Bike rally revs up public emotions

Alastair Baker
News Editor
Thursday, July 23, 2020
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Friday evening and the Beartooth Rally gets underway. Photo by Alastair Baker

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In Joliet, things were quieter as two girls help to wash down a Harley Davidson. Photo by Ann Sadler

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Red Lodge Police with other law enforcement officers detain a biker along Broadway during the Beartooth Rally. Courtesy Photos

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Members of the Civil Rights Issues group march through town during the Beartooth Rally.

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The iconic motto on a Harley Davidson, ‘Live To Ride, Ride To Live.’

By Alastair Baker
News Editor

The 26th Beartooth Rally rode into Red Lodge at the weekend to renew its fragile relationship with the town, only this year the burners were on extra high.
This traditionally infamous cash cow, that along with the Ski Mountain, the rodeo and the 4th of July helps partly to sustain the town’s economy throughout the year, was met with a flurry of complaints that centered on the pandemic, policing methods, and a clash of beliefs between a group of bikers and a number of Civil Rights marchers.
Since early June a group of citizens has marched for various civil rights issues through Red Lodge along Broadway from the Old Roosevelt Center to Lions Park and then to the Carnegie Library. This weekend the group was confronted by numerous bikers whose opinions differed markedly from their own.
“Some people said, ‘Should we have been doing it?’ You bet we should have! We are community members in our own town. It was a gentle little march,” said one marcher Lexi Adams.
Adams said the group was confronted by the bikers with “cussing”, “racist slurs” as well as sexual comments directed towards the younger females with them.
According to Adams, there appears to have been some miscommunication, as the bikers believed the march was against the Confederate flag.  Attempts were made to rectify this situation.
By and large many of the marchers have said they felt “unsafe and very scared” of the whole experience.
A Red Lodge resident said “We were going through a walk downtown.  It seemed reasonable that we could walk through our own community.  People said, ‘Go home.’  We were home. We felt like the gang members were getting a better reception than community members.”
One marcher complained of being “body checked” and seeing another person “slammed” against a window of a business while another person accused the police of “looking at us like it was our fault to be hurt.”
 “It was frightening on a lot of levels,” said another marcher.  “I asked for a safe escort and they said you are on your own.  There was vitriol.   There were threats of rape.  People were spitting on them.  I don’t understand why we are inviting these folks to our town.  I want to feel safe and I want our friends and family to feel safe here.”
Adams commented on an incident behind a business where a “young man “ was picked on by some bikers until some officers arrived and the incident calmed down.
A request for a police escort was made by the group but turned down.
Red Lodge Police Chief Jason Wells, who has come in for serious criticism on his department’s policing methods during the rally, defended his officers against each and every complaint.
“We don’t escort any groups unless we are doing a parade,” said Chief Wells.  “We were only providing protection to ensure nothing went wrong. That’s the difference, at any event we do not escort unless it is a city organized parade but we do provide safety.”
An accusation that the police led a parade of bikers through the town was unfounded according to Chief Wells.
“Glenn Sukut said ‘normally you lead the parade but this year we want to do it the other way round,’” said Chief Wells.
Sukut and partner Heather Quinn, sponsor the Beartooth Rally through their Bone Daddy’s Custom Cycle business.
“The bikers asked to surround us as law enforcement. There was the Red Lodge Coroner's office, a Sheriff’s Deputy and they had us towards the back. We did not lead that parade. They wanted to show support,” said Chief Wells.
As for any incidents mentioned by eyewitnesses, Chief Wells said, “no complaints were made.”
Chief Wells maintains he was well aware of the situation that day and “was circling the  entire time” following the marchers in his car to the library.
“I was always there and present. We did have additional officers on. I was off duty but came in for that event, and we had a Carbon County Sheriff’s deputy and a highway patrol officer. I had four law enforcement officers to keep the peace,” he said.
The confrontation between the bikers and the Civil Rights marchers escalated after the marchers finished their vigil outside the library. Law enforcement thought the marchers were dispersing and left the area.
Within minutes Chief Wells got a call from dispatch that officers were needed and “that there was a conflict between bikers and marchers.”
 “I was first on the scene, and I never saw any physical violence,” he said.  
Chief Wells saw the marchers safely out and away further up Broadway for which the marchers thanked him for helping them out.
“We did have a group (of bikers) following fairly close and I said ‘back off, give them some room’ and they said they were trying to get by them and so I asked if they (the marchers) would move to the side and let the bikers go through and they did,” he said. “Our first use of force is our presence, and that was all that was needed.”
Chief Wells added that he “tried something different this year” with policing relying on officers that had “the right temperament to handle the community that we were going to deal with.”
“They did not let me down, they did a great job, and they worked long hours,” he said. He also explained he had used STEP grants to pay for the extra help “so the citizens wouldn’t have to pay for those extra hours.”
Although Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police, “We will still protect them. I believe in everyone’s right to protest peacefully,” said Chief Wells.
This also covered the complaints received about a vendor flying a Confederate flag.
“Just like there are people who disagree with Black Lives Matter and those who disagree with the Confederate flag we have to protect everyone’s rights and freedoms even though we may not agree with them. Whatever it is, they have the right to display and peacefully give their opinion and even though it may irritate some people that is what makes America great, the ability to peacefully share your ideas even if people think it is wrong,” said Chief Wells.
With the advent of the bike rally came fears of another kind; COVID-19. Criticism is rife over why there was no rodeo and only a scaled-down 4th of July in Red Lodge this year but there was a bike rally.
Mayor Bill Larson saw no other way, as he pointed out, “How do you cancel that? They’re going to show anyway. So how do we manage that?”
“It was Dr. Bill George’s idea to close off Broadway,” said Mayor Larson. After Bone Daddy’s stepped up, he said “the Council gave me the go ahead to write to Montana Department of Transportation. It went very fast.”
“The Rodeo Association and the Parade decided not to go on,” said Dr. Bill George, Carbon County Health Officer. “When they started looking at what it would take to satisfy Phase 2 recommendations, both of those organizations said ‘we can’t afford this and there are too many unknowns.’ So we didn’t do anything different with the Rally than we did with the Rodeo.  So they made that decision.”
“The Rally said ‘We can do this,’” said Dr. George. “Maybe they don’t have as much upfront costs, but they said ‘we can do this and we can satisfy Phase 2 guidelines.’”
“A lot of people misunderstand we are picking and choosing motorcyclists over cowboys, that is not the issue. We will help any event satisfy Phase 2 guidelines that make us safer, however, it is up to the event organizer to be responsible that these Phase 2 guidelines are followed,” he said. “From what I’ve heard it was a no-win situation for the organizers. They could not corral 3-4,000 people to stay to Phase 2 guidelines.”
"It is up to the people who have the event to be responsible to make sure these guidelines are being followed. If not then they should notify law enforcement, public health and should be reporting this part of their event is out of control and people are not following our directives and that didn’t happen. We were not notified that things were going downhill and I can see why the community would be frustrated at this,” said Dr. George.
Dr. George added that he is always for “closing Broadway” for any event.
“I stand by my public comment based on science,” said Dr. George. “The more things we do outdoors the safer it is. That doesn’t mean all outdoor activities are safe and if it is improbable or unlikely that people will respect social distances outdoors it increases the risk for that event.”
“Not every outdoor event is risk-free. We were hoping by creating space that people individually would choose to distance, it doesn’t appear to be the case. It appears that sidewalks, regardless of the street being open, were packed,” he said.
“It was very disappointing not only downtown but also at the rodeo grounds. I got pictures of no masks being worn at the rodeo, people sitting shoulder to shoulder,” said Dr. George.
“It is a defining moment. We have to go beyond the fact that if you say the right things on paper we have to see ways that you are going to hold people accountable.  If you're having a big wedding, we need to see how you plan to hold people responsible. We didn’t have that question set up for Heather. She basically said “I can’t enforce it, all I can do is put the information out there,’” said Dr. George. “Things are going to change.”
“We did the best we could to encourage all following the guidelines,” Quinn said regarding Dr. George’s advice and instructions.
Despite this issue, Quinn felt the event had a “positive atmosphere with a few new issues that will be addressed in the future” and that the “event was well attended.”
As for the road closure, “We would need feedback from the business community to see how it worked out for them,” said Quinn.