From Hollister to Manhattan — How Mainstream Media Impacts Motorcyclists

Hell For Leather, HFL -



Thanks to the stupidity of the recent events in New York involving a group of bikers and an SUV driver, the spotlight has been turned on all of us again within the motorcycle community in a negative way. It’s nothing new as it happened before and no doubt will happen again.

Like many of you I have watched the “NY Biker” videos, read the media hyped stories and am none the wiser as to what really happened that day. I wasn’t there and I don’t know any of the people involved. Perhaps in time, when things settle down, the actual truth about what happened in Manhattan that September Sunday will eventually come out. Or maybe everyone will be in litigation for the next ten years.

Aside from the shocking images and the resulting media hysteria and local politicians calling for a ban on all motorcycle gatherings, I am reminded this has all happened before many years ago on July 4, 1949 in the sleepy agricultural town of Hollister, California. That was when the stereotype of the big bad biker was first created. Not by the motorcyclists but by a media frenzy determined to generate sensational headlines about the menace of motorcyclists and the threat they posed to decent society.

I’m not drawing any correlation to the events either in New York or California all those years ago. Both were entirely different situations. But the resulting media outcry and backlash on motorcycle enthusiasts is exactly the same today.

Some of you may be too young to have heard of the Hollister Riots. But if you’re into bikes it’s important you know something of the history of why the media and the public regard us with suspicion and unease when they see a group of motorcycles riding into town together.

A group of former World War Two vets formed a motorcycle club in California called The Boozefighters. Their creed was to have some innocuous fun and cause a bit of mischief along the way. They claim to be the original motorcycle club and are still running today. Around 50 of them arrived in the sleepy agricultural town of Hollister in 1947 to celebrate Independence Day and to take part in the American Motorcycle Association’s Gypsy Tour Rally. They were joined by other riding clubs, which included the Pissed Off Bastards, the Market Street Commandos and the Galloping Goose Motorcycle Club.

They, along with several other thousand motorcycle enthusiast who came for the rally, drank in the town’s bars, had a couple of fist fights, raced up and down main street and were generally badly behaved.

Hollister had not anticipated the number of bikers that would arrive for the AMA’s Gypsy Tour Rally. There was nowhere in town for the bikers to stay so they passed out on residents’ lawns and slept on the sidewalk and in the parks. Respectable Hollister just wasn’t prepared. Nor was the seven-man Hollister police force, which went around trying to arrest as many drunken bikers as it could with little success.

Eyewitnesses said at the time: “”It’s just one hell of a mess. The motorcyclists weren’t doing anything bad, just riding up and down whooping and hollering; not really doing any harm at all.”

That would have been it except that a Life Magazine photographer called Barney Petersen was also in town for the rally and captured a photo of an alleged biker, sitting on a motorcycle surrounded by beer bottles. It’s an iconic image even today, albeit some say a staged one, as the rider was neither a member of the Boozefighter MC, or any other club, just a drunk man who stumbled out of bar and willingly had his picture taken.

But the media at the time seized upon it and wrote sensational headlines stating there had been a riot in Hollister, the town’s citizens had been terrorized and the bikers had taken over the town. It couldn’t have been further from the truth but the image of the outlaw boy biker was created that very day in California.

The San Francisco Chronicle started the media frenzy a few days after the weekend with greatly exaggerated stories under the titles of ‘Havoc in Hollister’ and ‘Hollister’s Bad Time’. Then Life Magazine waded in with its story that consisted of mainly just images including the photo of the drunk sitting on a Harley-Davidson under the banner headline: ‘Cyclists Holiday: He and Friends Terrorize the Town’.

The fallout was that all motorcyclists were branded as rogue and outlaws and the media said that bikers were hoodlums and warned the U.S. public to be on the look out for further rampages.

My point in all of this is: as a group of motorcycle enthusiasts we’ve inherited an image that has largely been created by the media. There are a few that like the bad boy name, but the majority of us want nothing to do with it and simply ask to be left alone to enjoy our bikes. The stupid incident in New York, regardless of who was right or wrong, did none of us any favors.

Barney Peterson’s image from Life Magazine

  • Brian

    the problem with the media now is emphasized by the immediacy of the internet and the insatiable need to get info out there as fast as possible regardless of accuracy. to be the 1st and fastest to break a story and get people buzzing is more important than spending a little bit of extra time to get it right. gaining clicks and shares and likes and other such counting measures for ad revenue logistics, instead of fulfilling the role of informational need.

  • di0genes

    “The stupid incident in New York, regardless of who was right or wrong, did none of us any favors” Hmmm, I dunno, if history is our guide, there will be lots of movies, wannabee fans will customize their bikes to look like the hollywood versions, manufacturers will come out with turnkey homage bikes and apparel, middle aged caspar milquetoasts will pay big bux for this stuff so they can pretend to be tuff, could be a major boon for the industry if it is handled properly.

    • Mykola

      It looks like Suzuki’s got their eyes on the prize then, they just need to offer extended chrome swingarms in the accessory catalogue to go with the chromed frames.

  • dinoSnake

    “Like many of you I have watched the “NY Biker” videos, read the media hyped stories and am none the wiser as to what really happened that day.”

    Thank you for saying that – I was beginning to believe that I was the only person that felt that way.

    I live in New York and most non-riders have already (as usual) decided the ‘truth’ based upon what they have learned in the media – that the riders are thugs, antisocial deviants, and are quite, quite guilty. Even my boss, who is a rider as well, was already well down the path of “guilty” until I talked to him and simply reiterated my own thoughts, “The pieces of this puzzle simply don’t add up!” We are being fed snippets of conflicting information and people wish to jump to conclusions based upon incomplete data by inserting their own agendas. And regretfully, thanks to historical situations like Hollister and Hells Angels, that agenda is skewed and we are going to have to fight an uphill battle from this point no matter the truth.

    I feel America is having no great service done to it by its modern media.

    • Thatmanstu

      As was pointed out above,whatever transpired with the RR driver,the group of riders had clearly shown them selves to be idiots with little regard for anyone but themselves. They engaged in a variety of illegal and dangerous acts and were filmed while doing so,(apparently)long before they encountered the man in the RR. On motorcycle,in a car,or riding a bicycle,acting a fool is acting a fool….

      • dinoSnake

        They engaged in a variety of illegal and dangerous acts. Yes, they did both…and mostly, a danger to THEMSELVES.

        In all those ‘prequel’ videos they are stunting around Manhattan and not bothering, read: threatening, anyone, are they? Crossing over yellow lines, acting stupid…but, no “thuggery”.

        So you’ve fallen into the exact trap that the media *wants* you to fall into: the belief that they produce “The Truth” and you simply must know all that is going on because you pay attention to them.


        2 cops on the ride and nobody knew who they were? Do *you* so frequently ride with complete strangers that this is typical?

        3 days until the first cop ‘reported’ the incident to his superiors?

        2 people detained quickly…and then, just as quickly, released?

        What exactly happened on that road with the parties involved *before* the camera started rolling?

        These and many, many other questions need to be answered by the investigating authorities and, quite simply, we haven’t heard any more information than what the media has sensationalized to us. Yet people know it all and have decided “GUILTY!”??!

        If you don’t live near a city then you haven’t seen just how popular “stunting” is to the kids. They do it all over, as often as possible. Yet, no violence from them. They are simply acting stupid on the streets.

        But, thanks to the media, people have already joined the term “stupid biker” to “violent” plus “thug”, and let’s add “hooligan” while we’re at it.. So these guys were stunters, agreed and found guilty. That does NOT automatically make them ‘violent anti-social deviants’, and I’m sad that even FELLOW BIKERS are quickly falling into that Politically Correct media-created trap.

        • Cyberwarrior

          You’re missing the fact that blocking-off traffic is an act of mass kidnapping.
          Look, you agree that they were idiots. That doesn’t mean that you understand the full & true consequences of their actions either.

          • aergern

            IF blocking traffic is a mass kidnapping then traffic in the SFBA is a minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day mass kidnapping.

            Me thinks you should go look up the word kidnap and the word detain. The two are not interchangeable. ;)

  • TraderJoesSecrets

    I interviewed the guy standing in the background of that famous “Hollister” photo. That story (warning: graphic self-promotion to follow) is reprinted in ‘On Motorcycles: The Best of Backmarker’

    • Tim Watson

      That’s interesting. Am I right in thinking he was a Hollister reident who just happened to be standing around when that famous photograph was taken? He vouched for the fact that the guy on the bike had stumbled out of a bar and was asked by the photographer to sit on a random bike?

      • TraderJoesSecrets

        Yeah. That was his story when I interviewed him in the mid-90s. I went through a whole exercise to track down anyone I could who had actually been in town during the riots. He told me that the photo was taken a day or two later, and that he’d watched a press photographer set up the shot, piling beer empties around the bike. He said that he purposely got into the background of the photo because he thought it was such a strange and elaborate sham.

        When you interview people about events that transpired fifty years previously, it’s very difficult to tease apart their memories of the events from their memories of tales told and retold. And, after so much time, it’s hard to corroborate. But the way he told it made me feel it was credible. I think the photo itself supports his story; isn’t he conspicuously clean-cut and relaxed-looking, for a guy who’d otherwise be in the middle of a drunken riot?

      • Cyberwarrior

        does it matter?

        like there were no bikers in Hollister at the time sitting on bikes surrounded by bottles?

  • Piglet2010

    Has not a certain motorcycle manufacturer (in the post AMF era) done much to promote the image of the “outlaw biker” in order to boost sales of bikes, gear, casual wear, and memorabilia?

    • Tim Watson

      Good point. Depends what you mean by image of an outlaw biker. The reality is very different from what I have seen and learned. Case in point is TV’s ‘Sons of Anarchy’…. how closely does that reflect motorcycle clubs of today?

      • Piglet2010

        I have never watched Sons of Anarchy, so I will not comment on that.

        But prior to the AMF era, Harley-Davidson went to some lengths to disassociate themselves from the patched MC club culture*, while post AMF when they dumped the Nova project** (raising the white flag in the technology/performance race with the Japanese) and decided to market their bikes and merchandise using the 1% MC image, even aping it with their Harley Owner’s Group (HOG) insignia.

        Funny thing about motorcycle clubs – individualism is suppressed in favor of group identity and rules. Actually not surprising, since they were mostly formed by combat veterans looking for a peacetime substitute for being in a close-knit military unit.

        * To paraphrase the apocryphal AMA statement, 99% of 3-patch MC members are not criminal.

    • aergern

      Rob Halford’s gay S&M look did what HD couldn’t do … give the biker a lasting uniform. Ain’t that something. heh.

      • Piglet2010

        What about the Village People “biker”? That group was formed to appeal to the gay NYC dance club scene.

  • Piglet2010

    I have found the best way to dissociate myself from the negative image is to ride a sport-touring or AT bike while wearing a hi-viz Roadcrafter – something no biker or squid gang would be caught dead doing. Furry ears on the lids and a Mr. Happy hand puppet are the icing on the cake.

    • jonoabq

      I (most of the time) wear a black and silver/grey one piece Roadcrafter and a white helmet. I sit fairly upright while commuting and have accessory lights on the front of a black and white motorcycle. At first glance I look like the law and for that reason alone I get left mostly alone and in some cases given a wide berth. Sucks that it’s come to this but image is just as (sometimes more) important as reality.

      • Piglet2010

        Yes, the right bike helps avoid unwanted attention (one reason I got ride of my yellow/silver F4i) – after all only one person in the US would ride like a hooligan on a Honda Deauville:

        • Guest
        • Jesse

          Julian Welsch, stunting a Triumph Trophy.

          Nothing is safe!

    • Joe Bielski

      Dude, I sometimes ride in my dinosaur kigurumi……….
      I have no idea what people think of that….

  • Jonathan Berndt

    god, you are going around in circles with this one and there is no need to. media frenzy or not, in the NYC incident the bikers are clearly in the WRONG. even if the incident with the Range Rover had never happened, the very act of riding with impunity, shutting the highway down was stupid, arrogant, and wrong, not to mention illegal. their riding in the city prior to this incident was insanely wrong, running lights, off road machines, unregistered machines, riding the wrong way in traffic… these are a$$holes without social respect, who happened to be riding motorcycles. i think most people understand that the vast majority of motorcyclists are not of this ilk.

    • Davidabl2

      ” i think most people understand that the vast majority of motorcyclists are not of this ilk.”
      I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that….

      • Jonathan Berndt

        you honestly think people are going to confuse a someone riding his/her motorcycle with a group of 20 – 50 trying to stop traffic on a highway?

        • Davidabl2

          Obviously not…If you’re alone obviously they won’t think you’re part of a “gang’–unless you’re wearing some sort of “colors’ (true or faux).

          But remember that an awful lot of people don’t know the difference
          between stunters, H.O.G. members, sports, and ADV riders and that in the media any group of riders is often called a”gang”

          fwiw the only time I’ve ridden with a group since the New York incident was on the Distinguished Gentleman’s ride..and i was wearing a 3 piece pinstripe suit. A “uniform’ that didn’t seem to intimidate the public..even though DGR rides throughout the world were obstructing traffic :-)

          • Dubknot

            So it’s sensible to change how you dress when you ride because of stereotypes? I always thought a rider rides solely because he/she wants to, and that in itself is enough to make you different. I’ll be damned if I let “society” dictate what I look like as I engage in a lawful activity.

          • TransistorPlanet

            I was on DGR. It was the same day, about the same number of riders. We got nothing but thumbs-up, from cops, bystanders, gawking tourists, whoever. People still love motorcycles.

            • Davidabl2

              “The clothes make the man” (or woman)–but the attitude is equally important.
              DGR blocked streets in a LOT of cities without incident. Including my local ride.

        • Maymar

          I showed up at a site for work on my bike one day (a dorky little 250 cruiser) – the receptionist, who could see said bike about 50 feet away), immediately asks me, “you’re not one of those guys weaving in and out of traffic at 150 (km/h), are you?”

          So, yes, there’s not exactly a huge amount of distinction.

          • Cyberwarrior

            didn’t occur to you that she had to ask?

            • Maymar

              Let’s try this again;

              “I showed up at a site for work [in my car] one day (a dorky little [Hyundai Accent]) – the receptionist, who could see said [car] about 50 feet away), immediately asks me, “you’re not one of those [street racers] weaving in and out of traffic at 150 (km/h), are you?”

              It’s more than a little less likely to have happened.

    • Piglet2010

      For those who have not seen the pre-incident ride videos from that day:

      Why the police have been tolerating these rides, and even participating in them, as well as why the response took so long in the Range Rover incident are questions that should have head rolling in the NYPD.

    • Gonfern

      I agree with all but your last statement. Especially in NY right now, I can assure you that most people here think the vast majority of motorcycle riders are just like those ruff rider retards. Good, otherwise sensible people give me the “you people” routine. People are programmed to react to fear in this country. When you have an entire industry dependent on creating fear in the minds of the sheep, the big bad/dangerous/suicidal motorcyclist will always be a nuisance to public safety.

      • aergern

        Yep. A co-worker started a conversation off the day after this crap happened with ” Did you see what your friends did …” to which my response was ” WE live in California and this happened in NYC so if this is going to be the tone of this conversation then let’s stop or I’ll ask you about your fixie riding bicycle friends who refuse to obey traffic laws and ride around SF as if they own the bloody place. OK?! ” and silence was the response.

        Seriously… tolerating folks lumping in every rider together and acting as if we have to apologize for every jerk who has walked into a show room and bought a bike is just not going to happen from me. I show by example but as it’s not right to say “you people” to african-american’s… it’s not alright to acuse me of squidism.

        Just my 0.02

  • kentaro

    I’m sure those cowards in NY have given more incentive for car drivers to commit road rage against innocent riders. What a shame that our safety is jeopardized because of these idiots. I get enough people purposefully cutting me off or spraying windshield washer fluid back at me as it is.

    • ThinkingInImages

      I’ve never run into a “road rage” or “driver v. motorcycle” situation in all the decades I’ve been riding – a lot of it in NY, and in traffic. Yes, there are inattentive, careless, skill-light drivers (and riders, too), out there. We’re outnumbered by a huge margin, and more tuned into the road, so maybe it’s more obvious. Basically, we’re all trying to get from point A to B. It’s not easy, the roads are poor, the traffic congestion is miserable and somehow it all works. It’s a challenge.

  • Lee Scuppers

    So did the Boozefighters ever figure out why everybody always seemed to jump to the same conclusions about their intentions? It’s a conundrum, for sure.

    • Brett Lewis

      Apparently there is a chapter in the general area here. Every Boozefighter I’ve ever seen or spoken to has come across to me as a pretty good guy, one time one checked on me to see if I needed help with my import, on another occasion I also checked on one that was broken down… they’re always cool.

  • Aakash

    Does Joe and Janet Plumber/Sixpack/MochaFrappaccino know the difference between a squid that just split by or a conscientious and polite fellow motorist on a motorcycle?

    • Piglet2010

      One reason why the only place you will find me in leather riding gear (gloves and boots excepted) is at the track. I consciously try to project a non-biker, non-squid image.

      Besides, when one has a Roadcrafter, there is no better gear to wear most of the time.

  • ThinkingInImages

    This incident was a bit more interesting in that the press really couldn’t create all that much “news”. The videos were out before the reporting hit, thanks to the Internet – and the fool’s own video camera. Most of the “news” was outrage and justly so.

    Let me put this in perspective. I live in NYC and this is not a new thing. It’s been tolerated far too long by everyone, including legit riders. Setting aside the SUV part of the incident, what most people aren’t seeing, or talking about, is how long this “behavior” had been going on, and the distance, on that day. I’d peg it at an hour and 30 miles, just for the road portion.

    On the upside it’s been very quiet lately. I haven’t heard the pack on the move in days/weeks. I hear the occasional loud solo motorcycle, but that’s it (and that’s unfortunate).

    Yes, it’s big negative for us all, but I’m not seeing much impact personally. I had an odd moment today when my EZ-Pass wouldn’t trigger a toll gate (it’s hit/miss at best, mostly miss). I waited for the officer to come over, half expecting a bit of a hassle. Nope. He couldn’t have been nicer.

    • Jesse

      EZPass on the bike is such a gamble. I’m thankful that when I need to use it, it is usually during rush commute times on the Mass Pike, and our Staties have much better things to be doing than hassling me.

      • Piglet2010

        Mine works (old style Illinois IPass transponder) – I have it on the back side of the windscreen on my Deauville.

        • Jesse

          Mine is the old Fast Lane MA transponder. It mostly works fine when it is in the map pocket of my tank bag. Until it doesn’t. *shrug*

    • UrbanMoto

      Every time I cross the Bear Mountain Bridge my EZ-Pass fails and the guy has to come out and take in the little booth and run it manually. PIA. I’m going to look into getting another one. And yes, every time they are very pleasant about it.

  • Dubknot

    I’ve seen several comments about the bikers bad behavior before the video was recorded. Where have you guys seen this? I agree with Tim in that we do not know exactly what happened beforehand. That being the case, maybe everyone should calm down a bit before damning the entire rally and riders up there. We simply don’t know.

  • Chris Cope

    What I found interesting about the media fallout from NYC brouhaha is that they often used the very same language as was used by the press back in the Hollister days (if you read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Hell’s Angels” he quotes from a number of these articles). Words like hooligan and hoodlum, scofflaw and thug. The media response to the NYC bikers was almost an Onion parody of media response. Next time, though, I hope they’ll go even more out of date in their rebuking of bikers, something along the lines of: “Zounds, fellows! Gaze upon these be-masked ruffians upon their terrible fire-driven dandy horses! Behold their detestable countenance!”

    • Jesse

      BRB, I have to go set aside my terrible fire-driven dandy horse. I will do my damnedest to work this into casual conversation today.

      • Chris Cope

        Obviously, if you ride electric it would be “lightning-powered dandy horse.”

        • Jesse

          A pagan steed of electricity and steel! Thor’s own conveyance!

          Et cetera.

  • disqus_5EH6haIkLR

    This is not a new incident in NYC, this one was that went bad. But know the problem is bigger than you think. For years the NYPD has been creating motorcycle “Safety Checkpoints” all around the city. The “safery” ruse is that they are looking to stop, unlicensed, uninsured, unregistered riders but the only people who stop for these checkpoints are law abiding riders. Those doing wrong avoid or in this case just blow past the police. I have no problem with with the NYPD going after the problem ones and I understand a few lawful riders will occasionally get caught up in the process but these checkpoints are a waste of taxpayer’s funds and police resources and just harass those of us doing everything right.
    Ride safe everyone, share the road and those drivers out there, look out for motorcycles.
    Motocyclist Captures Biker Mob Acting Reckless
    INSIDE EDITION sits down with Brad Berson, a law abiding biker who shot video of motorcycle riders acting reckless and not being stopped by police. Berson is under the assumption that these bikers were the group involved in the West Side Highway

  • Cyberwarrior

    “regardless of who was right or wrong”?!?

    that’s the most important thing.