The biker Unification Rally in Sacramento came off without a hitch this weekend. Whether it made any difference or not remains to be seen.
Somewhere between two and three thousand motorcycle enthusiasts peacefully assembled at the California State House. It was a photogenic rally. Members of at least a half dozen three-piece-patch clubs including the Hells Angels, Boozefighters, Henchmen, Grand Fathers, Hessians and the Marines participated. Despite all those great photo opportunities, news coverage was still slight.
The Sacramento rally was one bucket in a big international wave of biker protests this month. There will be more rallies in Australia and Western Europe on January 26. All the demonstrations will protest the profound transformation in the relationship between the governments of the western democracies and their citizens. The boundaries of the motorcycle outlaw frontier are shrinking fast. The real question is whether protesters still matter.
There is a precedent in California for motorcycle clubs to lobby and protest against overbearing state regulation of personal conduct. The Hells Angels helped lead the fight against the helmet law in the Golden State from the early 70s until the law finally went into effect in 1991. In ’91, state legislators used the Angels’ lurid public image to convince their fellow politicians to enact the law. The reasoning was that if the Angels opposed the law good people should be for it.
Last Saturday’s demonstrators were concerned with a handful of unexceptional issues that have been on the bikers rights agenda for years: Helmets, motorcycle emissions, exhaust noise, frame and other modifications, license plate placement and helmets. But the big issue, the one that has drawn one percenters into this political game, is the continued right to wear a patch.
Long ago, in the early 50s, club insignia were worn on jackets. Those words and symbols were a two-edged sword. They gave potential opponents and troublemakers fair warning about who they were about to cross but they also made it easy for cops to spot potential arrestees. The solution to the police problem was to buy a cheap second jacket – usually made of denim – cut the sleeves off, wear it over your good leather jacket and wear your patch on the back of your cutoff jacket or “cut.” Eventually, cuts evolved into something with a symbolic importance rivaling the American flag.
For about the last seven years policemen in several countries have tried a variety of strategies to force club members to take off or cover over their patches. This year in Australia, politicians have actually outlawed 25 motorcycle clubs and the ban has been buttressed by much Orwellian newspeak and a sophisticated propaganda campaign.
The United States Department of Justice has also tried this blunt force approach with the Mongols Motorcycle Club. The idea in Los Angeles is to get a famously dim-witted federal judge to declare the Mongols to be a criminal racket and then seize their club insignia. The proposed forfeiture is blatantly unconstitutional but reasonableness is not the point. The point is to hound the Mongols as unreasonably as possible until the club runs out of money to defend itself.
Motorcycle Rider Conspicuity
Unfortunately, the Department of Justice isn’t the only government agency at war with motorcycle clubs. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are going after the patches. The NHTSA may actually be the greatest threat all clubs, including HOG, face to preserving their group identities.
Here comes the issue of motorcycle rider conspicuity. There is growing sentiment among government bureaucrats that motorcycle riders would be safer if they were more visible. It is true that most motorists who run over bikers claim they never saw them. So, the NHTSA thinks we would all be safer if we were forced to wear high visibility shirts when we ride. From there it is just a matter of drafting the rider conspicuity laws so club members cannot legally wear their cuts over the new, mandatory, orange and neon green shirts.
Rider conspicuity laws are something that traditional biker rights lobbying can affect. They are also the reason why motorcycle clubs have a renewed interest in political lobbying. Forewarned is forearmed.
The photo at the top of this story is courtesy Kevin at Save The Patch