By Dave Walters
The Riot That Wasn’t…………..
Close your eyes for just a minute. Let’s go back to a different era. The Yankees are blazing their way through summer on the way to the ’47 Pennant. Jackie Robinson took down color barriers. The Chicago Cardinals are getting ready for a season that will see them win the NFL World Championship. A UFO may have crashed landed in Roswell. Some of your parents or grandparents were literally getting busy creating the Baby Boom generation. They were probably listening to Tex Beneke, Les Brown, Nat King Cole, or Frank Sinatra while creating baby boomers.
Oh, and before I forget, there was a riot…. Or was there?
Are your eyes still closed? Fourth of July weekend 1947, Hollister California. A small farming community in central California with a population of less than 5,000. Two years removed from the Second World War, the economy booming, flags waving, and the distinct rumble of raucous thunder coming over the hill… Lock up your town, hide your daughters, close your doors, the cyclists are coming, they’re drunk, unkempt, wild, and ready to pillage. These barbarians on two wheels coming straight from hell.
“We were rebelling against the establishment, for Chrissakes,”
Forkner told the one year later. “You go fight a goddamn war, and the minute you get back and take off the uniform and put on Levi’s and leather jackets, they call you an a —. In the early days of biking, they immediately thought you were an outlaw sort of person. We didn’t think we were. We didn’t go around banging heads.”
If these were really my thoughts and how I felt, I’m sure some of you would be screaming at the screen right now, calling me an idiot, or fake news etc. If this was the actual tone of the article, you would see an obvious media slant to reporting these events. However, this is the very fear and pandemonium that newspapers, magazines and service wires were able to stir up across the country when reporting the 1947 Hollister 4th of July Weekend. They would use much of the same tactic and in fact, same photos when describing the 1948 “riot” that wasn’t in Riverside California as well.
Well known author and Boozefighter Bill Hayes, in his work The Original Wild Ones Tales of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club (Hayes, 2005), points out how a picture of Vern Autrey and Fat Boy Nelson sitting on their motorcycle drinking a beer during the Hollister 1947 weekend, was used to sensationalize the Riverside “Riot” exactly one year later. One death was attributed to Riverside though. Of course, it was an automobile accident 100 miles away, but still…….
Unless you are new to the culture or MC scene, you probably already have somewhat of an idea of the importance and controversy surrounding Hollister. I believe that in our current era of what constitutes news reporting, ethics, and responsibility, this event is as important as ever to look at. Not only its historical content and actual accuracy for the motorcycle community but perhaps what insights it holds moving forward with modern day media, hysteria and the wedging of sharp divides we see, created based more off emotion than fact.
Hollister had hosted these Gypsy Tour events before, previously in 1936. Bolado Racetrack just outside of town regularly hosted events. They would hold Hillclimbs and races a couple of times a year, also providing income to the town in the form of racers and spectators that would make weekend trips out of the events. This is an important part to remember about Hollister 1947. The merchants are quoted as loving it, allowing cyclists to set up camps behind their establishments and renting out extra rooms and storage space as places for racers to sleep. An event permit was even issued to allow cyclists to conduct street racing over a sectioned off portion of Main St. Apparently, needing places to eat, sleep, drink, and get gas, can provide a lot of extra tourism income for your town. Huh, who knew!
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Barney Peterson is responsible for the famous picture of a “drunken biker” atop his Harley surrounded by empty beer cans. That biker was Eddie Davenport. Myth and legend can replace facts, and with enough time gone by, myth becomes fact and the true history is lost. Was Davenport actually drunk? Did Peterson set up the picture, or did he come across Davenport that way? Arguments are made for both sides and the truth probably lost to history is somewhere in between. I believe that Davenport was drunk, and I do believe that Peterson staged the photo creating a golden opportunity to create headlines. That was, after all, his job.
The chronicle mentions the 4,000 unruly bikers as being a part of one club. As of my knowledge, there has yet to be a club that has 4,000 US-based members, let alone any club in 1947. The clubs in attendance though, legendary. Pissed off Bastards of Bloomington, Boozefighters, Galloping Goose, Top Hatters, Yellow Jackets, Compton Moonshiners, Market Street Commandos, 13 Rebels. They came to race, the came to drink, they came to have fun. Hollister city records list roughly 60 arrests made and a few more tickets issued that weekend. Mostly drunk and disorderly, a few fights, and one long piss in a radiator to help it run right. Some of you have more arrests at a family reunion, hardly seems like a riot. Nonetheless, the seeds were sown.
The AMA purportedly released a statement saying that they had no involvement with the Hollister riot, and, “the trouble was caused by the one per cent deviant that tarnishes the public image of both motorcycles and motorcyclists” and that the other ninety-nine per cent of motorcyclists are good, decent, law-abiding citizens. However, the American Motorcyclist Association has no record of ever releasing such a statement. A representative of the AMA said in 2005, “we’ve been unable to attribute [the term ‘one-percenter] original use to an AMA official or published statement — so it’s apocryphal.” The AMA’s statement led to one-percenter being widely used to describe outlaw motorcycle clubs and motorcyclists
The SF Chronicle was busy with stories and labor and union strikes where people were literally dying in the unrest, and Barney Peterson’s photo and the story barely made the back end of the paper. For over 3 weeks it caught little attention next to headlines about Strikes, Japan’s declared future no war policy, and the rebuilding of Europe. In late July 1947, Life Magazine ran the photo and just a brief caption in it’s “What’s Happening” section. The caption within the photo provided little detail, and less than 100 words on the “invading cyclists”. The fire was stoked. War savaged bikers were on their way to your town.
About now, you’re ready for the AMA statement that 99 percent of motorcyclists are law-abiding, family folks, and it’s the 1 percent of motorcyclists that cause all the problems. One small problem with that…. The AMA never issued that statement. They did issue one on the matter in 2005, saying that by this point it was “apocryphal”, meaning doubtful in authenticity but already widely circulated as being true. The AMA went on to say it has no record of this statement’s release, and in fact stayed very quiet publicly, on the matter.
Just like the story about that time you dragged raced 110mph past the county sheriff, on the way to pick up your stripper girlfriend, who invited that other girl over, who also happened to be the sister of that cop…. It just gets a little bit better every time you tell it until it becomes fact.
What motorcycle scholar Dr. William Dulaney believes happened, is published in his 2006 Doctoral Dissertation. Dr. Dulaney concludes that two different letters to Life Magazine, probably more directly related to the fabrication of the 99% statement of belief than anything else. Dr. Dulaney cites Paul Brokaw, who was the Editor of Motorcyclist, and his letter where he speaks of he and some of his colleagues addressing what happened in Hollister. Paul Brokaw does not claim to be speaking for the AMA in his letter, nor does he say, anybody he has consulted with, represents the AMA. He pronounces that the problems at Hollister where in fact, not the work of 4,000 motorcyclists as proclaimed by Life, “but rather a small percentage of that number”…. How small of a percentage? 1%? Who knows, but Dr. Dulaney explains a logical conclusion that this could be the origins of the story of the “1%” in absence of any documented AMA statement.
Next Dr. Dulaney cites another letter to Life, by a Charles Addams. Mr. Addams also does not claim AMA affiliation or to be speaking for the AMA. He states that “The four thousand motorcyclists in attendance were not members of one club, but were probably composed of 50% AMA members and 50% mere motorcyclists out for a 3 day holiday. Only about 500 motorcyclists made the event the debacle it was”(Dulaney, 2006).
As you can see, between Life’s photo with little-provided background info, and these letters to the editor being construed however the reader wishes, the Hollister myth was born. Most of the clubs in attendance, of course, could care less or bask in the reactions from straight society. What righteous outlaw/rebel wouldn’t bask in a little glory of shaking up the everyday citizen. The myth would be pushed forward in events I mentioned earlier like the 1948 Riverside Riot which saw a whopping 50 cyclists arrested, some injured due to racing. In 1951 the fictionalized account of Hollister called ” The Cyclist Raid” published in Harper’s Magazine would be the inspiration for Stanley Kramer’s 1953 film, “The Wild One”.
In reality, the idea of the “1%” wouldn’t really take hold until the 1960s. Certain clubs would come to embrace the idea and symbol as a badge of honor. In 1965 the public would see the publishing of the “Lynch Report”. Written in 1964, California Attorney General Thomas Lynch provided an urban legend, unfounded, sensationalized report of California Motorcycle clubs, mostly focusing on the Hells Angels MC, after an accusation of rape of two young women in Monterey, CA. An accusation that would later come to be unfounded and unproven. The Lynch Report compared motorcycle clubs to terrorist organizations and provided more opinion than documented facts. The Lynch report would become quickly debunked as early as 1966. However, the questionable facts within the report would create great plunder for Media speculation which we continue to see rotated into use even today.
Speculation, myth, urban legends, a few wild antics all have come together to shape what we know about the Hollister Incident. Much like the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism after the Second World War, Life Magazine and the Lynch Report have shaped how the general public perceives bikers and motorcycle culture. If you live this culture, you can understand the need for a few thousand WWII Vets on post-war Harley Davidsons to race up and down a sanctioned street and to drink a few beers.
You can see the difference between the 26-year-old WWII GI sent to Europe, North Africa, or the Pacific and welcomed home a hero, and the 19-year-old GI in Vietnam welcomed home a baby killer, refused jobs and then labeled a hoodlum in by the State of California. By the way, I didn’t make up those numbers. 26 was the average age of a GI in WWII and 19 for Vietnam. Think about the differences in the development of the human brain in those 7 years for someone just fresh out of adolescence, and then discarded returning home. Riots that weren’t, 1% statements that were never said, either way, you can see the desire for these men to come together, to live for each other, to flip the bird to the rules and norms of society, and for god’s sake, to have a beer.