2018 NCOM Convention in Mobile, AL
Taking the Water Street exit after going across Mobile Bay and then going under the river on westbound I-10, my first thought was, I’ve entered a scene like in one of my books. With a dozen or more Police cars—blue lights flashing—parked in the median separating the Renaissance Hotel and the Mobile Convention center, I noted dozens of uniformed officers directing traffic, obviously being diligent in their job of protecting and serving the flood of people exiting the convention center. Many were headed to the parking garage under my home for the next three days. Putting on my blinker, I was directed to make a U-turn and park in special event parking on the lowest level of the hotel next to it. Turning in I saw a hundred or more bikes parked in neat lines behind the bars of the parking area with dozens of patched bikers unloading their bikes and watching the scene outside.
The Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel was the site of the 2018 National Coalition of Motorcyclists(NCOM), a coalition of motorcycle groups, clubs, and organizations brought together for a mutual exchange of information, legislative strategy, and the combined strength to fight issues that limit the freedom of the road for those of us that ride on two or three wheels. Delegates from all across the U.S. were there including ABATE groups, Coalition of Clubs, CMAs, and independents. NCOM is heavily supported by A.I.M. (Aid to Injured Motorcyclists), both founded by Richard M. Lester with the intent to protect motorcyclists both legally and with injury support for FREE.
Early that day, I arrived and unloaded, spending the afternoon talking with old friends, meeting new ones, attending meetings and seminars, and signing some copies of my newest novel. Flames, a motorcycle thriller written not only to entertain the reader, but to help bikers stay a bit safer with imbedded defensive riding tips, a map of the settings, and a story that would give insight to non-riders of what bikers experience on the road, including a glossary of biker terms. Safety is a big priority of mine…too many have lost their lives needlessly, while others have had their lives turned upside down by the uninformed public with the backing of the legislature, enforced by the police.
The convention was a real eye-opener for me. Living and writing about motorcycling in the southeast, I soon realized how laws, policies, enforcement procedures, and public perception varies drastically across our nation. Living in Georgia, forced by law to wear a helmet, I live between Florida and South Carolina, both with laws giving freedom of choice to wear helmets if 21 or older. I get it; the public and their legislative representatives believe they must protect bikers from themselves. And after seeing movies like Easy Rider, Wild Hogs, and shows like Sons of Anarchy, they may stereotype bikers that wear leather, or patches/colors, or with long hair and cut-off sleeves as dope-smoking, heavy drinking, violent thugs that are not to be trusted. The police, protecting and serving the public, must do what they can to thwart the perceived threat. The media, typically getting better ratings when bringing news of tragedy and violence, often foster that public feeling of mistrust.
Imagine this scenario; Mary Jo lives down the street from a woman with a biker boyfriend. Concerned for her safety, she calls her uncle the sheriff to tell him about it. He sends a deputy to ride by and run the biker’s plates and then advises his department that members of a CMA gang are in the county. Wanting to please their boss and the citizens, the deputies begin to look for any reason to stop patched bikers, or maybe anyone riding a bike. Remember that ‘protect and serve’ pertains to the community, both its politicians and voters. Stereotyping begins at home with the public.
What do we do? It bothers me to see a mother grab her kids’ hands and lock the doors to her minivan when I am nearby. Getting followed by a cop for miles while they run my plates and look for a reason to pull me over is a hassle, not to mention the reinforcement of the public’s opinion of me as they ride by if I am pulled over. ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ does not pertain to public opinion or the news media. Perception is reality to the non-biking public, after all, aren’t we dressed just like those guys on SOA? Will anti-profiling laws change that? I don’t think so. In states where profiling happens frequently, 47% of those stopped were independents, that is, they were not wearing colors.
What will change that? More media coverage and air-time of the good things we do. At Christmas time it’s easy to get coverage for our toy runs. Other times we need coverage for our charity and benefit rides, visits to hospitals and orphanages, honoring our veterans, and standing up for what is right. Maybe a movie or two where the bikers are the good guys that come to the aid of the public and police to prevent terrorism or organized criminal activity. We need to get the local media on our side by getting them involved ahead of time when we have charity events and fund raisers.
Asked to be a keynote speaker at the event, I felt moved to talk about public perception and what we could do about it. Years ago I felt the same way after being told by my boss how being perceived as a biker might impact our customers. I set out to change that with my first book. However, movies and the news media always trump a book. And during the presidential election we all learned how much social media influences public opinion.
Will positive media coverage help? I know it will. As a group we have the power to change public opinion of our character, and as a result we will find it easier to get the support of the public when we need legislative help for change. As individuals, we can change opinion by helping others, holding doors open, and saying hello to people we encounter daily. Wave at police as you ride by. Consider that little old lady that got your help talking about you later at church. Imagine the power of one multiplied by millions of other bikers doing good deeds. Maybe even drivers will think about us as people with families as they rush to work, home, or other places.
Do we stereotype? Of course; we all do. We look at the way people drive, what kind of car they’re in, if they are holding a smart phone, how they’re dressed, and their facial expressions when we encounter them—and we react accordingly. Most people form an opinion of you within the first three seconds. We have the power to change the public’s opinion with good judgement, a bit of patience, and the media. Imagine the public seeing you, a biker as one of the ‘good guys’, trustworthy and helpful.
There were other issues discussed at the convention, not just profiling. Automated vehicles, penalties for distracted driving, non-responsive sensors at traffic lights, E-85 gas, lane-splitting, and RICO laws were just a few. Legal tactics and expectations pertaining to being stopped by the police were covered in detail.
Back to that first night in Mobile. After spending the day at the convention, I was ready to ride before it got dark…so much to see in that area, but so little time. We found out on the eleven o’clock news that the University of South Alabama(USA) was having their graduation at the convention center and their keynote speaker was Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife. That explains the heavy police presence, directing traffic and making the attendees feel protected from the bikers across the street. It may also account for a few seemingly out-of-place people sporting wind jackets and earpieces near the side entrance and the bridge to the convention center from the hotel. I wonder if…surely not. Anyway, it would certainly make a great premise for a few chapters in my next book with a little bit of ‘what if…’. GG, I’ve got some writing to do.