A tale of two bike weeks

Two South Carolina rallies spotlight the racial divide in biking culture

Two South Carolina rallies spotlight the racial divide in biking culture

The town of Atlantic Beach is only four blocks wide and dotted with empty lots and aging motels that are reminders of a bygone era of leisure. The beachfront is wide open and undeveloped. Hurricane Hazel took down the fabled Hotel Gordon more than sixty years ago. The town feels set apart, and this has as much to do with design as it does with location. A map view of the town looks like a mistake — while nearby communities are connected to each other by small roads, the streets in Atlantic Beach form a loop. They have been kept separate, and don’t access the beaches just on the other side of the sand.

Each Memorial Day weekend, the disconnect between Atlantic Beach and nearby beach communities becomes even more obvious when the town celebrates its annual Black Bike Week. For more than three decades, the black biker rally has followed the predominantly white Harley Week, and bookended a two-week period of dual segregated motorcycle rallies along South Carolina’s conservative coast. In recent years Black Bike Week has also been the subject of negative media attention, and thrown a glaring spotlight on the black and white subcultures of American bikers.

Members of the Set it Off Motorcycle Club, out of Beaufort S.C. at Black Bike Week, left. A couple walks roadside at Harley week, one week earlier. (Click to enlarge images)

Atlantic Beach was built on segregation. Established in the 1930s, the so-called “Black Pearl” was the Grand Strand’s only resort town for African-Americans. There, they were allowed to open hotels, restaurants and nightclubs — activities that were out of reach in the surrounding segregated white communities. African-American entertainers who would have otherwise been denied accommodation in the white hotels where they performed would flock to Atlantic Beach.

Desegregation, however, opened the rest of the region up to black tourists. Over the years, the historically black beach has been dwarfed by the development of glowing neon souvenir shops, towering high-rise resorts and strip bars. In the 1960s, Atlantic Beach was invited to merge with smaller beaches to form North Myrtle Beach.

“They chose not to because they did not want to lose their identity,” said Jenean Neilsen Todd, director of the North Myrtle Historical Museum.

Today, the town’s identity is pegged as much to motorcycles as it is to beach culture.

Cruising along Ocean Blvd. in Myrtle Beach, S.C. during Black Bike Week. (Click to enlarge images)

Atlantic Beach’s Black Bike rally started in the 1980s, a time when motorcycle culture was peaking in the U.S., and when black bike weeks were cropping up around the country. Atlantic Beach’s bike week, though, has always been different, and in recent years, has expanded into adjacent communities. “That particular motorcycle rally has always attracted a much more diverse crowd,” said Randy McBee, who teaches history at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and has written a book on American biker culture. “Black Bike Week, from the start, has been a broader celebration in the black community,” he said.

In 2014, violence threatened the tradition. Eight people were shot during Black Bike week and three died, prompting state officials to speak out against the rally. “It is time for that bike fest to come to an end,” Gov. Nikki Haley told Myrtle Beach city leaders after Memorial Day 2014. “What we have is an event that has gotten out of hand and no longer is needed in South Carolina.” Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes echoed Haley’s sentiments in an interview following the violence. “I'm fed up with it. I'm mad as hell about it,” he told a local news station. “Something has to be done.”

Black Bike Week wasn’t canceled, but as Memorial Day approached this year, tensions were running high. Atlantic Beach Police Chief Timothy Taylor had been in charge for only nine months, and at 29, he was the youngest police department head in the state. In the days leading up this year’s rally he was especially careful about setting the tone for the weekend. The area was expecting an influx of between 200,000 and 300,000 tourists for Black Bike Week and the Memorial Day holiday. Though Taylor had called in plenty of backup, he was conscientious of the fact that most people who participate in bike week aren’t looking for trouble. “A lot of people who come here, they’ve got everyday jobs. They work hard. They’ve got nice bikes. They work hard for their stuff,” Taylor said.

“The main thing I’m preaching is respect,” he said. “Respect, respect, respect.”

Officially, Black Bike Week, left, has taken place in South Carolina’s Grand Strand since 1980, though the area has long been popular with black bikers. Atlantic Beach Police Chief Timothy Taylor, right, is the top law enforcement officer in town. (Click to enlarge images)

On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, empty barstools and tables reflected the local mood. “It’s been dead all day,” said Oceanfront Bar and Grill bartender Jonathan Talbot. The open-air restaurant sits on Myrtle Beach’s boardwalk, a prime tourist location usually teeming with people. Despite the holiday weekend, the restaurant was getting a small fraction of the business it had the weekend prior. “I’ve probably done about a quarter of what I did yesterday,” Talbot said.

Talbot thought the slowdown had a lot to do with last year’s violence. On a holiday weekend like this, locals typically come in to check things out. Not this weekend, he said. “I don’t have any regular customers who have come in. None of them are here.”

While opponents claim a link between the Black Bike Rally and increased violence and crime, officials from nearby North Myrtle Beach say that there is no correlation. “As far as the City of North Myrtle Beach goes, we do not issue many more citations during the Memorial Day Weekend period than we do during any other major tourism weekend,” city spokesman Patrick Dowling emailed. The city does not have “a great deal of serious crime” during the Bike fest.

But that doesn’t stop people from thinking otherwise. “If you are not out and participating and you are only viewing or reading about what is being reported, you can get the impression that chaos reigns,” Dowling said.

Fear of violence during Black Bike Week led residents to pitch a prayer tent on the boardwalk, left. Early in the evening on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, as Black Bike Week got underway, the Oceanfront Bar and Grill was empty. (Click to enlarge images)

Fear about the upcoming event was so profound that some area residents pitched a large white tent near the boardwalk and sat in shifts with bowed heads for 60 hours of constant prayer. “[We’re] just basically praying for the city,” said Ronny Kolty of Youth With a Mission. “There is so much negativity going on about the bike week, that something bad will happen,” he said.

The prayer tent was set up in a beachside park adjacent to the boardwalk. On that particular night, there was little foot traffic because many roads had been closed and others were cut off with metal crowd fencing. To manage traffic during the rally, city officials had transformed existing roads and highways into a 23-mile loop with limited exits. The traffic diversion would be put in place between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. — prime biker hours — and along the cruising lane, police officers were already walking in groups as large as twelve. On what should have been one of the busiest nights of the year, hotels along the strip had marquees that read “vacancy.”

“I think it’s the prayer. I think God’s doing this,” said Deb Causey, after breaking away from a prayer under the tent. “There’s a calm, there’s a peace about it.”

A hotel on Ocean Blvd. during Black Bike Week, top. Ken Perdue, in starred shirt, left, with biker friends and family; The event attracts a few aficionados of four-wheeled vehicles, right, as well. (Click to enlarge images)

Biker Ken Perdue, who came from Wilmington, Delaware, described the way the city officials were attempting to manage the event as problematic. After six years of attending, he was even considering not coming back. “Public perception is going to be whatever it’s going to be,” Perdue said, but “there’s a bunch of motorcycle clubs coming here to represent their club and have a good time.” He paused. “If I came here for a gun fight,” he said, pointing at his white t-shirt scattered with bold blue stars, “I wouldn’t be dressed like this.”

“Big C,” who stands more than 6 feet tall and rides with the Heavy Hitterz crew out of Longview, Texas, also noticed the tension. “The stereotypical reality that we face when we come down here is, ‘Oh this is Black Bike Week and we’re going to have trouble out of black bikers,’” he said. Big C was dressed in long dark denim shorts, tennis shoes and a t-shirt, but when he wears his bike vest, he knows that some people might assume he’s in a gang. That’s far from the case. “The reality for me is, if somebody falls right now, I’m certified to give you CPR. I’m a director of the imaging department of a major hospital in Texas,” he said.

Even before last year’s violence, black tourists in Atlantic Beach complained of subtle discrimination during Black Bike Week. In recent years, businesses in the area have been accused of offering “second-class” services to black bikers, such as sealing off restrooms, said Anson Asaka, associate general counsel for the NAACP’s national office in Baltimore, who traveled to Myrtle Beach to monitor this year’s rally. One restaurant even shut down its dining room completely and served barbeque outside the building. “It reminds us of segregation days when African-Americans had to go to the back entrance for a different type of services,” he said.

A lone biker cruises a fenced-in portion of the 23-mile loop set up during Black Bike Week. (Click to enlarge images)

This year, it was the crowd control measures that drew complaints. According to Asaka, people felt trapped and treated “as animals because they’re essentially caged in.” Some wondered if the new rules were designed to make things inconvenient and difficult in order to discourage people from coming back. “We understand that people have a right to preserve public safety but we just want to make sure that that’s not used as an excuse to implement discriminatory measures,” Asaka said.

There was a sense that all bikers were being punished for the actions of only a few, said attendee Myron Martin. “If anything happens this weekend, we’re automatically blamed for it. It might not have anything to do with the bikers, [but] this is our weekend,” he said.

The parking lot of the Beaver Bar in Murrells Inlet, S.C. during Harley Week, which takes place a week before Black Bike Week. (Click to enlarge images)

Just one weekend earlier, thousands of Harley riders and fans flocked to Murrells Inlet, about 30 miles south of Atlantic Beach. There, little-people wrestlers rode a mechanical bull at the Beaver Bar while down the street a slightly edgier crowd hung out at the Suck Bang Blow bar. The strip between the two bars was a sea of gleaming, lustered fuel tanks and chrome pipes. Waitresses wearing uniforms featuring fishnets, hot pants and lacy bustiers or bikini tops slung $2 beers and poured liquor directly into the mouths of patrons. Some waitresses opted to forgo tops altogether. Instead, they skirted public decency regulations by painting their naked breasts.

This was the third year that Ronnie Brady made the trip to Harley Week from Fredericksburg, Virginia. “It’s coming right out of winter and it’s hot down here. Back home, right now, you’d be quite chilly riding this thing,” he said.

He’s invested about $25,000 in his Harley, he said. “To hell with drinking and drugs. I’d rather be addicted to that thing right there,” he said, pointing to his bike. “I don’t know that it’s any cheaper because goddamn chrome is expensive.”

Vendor tents filled up the parking lots around the bars, contributing to the overall carnival atmosphere by selling leather accessories, patches and stickers with sentiments too risqué to mention here.

During Harley Week, the Suck Bang Blow bar hosts a Burnout Pit, where participants run their bikes as hard as possible in a stationary position, burning tire rubber and generating thick clouds of smoke. Two event participants pose for a photo, top left. The crowd cheers a contestant, top right. Action in the pit, below. (Click to enlarge images)

While smaller than Black Bike Week in terms of attendance, — the local Harley Davidson dealership estimates that 150,000 bikers showed up this year — Harley Week is big business in this beach community. The area’s dealerships sell between 10 and 15 bikes a day during the rally, up from the daily average of one or two, said Scott “Bubba” Reeves, general sales manager for Myrtle Beach Harley Davidson.

“It’s as American as apple pie. It’s a fraternity,” Reeves said of the Harley community. “You very seldom ever see a guy with a tattoo on his arm that says ‘Honda’ or ‘Kawasaki,’” he said, pulling up the sleeve of his t-shirt. “It’s just a culture.”

Asked to describe an average biker, Reeves said it was tough. “Everyone has their own image that they want to portray, that they want to project,” he said. “Some guys still like to portray the bad-ass biker,” he said. In reality, he said, most of his customers are at least 40 years old and are leisure riders.

Or, he said, “What we like to call weekend warriors.”

An Obama patch adorns the vest of a black biker, left. Patches for sale at Harley Week, right. (Click to enlarge images)

According to Steven Alford, a professor who studies biker culture at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “the whole notion of a male motorcycle culture as an outlaw culture is a complete fabrication.” Suzanne Ferriss, a humanities professor at Nova Southeastern who co-authored “Motorcycle” with Alford, agrees. She says that many of the guys who attend traditional bike rallies such as the ones in Sturgis, South Dakota, and Daytona, Florida, have white-collar jobs. “They show up at the rally, and they’ve got their chaps on and their vest… and it’s almost like they’re playing. They’re playing the role and they’re in costume,” she said. “It’s a performance.”

Ferriss thinks that much of the fear surrounding the Black Bike Rally has to do with race more than reality. She noted that the bikers involved with Harley Week don’t raise the same kinds of concerns as those at Atlantic Beach. “To me, it really does say something about the image that this plays into in the current climate, in which violence is associated with young black men,” she said. “And now its young black men on motorcycles.”

This year, Black Bike Week would not be remembered for violence. Despite a surge of tourists during Memorial Day weekend, North Myrtle Beach reported a reduction in the number of arrests and tickets issued in comparison to the year before. While there had been 105 arrests and 489 tickets handed out in 2014, this year, there were only 47 arrests and 176 tickets. At Harley Week, there were 48 arrests and 190 tickets. Further south, in Myrtle Beach, law enforcement reported no homicides, and a decrease in arrests and weapons offenses. And not only did both bike weeks defy expectations, they also may have created new ones.

Sirwitit, a member of the Stunt’n Queens, out of Springfield, Mass. (Click to enlarge images)

Well past sunset one night at the height of Black Bike Week, thousands of motorcyclists descended on the Myrtle Beach Mall parking lot with their own performance in mind. Rows of chrome and fiberglass bikes, some set off by electric neon lights, radiated out in bands around a Hooter’s restaurant. It was a carefully choreographed show, down to the police ushering the steady stream of riders who were slowly circling the lot searching for a spot. Everyone was there for the view.

Sitting off to the side, two women on black sport bikes were surveying the crowd. Flood lights brightened pockets of the parking lot. “Pretty Blaq,” of Atlanta rides with the all-female Star motorcycle crew, and is part of an ongoing shift in the motorcycle world — the inclusion of women. Blaq has been riding her own bike for about three years. “I rode the back for many years,” she says. “But I like the wind blowing in my face. It’s a stress release.”

Though Blaq noted that some women are scared to try biking, her fellow crewmember “Danger” observed, “there are more women riding now. A lot more.” Danger has ridden motorcycles for more than 25 years, and she finds it empowering.

Danger looked back at the long line of police officers waving bikes through. “They are really strict,” she said. “They go all out when we come but I bet you the security wasn’t that tight last week.” This doesn’t bother her, however. She’s not here for a fight.

Danger said she and her crew look forward to Black Bike Week all year long. Coming is a tradition, and they have no plans to break it. “Once we leave here,” she said, “we’ll start talking about next year.”

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