A motorcycle mecca stirs up questions of race

For the two weeks leading up to Memorial Day in this kitschy beach town, bikers rule.

Motorcyclists burn rubber, throw "smoke shows," and flaunt their American choppers and Japanese "rice rockets," all with the Atlantic's thrumming breakers in the background, washing away the last of winter's spell.

In the wake of last week's Carolina Harley dealers' rally, which drew hundreds of thousands of mostly white bikers, a massive crowd of mostly black motorcyclists is arriving for this weekend's Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bike Festival. It's one of the biggest black street parties in the nation, and the mood in Myrtle Beach abruptly shifts.

Despite their reputation for mayhem, the Harley riders are left largely alone during their 10-day festival. During "Black Bike Week," however, the city blocks streets, adds 300 officers, and makes 60 blocks of Ocean Boulevard one way.

To defenders of the arrangement, it's a sensible response to a festival known for its rowdiness, even in a famously rowdy town. But as the US Fourth Circuit Court attempts to resolve whether the city's actions amount to racial discrimination, many of the bikers say their treatment amounts to being cordoned in, one more insult in a region with a history of racial splits.

"In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois predicted that the problem of the 20th century would be the 'problem of the color line,' " says Bobby Donaldson, a history professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "This lawsuit ... is just one episode in a long-standing critique of racial disparities."

Twenty-five years ago, the Atlantic Beach Motorcycle Club sponsored its first "Black Bike Week" in Atlantic Beach, one of the country's few historically black beach towns. In the late 1990s - when black festivals were exploding, from Atlanta to Daytona Beach - it swiftly grew from its four-mile stretch of Atlantic Beach southward into Myrtle Beach proper. In 1999, police made Ocean Boulevard a one-way street for the event and beefed up their presence on the roads.

The NAACP filed its suit against the city in 2003, on the heels of a successful campaign to have the statehouse lower its Confederate flag. Traffic restrictions, the lawsuit alleged, were discriminatory, as were aggressive police tactics that bullied black tourists. The NAACP has also filed lawsuits against several restaurants and a hotel that close down during the weekend.

Black bikers won their first victory when a 4th Circuit judge granted an injunction, barring the city from making Ocean Boulevard a one-way street - unless it did the same for the Harley riders. Last week, however, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned that injunction, allowing the city to set up its barricades. (The trial is set for 2006.)

"The only difference between these two festivals is the race of the participants," says Michael Navarre, a lawyer in Washington who is helping prosecute the case.

Myrtle Beach has a reputation for allowing tourists to let loose. In the 1950s, cops wore bright bathing shorts on patrol and, as part of one summer festival, jokingly "arrested" tourists whose trousers they deemed too long.

Now, city officials deny that race has anything to do with their treatment of the two biking events. The Harley riders, they say, disperse to all corners of the county. During Black Bike Week, in contrast, people mostly stay along the beach. Police say participants at the latter event tend to be younger and more raffish - and they argue that the potential for mischief is greater with the light, fast Japanese bikes that many of them prefer. The ultimate goal, officials say, is emergency access to a beach packed with people - an impossible task if Ocean Boulevard is jammed.

"Our responsibility is to make it as safe and free-flowing as possible," says Mark Kruea, a city spokesman. "But with the kinds of vehicles, the location of the vehicles, the number of pedestrians, the age of the crowd - there are far more differences [between the festivals] than similarities."

Indeed, adjusted for duration - Black Bike Week is five days; the Harley festival is 10 - police arrested twice as many people per day (about 200) during last year's Black Bike Week as during the Harley fest.

Some say that the sheer magnitude of Black Bike Week is enough to shake up the South's traditional social strata. There's a queasiness among both tourists and locals when a predominantly white beach town morphs into an African-American biking mecca, says Tiffiney Bryant, a local waitress who grew up on the Strand. "Tourists come from these small towns where they're used to blacks being 'humble,' and suddenly they are outnumbered by blacks who are out being bold and having fun," she says. "I think they just get scared."

As early as Wednesday, bikers rolled in, wearing slick sunglasses and custom helmets. Taverns churned out music and enthusiasts set up "clubs" on the street.

At "Club 14" - actually a small parking lot near 14th Avenue - Tonyor Brooks, who rides with the female Sassy Riders Motorcycle Club out of Greenville, S.C., says color lies behind the city's motives. But most bikers try to take it in stride, she says, and blame some of the tension on younger participants, who tend to have less respect for authority. "Despite all this, we'll still manage to have fun," she says.

For Anthony Anderson, a leather-clad black biker here from Chicago, it's not that simple. The lawsuit is less about race and more about economics and social perceptions, he says: Discrimination is based on post-9/11 attitudes and what kind of bike - American vs. foreign - a given biker rides.

"When I rode a [Japanese Kawasaki], I used to get hassled a lot more by police," he says. These days, when truckers see his bike is a Harley, "they give me the road."

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