in the public’s eyes based on the behavior of a small portion of our community?
A bit of history is appropriate here. I don’t know that many current riders actually remember, but I’m sure many riders are aware of an incident that occurred in 1947 in Hollister, CA. In July of that year the tiny central California town hosted one of the AMA’s (American Motorcyclist Association) popular weekend long “Gypsy Tour” events complete with races, rallies, and other cycle-centric activities. Beginning Friday evening, thousands more motorcyclists than expected flooded the small town and a number of the alcohol fueled riders began to get somewhat out of control. A relatively small portion of the attendee crowd created a commotion, staging impromptu races on the main street, performing “stunts”, and, well, working their way through the inventory of the Hollister’s numerous taverns. Following a “lively” Friday evening and long Saturday, the outmanned Hollister police department was reinforced on Sunday by the California Highway Patrol, who arrived with a show of force and threats of tear gas use and more. Eventually, by that afternoon, the crowds dispersed, the riders headed for home, and calm returned but not before some 50 arrests and a few hospital visits for minor injuries and a few sutures here and there. However, contrary to legend, no one was killed or raped; there was no destruction of property, no arson, or looting; and, in fact, the locals suffered no lasting harm.
The Hollister event, however, was majorly sensationalized by the press with reports of bikers “taking over the town” and “havoc.” Less than 100 miles away The San Francisco Chronicle ran breathless accounts of Hollister’s mad weekend. The stories were led with sensational headlines like “Riots… Cyclists Take Over Town”. Not to mention the pictures! Just a couple of weeks later Life Magazine ran a feature length story featuring a number of damning pics including a “famous” full page pic of a tipsy rider swaying atop a Harley, with a beer in each hand, only adding to the PR nightmare for the motorcycling community and the AMA.
In the fallout, towns and organizations across the country, for fear of similar “riots” , cancelled motorcycling events en mass, encouraged by local police departments who fostered the idea that bands of motorcycle hoodlums might descend on their towns without warning. Several years later, in 1954 Hollywood dramatized the Hollister weekend in the 1954 film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, and any hope of salvaging motorcycling’s image was lost. At best, it showed bikers as drunken misfits; at worst, sociopaths.
Ironically, sociologists attribute much of the responsibilty for the advent of “outlaw” biker gangs to the sensational media coverage of the Hollister event. Once the public fear of motorcyclists reached a fever pitch, bikes held irresistable appeal for genuine sociopaths. A few predators formed clubs, and were egged on by wildly-exagerated media portrayals of biker crime. The motorcycle industry and the motorcycle community have been fighting a public relations rearguard action even to this day.
Now we are faced with last weekend’s New York event. Has this event and the sensational treatment in the popular media (not to mention the pervasive influence of the social media – Facebook and You Tube) put motorcyclists and the entire industry in a distinctly unfavorable light much like that which existed subsequent to Hollister in 1947? In the 1950s and 1960s groups of motorcyclists were, broadly speaking, viewed with skepticism and a certain amount of fear. Has this event recreated those same feelings in the public? Do motorists, once again, look at us with a jaundiced eye? Is each and every one of us on “probation” every time we ride because of the mis-behavior of a small subset of our community? What, if anything, can we do individually to dispel this image of “Motor Psychos?” We’d love to hear your opinions. Keep it civil, please.