by Tony Pan Sanfelipo(April 1998)
(Originally written in 1991)
Where Is ABATE?
Way back in the mid-'70s, there was a definite need for the motorcyclists of America to stand up, unite and fight Big Brother style government. It was our wake-up call to get our act together or lose our freedom to ride without helmets, among other things.
The popular belief, subscribed to by just about everybody including myself, was to get every type of biker and even those who didn't ride but were sympathetic to the cause, and enlist them into the struggle. The cornerstone of this resistance was formed under the auspices of Easyriders Magazine and its spiritual leader, Lou Kimzey.
The years have seen dramatic actions and were filled with victories and defeats. We gained momentum and then lost several states to renewed pressure. We were able to attract outstanding talent from the ranks of cyclists embroiled in the battle. Nationally, figureheads appeared who took up the banner and led our nation in the direction of victory. But one thing remained apparent. Even with the string of helmet repeals that took place in the late 1970's, and with professional style newsletters and communications, ABATE chapters around the country still represented only a fraction of the registered motorcyclists in the respective states. Apathy had a lot to do with membership numbers lulling at or near the bottom of registration figures. And the misconception that ABATE was a Harley oriented organization was the most noticeable complaint. The concern became so important that special effort was made to attract and convince riders of imported bikes to join ABATE.
In retrospect, I think ABATE has made an understandable mistake. Ideally, every registered motorcyclist enrolled in the army would mean an almost certainly unbeatable force. But realistically, we know we will never be able to motivate the greater numbers of apathetic dead weight out there. Our problem, from a purest point of view, is that when we enlist all these people into ABATE, we also enlist a multitude of different opinions and philosophies. Through the intricacy of our daily operations and legislative efforts, we somehow lost track of ABATE's true purpose and goal. In order to appease some of our detractors, the popular trend for ABATE was to show that we were good citizens and good little bikers. Hence the birth of the charity craze and public relations boom. Again, going back to enlisting everybody we possibly could, we naturally acquired into the ranks those individuals who placed an urgency on making us appear like normal, everyday Americans. The problem with that thinking is we're not normal, every day Americans (thank God). We are freedom-loving individualists and we are not afraid to stand up and make some noise for what we believe in.
While we gained some attention for our charitable work, we chose to give of our fortunes to the likes of MDA and other nationally funded groups, while abandoning our own brothers and sisters who certainly needed and deserved our help. It never ceases to amaze me that we would adopt a highway and pick up trash, yet throw away our own kind, ignoring their pleas for help. We've got bikers who are sitting in wheelchairs, many of them because of drunk cage drivers, and all they want is to ask us to help them get back in the wind. But we would prefer to not see them in their predicament as if this denial might some way keep this from happening to us. We would much rather go out in the sun and pick garbage off the shoulder of some state highway, in the guise of performing a public service for the people, the majority of whom can't stand us.
I think that our early successes were due, in part, to the fact that we were mysterious and threatening to society at large, and legislators in particular. This is evidenced by the fact that when more than 300 bikers showed up in the gallery at the Wisconsin State Capitol to hear and witness a vote on the helmet law, the Capitol Police had every available officer at hand on duty. The legislators were visibly intimidated by our presence. Did it influence how they voted? We'll probably never know, but what we did know is how each one voted that day. And they knew we knew. They felt our vengence when someone named Leopold sponsored a helmet bill, only to find about 60 bikers camped out on his front lawn on a Saturday morning, refusing to leave until he spoke with us. Several years later when a lawmaker named Merkt sponsored another reinstatement bill, even though the naive leaders of ABATE at that time erroneously invited him to speak at the 1988 "anti-helmet" rally (in those days we were still anti-helmet more than pro- choice) in Madison, Wisconsin, he found out that some of us weren't worried about offending him in front of the thousands that were gathered, to the point of publicly calling him "Merkt the Jerk". And deservedly so. Others chose to drown out his comments by starting several motorcycles with straight pipes and revving them to the red line during his entire speech, which was not heard by many.
This pissed off the ABATE organizers of that rally, but it pleased the crowd immeasurably. More importantly, the media reported on Merkt's rude reception, sending a clear message to other legislators. Too bad ABATE just didn't get it. It seems as though we received more attention in those days. And more respect from the bikers. Today we enjoy the good-boy image, but little else. There are some that would argue that we have made giant strides, especially in the federal arena. Granted, we are doing as well as can be expected, but we should be at this point anyway, because if the present day activists such as Wayne Curtin weren't involved, we would have seen other capable people in their places. It's just a natural progression I believe would have happened. The point is, bolstering our numbers in and of itself did not make success that much more certain. In the meantime, we were weakening ABATE's philosophy and goals due to a divergence of opinions on what ABATE should be. The important point here is that ABATE was formed for a distinct purpose. We are moving steadily away from that purpose and softening our posture every day. We are A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments and nothing else. We are not a safety organization. We are not a charitable organization. We are not an educational organization. Sure, these are all part of our make up, and an important addition to our agenda. But our number one basic concern is biker's rights. This means helping bikers who are subjected to unreasonable enforcement of traffic laws, harassment by authorities, discrimination by business establishments, unfair or unjust legislation, etc., etc.
We were involved in all of these areas not too long ago, but the present day ABATE leaders in many states seem to veer away from confrontations of this sort. Exceptionally upsetting was ABATE's reluctance to step forward and support Appleton, Wisconsin, bikers even after the media and police accused these freedom fighters of being engaged in a turf war for drug traffic, simply because the bikers were picketing outside of known crack houses. The fact is only the area bikers had the guts to get out at midnight and confront the punks who were poisoning the community with their drugs and grafitti. Why isn't ABATE taking an active stance in the many police brutality cases around the country concerning bikers who were beaten or killed? Many ABATE chapters have taken the stance that this isn't in the realm of bikers's rights. But what is biker's rights then? And do we only represent certain bikers, or all bikers no matter what group they represent or what they have been accused of? These are things that need to be more clearly defined. Exactly what do our present leaders know of biker's rights? Certainly they get an abundance of advice from other organizations, especially the AMA. But the AMA has its own agenda, namely encouraging voluntary helmet use. Fine. They have a right to promote their beliefs within their organization. But those are not ABATE's beliefs. At least they never were before. What seems to be happening is we are adopting other organizations platforms and philosophies. This is the root of the cause that persuaded many of the veteran ABATE members-the ones who fought the trench warfare against helmet laws in the '70s- to drop out of ABATE. I'd rather have a dozen of those freedom fighters at my side than 100 yuppie safetycrat-enthused novices behind me. Because I know who is righteous and dedicated, unwilling to compromise our freedoms with a federal government that has no real barter power in the matter in the first place.
Where is all this leading? Back to the original question. Where the hell is ABATE? Many of us founders do not even recognize ABATE anymore. The cold, hard fact is ABATE is not for everyone. Just like motorcycling isn't for everyone. You might put anyone on a bike, but that doesn't make that person a biker. You can let anyone join ABATE, but that doesn't automatically make him a freedom fighter. Most seem to join for the parties and runs. Try and get the same turnout for a phone bank or letter writing campaign as you do for a poker run, and you'll get my drift. Safety, education, fund-raising and parties are all fine. And if you want to encourage helmet use, go for it. Just don't do in under ABATE's banner. At least not in Wisconsin. Join the AMA, MRF or some other organization and knock yourself out. Leave ABATE to do ABATE business.
If the current leaders of ABATE feel strongly about pursuing some of the above mentioned areas, certainly their talents will be appreciated by those other groups. ABATE should not entirely abandon those concepts, but it should get it's priorities straight. We can once again become an active, aggresive organization representing all bikers in all phases of biker's rights. We should be leading the way with not only legislative challenges to the helmet law (demanding full repeal for adult riders, not modification language), but also taking the battle to the courts. This was something that was being done by ABATE chapters in the '70s, without the benefit of the recent court rulings on the constitutionality of the law. Given the cases in Washington, California and Florida, all ABATE members in helmet law states should be throwing down their helmets and begging for a chance to take a ticket to court. That's a freedom fighter, that's what ABATE was and should be. Let ABATE come back to the people who really care about it, the ones who aren't looking for a business but rather are seeking a brotherhood, a family. For those chapters that unfortunately changed their name to something about aiming toward education, at least return the word "brotherhood" with the hopes that some of it will rub off.
Tony Pan Sanfelipo