DENVER, CO – “Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure and whatever comes our way.” Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild lyrics could easily have been the testimony of the military veteran bikers supporting a bill to prevent discrimination against their attire.
Unlike the song’s finish, “I never want to die,” the bill was killed by a House Committee on Wednesday evening. The discrimination festered from movies, books and television series that stereotype bikers as dangerous dudes; the bill died because the constitutional rights of business owners prevailed.
“There are more than 50 motorcycle clubs inColorado,” said Rep. Joe Miklosi (D-Denver), sponsor of House Bill 1128 to protect them from discrimination. “They love the free spirit of riding – riding inColorado, riding in the nation.”
Like a scene from the 1969 flick Easy Rider, Miklosi described discrimination against bikers who were turned away from restaurants, taverns, malls and stores because people fear what they don’t understand. In this case, it can be long hair or beards, leather jackets and chaps, but mostly the club insignias on clothing.
Miklosi introduced Senate Bill 1128 to prohibit discrimination of people wearing “unconventional attire” – clothing that identifies a member of a motorcycle club or military veteran.
Businesses inColoradohave the right to deny access to individuals wearing “colors,” a term describing a 3-piece badge on the back of jackets, vests and shirts that identify motorcycle clubs that range from Christian Motorcyclists Association to Veterans of Vietnam to Hell’s Angels.
”I’ve heard of too many instances when individuals would walk into a public establishment… and overzealous security personnel would ask them to leave – not because of their behavior, but because of their attire,” said Miklosi.
“That bothers me,” declared Miklosi. “Like a lot of you, I’m a First Amendment disciple. I want to make sure there’s not discrimination against any individuals.”
Committee Chair Rep. Jim Kerr (R-Littleton) had a different take on First Amendment rights. He told Miklosi that it would infringe on business owners’ property rights and noted that the discrimination against biker club members hasn’t met the test of protection afforded on the basis of gender, race and handicaps.
“If there’s been public awareness first, and then we see this misuse and abuse that’s the time to move on with legislation. I think your bringing public awareness is the best part of this whole concept,” said Kerr.
More than 50 military veterans who are members of motorcycle clubs appeared at the bill’s hearing before the HouseState, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. Many of them thanked Miklosi, who is running for the 6th Congressional District seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and a military veteran and reservist who served in the first Gulf War andIraq in 2005.
Ray Hoskinson testified for the bill, but also aired his fear of going down a road to nowhere.
“It’s rumored that this is the ‘kill bill’ committee. We’re hoping it doesn’t get killed,” said Hoskinson, an Air Force veteran known as “Nite Train” in his biker club. “We’re just asking to be treated equally and fairly.”
TheVietnamvet estimated that 90 percent of all ofColorado’s motorcyclists are veterans and they respect rules posted by business owners. Some establishments forbid leather; others post “No Colors” signs. Hoskinson said vets wearing colors are turned away, but the rule doesn’t always apply to HOGs, Harley Owners Group members.
“At one time the perspective was that if somebody from one group went into a bar with another group, there would be a fistfight,” said Kerr. “That perception went back to The Wild One with Marlon Brando.”
He said there’s been a turf war between biker groups for more than 40 years, and that the bill won’t solve that issue, but it does help increase public awareness of this type of discrimination.
“You brought up the Wild West and all that. I do think things from those days have changed a lot,” said Hoskinson, who conceded that public education to buck stereotypical thinking is needed.
“I always say that not everybody is a trouble maker any more than every Muslim is a terrorist not any more than every policeman is guilty of brutality,” said Hoskinson. “Speaking as a Vietnam veteran, I like a lot of us got treated badly when we got home – and now we feel like we’re being treated badly again just because we belong to a group.”
Vet bikers Mike Griewisch and Steve Moore told The Colorado Observer that Kerr’s comments exemplified the prejudicial myth that they have to hurdle to be treated equitably. The motorcycle clubs formed a confederation inColorado several years ago, and they said the meetings have united the groups.
The misfit images hark back to Hunter Thompson’s book published in 1966, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and persist now in the popular television series that began airing in 2007, Gangland on the History Channel.
“Things are different from then. Motorcycle clubs don’t have those problems inColorado,” said Moore, a Navy vet who served in Vietnam.
Kerr shared the plot of another bad biker movie and then said that the bikers need to change their image by doing community outreach, promoting public education and helping vets in crisis.
“This piece of legislation isn’t going to change that perception of reality,” declared Kerr. “What’s going to change that perception of reality is when people say those are pretty decent guys instead of those guys scare the heck out of me.”
“They scare the heck out of people because they aren’t conventional,” he said. “And they are (dressed) unconventional intentionally because they’re part of a particular group and a particular ideology.”
However, Kerr offered to help them change their image, and advised that if a business owner is egregiously discriminatory, there is recourse through federal law.
The lone opposing testimony was given by Deputy Attorney General Michael Dougherty who gave a constitutional argument against creating an anti-discrimination classification for bikers’ attire. He said that the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race and religion; the American Disabilities Act protects handicapped individuals.
“The groups that we have protected under state and federal constitutions are those individuals who were born with inalienable rights,” said Dougherty. But, they went through years and years of discrimination, unjust treatment and struggle to finally achieve equality.
In addition, Dougherty said that business owners have the right to protect their property and the safety of their customers. Business owners have valid concerns about street gangs – as the Crips and the Bloods – and that, he said, is the main reason why they post “No Colors” signs in their establishments.
After hearing the testimony, the bill was defeated on a 6 – 3 vote. Democrat Reps. Nancy Todd of Aurora, Lois Court and Crisanta Duran, both of Denver, voted for the bill.