A line in the sand

Rallies—and rights—hang in the balance

Myrtle Beach, S.C.—With the economy in the crapper, leisure travel inconsistent and disposable income scarce, the City of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, has devised the perfect solution to aid in the area’s tourism worries: turn off the “Welcome” sign to the half-million bikers that visit the two May rallies, Cruisin’ the Coast (Myrtle Beach Bike Week) and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest (Black Bike Week). It’s bureaucratic ineptitude at its finest.

In 2004, Myrtle Beach implemented a restrictive traffic management program during the Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikefest. It was an effort to curb attendance, with then-Mayor Mark McBride even testifying to the fact that the city “welcomes” white tourists during Cruisin’ the Coast and tries to “discourage” the Black Bike Week tourists from attending. The program had to be dissolved when the NAACP filed a discrimination lawsuit. But when a 20-year-old Coastal Carolina University student was shot to death during last year’s Atlantic Beach Bikefest, the Myrtle Beach City Council felt they had sufficient ammunition to once again challenge the rallies. This was despite the fact that local teenagers, not associated in any way with the rally, were eventually arrested and charged with the murder. But the City smelled blood and, even if they couldn’t handle their own homegrown criminals, they could do something about those two-wheeled vermin. And, in an imperious knee-jerk reaction, they decided that if they couldn’t selectively end one rally, their quest would be to end them both.

Citing a desire to please the city’s residents who had grown “weary of three weeks of noise and traffic congestion each May,” the Myrtle Beach City Council voted to end both rallies. News that they had grown weary of the events surprised many residents, especially business owners who rely heavily on the rallies for revenue. When confronted with the loss of rally-generated income, the City Council did what politicians do best; they instituted a new property tax increase that would supposedly raise $1 million per year, providing the funds to help in ending the rallies. The City also said they want the month of May to return to being a family vacation month. They were challenged on that statement when someone reminded them that families still had kids in school during May.

Saber rattling
Once Myrtle Beach realized the bikers and motorcycle-oriented businesses were not going to go quietly into the night and they were dealing with some hardheaded scrappers, they pulled their next bit of judicial trickery—new laws. So it was that in December 2008, the City Council enacted a multitude of laws to curtail both events, dissuade attendance and hopefully convince the bikers that they were serious.

The two strongest were a new noise ordinance that set the acceptable level for any motor vehicle at 89 decibels when measured at 20 inches from the exhaust pipe at a 45-degree angle while the engine is at idle and the use of a safety helmet and protective eyewear at all times while a motorcycle is moving. (There currently is no law dictating the mandatory use of helmets for all riders in South Carolina—except the City of Myrtle Beach.) Other edicts limited two bikes to a public parking space; no open containers, alcohol consumption or parties in any parking lot, garage or landscaped area; and no parking or storage of trailers on the street, restricting them to “approved” parking or storage lots only.

Public reaction was swift with bikers threatening to converge en masse and fight against what is obvious discrimination, potentially making this year’s Spring Rally the largest ever. To guard against this possibility, the City of Myrtle Beach and the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce launched a new website (myrtlebeachbikerinfo.com) boldly and falsely declaring to the biker world that the Myrtle Beach May rallies had been canceled. The website consists of three pages: Message from the Mayor, New Rules & Ordinances (15 total) and Frequently Asked Questions. And while claiming not be anti-biker in one section, prejudice shows through when, in an effort to justify their position, another section characterizes the rallies as “hundreds of thousands of participants and the resulting noise, litter, lewdness, crime, traffic congestion, reckless driving, accidents, injuries and deaths.” The website also declares that there will be additional traffic checkpoints during May, which may include noise measurements.

To counter this disinformation, another website was established by the Myrtle Beach Harley-Davidson dealership, mbbikeweeks.com. This website encourages bikers not to be intimidated and that the City of Myrtle Beach does not accurately portray the views of the residents of Horry County. It goes on to state that the City of Myrtle Beach has never played a major role in Bike Week and that the City cannot stop visitation of other areas of Horry County where businesses look forward to this event each year. To help in that effort, the website lists the City of Myrtle Beach Boundaries, Best Ways to Avoid the City of Myrtle Beach, Businesses and Attractions Outside the City of Myrtle Beach City Limits (there’s plenty) and Businesses Inside the City of Myrtle Beach City Limits. It goes on to give detailed listings of available lodging and biker-friendly establishments that fall outside the realm and reach of Myrtle Beach dictates.

And then in a surprising move, the Horry County Council got into the act on January 20, considering action that would limit vendors during the May rallies. These new restrictions would place caps on the number of vendors, would not allow vendors to sell east of the Waterway unless the property they were located on was greater than 35 acres, and would increase the cost of all vendor permits. (A month later, the County Council adopted a modified, less-restrictive version. It is designed to spread the vendors over a larger area to prevent traffic congestion.)

Following that, on February 2 Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes and City Manager Thomas E. Leath addressed the Atlantic Beach Town Council and asked them to join in their efforts to curb the Harley-Davidson Spring Rally (Myrtle Beach Bike Week) and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest. The four Atlantic Beach council members took no action at that time but said they would consider supporting the City of Myrtle Beach in their crusade to end the rallies on one condition—if Myrtle Beach could help Atlantic Beach extract itself from a current financial crisis. Seems Atlantic Beach has not conducted an audit in three years and has run afoul of a new state law that would prohibit it receiving tax money collected by South Carolina on its behalf.

Further proof of a community systematically identifying all the fun elements of a rally and outlawing them piecemeal is the City’s effort to strengthen its 16-year old Thong Ordinance. Under the new proposal, a police officer would have the option of issuing a warning, writing a ticket or making an arrest on the first offense of indecent exposure (a thong is considered indecent). Current law mandates that an officer issue a warning before taking additional action. And although a City spokesman stated that the proposed tougher laws were not aimed specifically at the rallies, timing would indicate otherwise.

Rallies in the crosshairs
Despite years of stereotyping to the contrary, bikers aren’t stupid. When Mayor Rhodes states that for “everyone’s safety and welfare, the City Council has added a few new rules and regulations,” we know what he means. We can smell bullshit just as well as any other law-abiding citizens. No, Myrtle Beach has drawn a line in the sand. And they are daring bikers to cross it. It’s not the first time such action has been taken, with Deadwood, Durango and Hollister all coming to mind. Some we’ve won, some we’ve lost and some we’re still battling.

So will the bikers take up this call-to-arms, accept the gauntlet that’s been tossed at our front wheels and remind the celestial powers-that-be that it’s still not illegal to be a biker? Will there be a 69th Myrtle Beach Bike Week and a 29th Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikefest? The Myrtle Beach Harley dealership isn’t backing down in this turf war. Neither are the black bikers. Just check out Black BikeWeek.net and BlackBikeWeekOnline.com (but be careful, there’s some serious bootie in there). And a Myrtle Beach Helmet Freedom Ride was held at the end of February at the Beaver Bar in Murrells Inlet (outside the city limits and laws of Myrtle Beach). Such a stance by the motorcycling public is a refreshing and spirited move. Now if we can just get everyone to wear a thong during the next protest.


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