Though they were defending separate rallies, representatives of black and white biker groups united in a defiant stand Saturday against what they see as a common enemy: harsh laws and negative publicity from the city of Myrtle Beach.
"This ain't a white issue about white rallies. This ain't a black issue about black rallies," said Rick Walls, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders who normally attends early May's Harley-Davidson spring rally. "This is a civil-rights issue for both colors."
A group of about 25 bikers, representing a half-dozen or so motorcycle clubs, parked their Harley cruisers and Japanese sport bikes together under a small stand of trees outside the Atlantic Beach Town Hall on Saturday afternoon to issue their message: May's rallies will go on.
"We are not going to lay down to the city of Myrtle Beach," said Hakim Harrell, an event promoter from Philadelphia. "Our message to the city of Myrtle Beach is, you should be thankful. These events helped build the city of Myrtle Beach."
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The show of unity comes after many area governments, led by the city of Myrtle Beach, enacted new rules to limit the scope of May's two major motorcycle rallies - the 10-day Harley-Davidson spring rally, which attracts a mostly white crowd, and Memorial Day weekend's Atlantic Beach Bikefest, which is popularly known as Black Bike Week.
Saying that the two events' half-million visitors overwhelm the city, Myrtle Beach passed 15 new laws last fall, including helmet requirements and decibel limits, and it has a new Web site stating that this year the city "will no longer host motorcycle rallies." Horry County is debating restricting vendors, which nearby Surfside Beach banned outright for two years.
On Saturday, both groups touted the heritage of their rallies: The Harley rally is 69 years old, and the Atlantic Beach Bikefest began in 1980. John Glover, president of the Carolina Knight Riders club that started the Atlantic Beach event, said neither rally is Myrtle Beach's to end.
"Now they want to pull the plug on the bike rallies," Glover said. "I'd like everyone to know, there's more to the Grand Strand than Myrtle Beach."
In their promises to come to this year's rally, the bikers uniformly said they would avoid Myrtle Beach. To some degree, that is part of the city's goal, said Myrtle Beach city spokesman Mark Kruea in a phone call afterward.
"The city has said it doesn't want to be the focus of these rallies," Kruea said. "If these rallies go elsewhere, Myrtle Beach would be happy."
At the event, many of the motorcyclists said their good works and charity fundraisers during the rallies are ignored. Instead, Myrtle Beach city officials chose to blame violence and misbehavior by local teens and spectators along Ocean Boulevard on bikers, said Violet "Heels" Lucas of the Horry-Georgetown Bikers Association.
"A lot of the people on the Boulevard aren't bikers, but we're stigmatized by their reputation," said Lucas, noting that she doesn't visit Ocean Boulevard at all during rallies.
Myrtle Beach and bikers attempted to plan the rally together in years past, but the city spokesman said rally organizers were unwilling to shorten the rallies - leading to the city's new, harsher position against them. Individual bikers only spend a week or so at a time at the rallies, so they do not realize the events' cumulative effect, Kruea said.
"If we were talking about three or four days for each one, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation," he said. "We're talking about 20 straight days of motorcycle rallies, and that is too much for the city."
Although the event was held on the front lawn of Atlantic Beach Town Hall, none of the town's four elected officials were present, and the only town employee there was Police Chief Randy Rizzo. Mayor Retha Pierce has been hospitalized since feeling chest pains while waiting for a court hearing Thursday, but spokesman Mustafa Abdullah of Conway said at the event that Pierce supports the bikers.
Rizzo, who said he was not informed of the gathering beforehand, said he is waiting on the Atlantic Beach Town Council to give him some direction on this year's rally, so he can begin coordinating law enforcement with other agencies.
"Their decision is vital," Rizzo said. "They're going to have the bike rallies whether anybody sponsors it or not."
Representatives from Myrtle Beach are set to speak to the Atlantic Beach Town Council at their Monday night meeting about the Bikefest, town officials said. Contacted by phone, Councilman Donnell Thompson said he is waiting to hear their comments before he decides how to proceed.
"This is a time when we can work with our neighbors," Thompson said.
In years past, costly contracts with promoters and entertainers created deep debts the town has yet to climb out of, but in 2008, former town manager Charles Williams restricted the town's involvement to support for the officers in town, providing portable toilets and hiring cleanup crews afterward. Interim Town Manager Kenneth McIver said he will recommend the council continue that approach.
"From a financial standpoint, we don't have it to spend. We cannot do a lot," McIver said. "We just don't want to incur any more debt."
Thompson agreed that the town's spending should be minimal, unlike the lavish plans of the past.
"I don't think we should ever go in that direction again," Thompson said. "We shouldn't put the town out where we spend a bunch of money and don't know if it's going to come back in."