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November|December 2005
Leaving One-Child Behind By Michelle Chen
Display Cases By Laura Longhine
Uneasy Riders By Paul Wachter
Not Bloody Guilty By Dana Mulhauser
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

Uneasy Riders

Myrtle Beach's separate and unequal biker rallies.

By Paul Wachter

THEIR MOTORCYCLES ROARING, they drove through Myrtle Beach in packs, a stream of chiseled torsos, tattooed biceps, string bikinis, and thongs. The bikes were mostly Japanese-made, brightly painted, with power to spare. But speed was impossible for the more than 200,000 bikers who had shown up this May in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (population: 22,759) for Black Bike Week, a 25-year-old, Memorial Day-weekend extravaganza.

With few exceptions, the only white faces on the strip belonged to the police, who had turned out in force and, by blocking access to the white residential and vacation areas, were doing their best to ensure that the bikers confined themselves to the main roads—Ocean Boulevard and U.S. 17. Banners emblazoned with "Bikers Welcome" had been patched onto storefronts and strip-mall marquees, but the signs weren't intended for the black bikers. They had been erected earlier in the month for a different motorcycle event, a Harley-Davidson rally, which attracted a predominantly white crowd and wasn't burdened with similar traffic schemes or business closings.

Preparations are underway for a trial scheduled for early next spring in which the NAACP plans to argue that the traffic policies and police tactics employed during Black Bike Week were discriminatory. Myrtle Beach officials maintain that differences in the two festivals justify the different policies. Since filing suit against the city in May 2003, the NAACP has reached settlements with a handful of local businesses that had either closed during the event or otherwise discouraged black customers. Meanwhile, the NAACP and Myrtle Beach officials held their first talks in August, a court-arranged two-day mediation session that failed to result in a settlement. Publicly, neither side has given an inch.

In a town with more than one motorcycle festival, the Myrtle Beach fight centers on the fact that the city has found more than one way to play host. During Black Bike Week, the city adds 300 police officers to its standard ranks of about 250, closes off many roads, and converts 60 blocks of the normally two-way Ocean Boulevard into a one-way street. The one-way scheme, however, keeps black bikers away from the stores and restaurants along Myrtle Beach's main drag. On U.S. 17, about a mile inland and parallel to Ocean Boulevard, the northbound right lane is cordoned off by temporary metal gates for use by bikers who are headed to Bike Week festivities. The effect is gridlock. The NAACP alleges that that's part of the plan: to make the traffic conditions as unpleasant as possible for black visitors.

The idea to fight the traffic schemes in court draws its inspiration from a suit the NAACP won in 1999. In that case, Daytona Beach, Fla., another tourist hotspot, tried to put a cumbersome traffic plan into place during a black college reunion. "But the city had never used such a plan for spring break or for the Daytona 500, events that draw huge numbers of white tourists," said Paul Hurst, a Washington lawyer working for the NAACP. The scheme was scuttled after a U.S. District Court ruling said that the measure restricted the reunion guests' right to travel.

AS THE BIKERS MADE THEIR SLOW PROCESSION through Myrtle Beach in May, Harvey Hill, a longtime veteran of Black Biker Week, sat by his camper, wondering aloud if the traffic nightmare had ruined the festival. "It's so backed up now, I don't even feel like getting on my bike," said Hill, a 62-year-old North Carolinian who has vacationed in the area for 30 years. Though his skullcap shouted "Born to Ride," Hill said that he was resigned to sitting by his camper. Hill's disgust is echoed by the NAACP. "Just look at the situation along Ocean Boulevard, with all the police standing around, directing the bikers to keep moving," said Kenneth Floyd, president of the local NAACP branch that filed suit. "It's as if they're making a bunch of criminals walk the line."

The most vocal proponent of the traffic scheme is Mark McBride, Myrtle Beach's 41-year-old mayor, who has defended the city's policing of the event and has called for Black Bike Week to be shut down. In 1999, he asked then-governor Jim Hodges to send the National Guard to patrol the event, a request the governor declined. In April of this year, during a legal proceeding aimed at shutting down the event, McBride said that black bikers "wanted to disregard the law, sit on top of their cars, and smoke dope." But according to the Myrtle Beach Police Department, the crime level at each event is usually about the same. This spring, actually, there were five traffic fatalities and 22 felony arrests during the Harley rally, and one death and 14 felony arrests during Black Bike Week.

Myrtle Beach officials insist that the differences between the two events require different traffic policies. "Loosely, they're both motorcycle events, but that's about the only thing they have in common," said city spokesman Mark Kruea, who noted that the events associated with Black Bike Week were less spread out than those at the Harley counterpart. The result, he said, is a policing plan meant to deal with dense crowds. But critics contend that it's the traffic policies themselves—the one-way schemes, the blocked-off streets—that create the concentrations.

"The city has one plan for white tourists and a completely different plan—a more oppressive plan—for black tourists," said Hurst during court arguments in April about the proposed changes in traffic patterns for this year's Black Bike Week. (A U.S. district judge blocked the changes, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overruled the judge.) Andrew Siegel, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who has watched the legal debate grow more contentious, linked the city's resolve to a larger tradition of white Southern defiance. "They see the NAACP as an outside group, and outsiders portraying them as a bunch of racist rednecks, so they don't want to back down," he said.

Back on the streets, the bikers were doing their best to enjoy themselves—never mind the traffic and the lawsuit. Leon Whitted, a 40-year-old salesman from North Carolina, steered his bike off U.S. 17 toward a sandwich shop where he struck up a conversation with another rider who was admiring Whitted's custom-painted Kawaski. As the thick line of bikers inched past, over the roar the men talked bikes. There was no need to move from the shade of the shop's awning inside for a bite. The place was closed.

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