The Wild One Riots
In 1947, the event would be recorded in history books as the Hollister Riots took place during the 4th of July Celebrations in the city of the same name in California. It was a motorcycle rally that featured members of the American Motorcycle Association. Motorcycle rallies had become increasingly popular in the post World War Two era as more and more men were taking up the hobby of group motorcycle riding.
The crowd of 4,000 people was several times more than had been expected; although it was held outside Hollister, the event spilled over into the small town, which was overwhelmed by bikers who were forced to sleep on sidewalks and in parks. About 50 people were arrested during the event, most for public intoxication, reckless driving, and disturbing the peace. Some were fighting and racing in the streets; there were 60 reported injuries, of which 3 were serious. The AMA allegedly stated, “the trouble was caused by the one per cent deviant that tarnishes the public image of both motorcycles and motorcyclists”, coining the term “one-percenter” to describe “outlaw” bikers.
What put the riots in America’s collective memory was the 1953 film The Wild One starring Marlon Brando. Although it was inspired by the event, the movie was based on a more sensational account of the riots that run in Life magazine and other prestigious papers. All this can be attributed to a single reporter: Barney Peterson, a photographer for San Francisco Chronicle who staged the above photo. Peterson, who arrived after the riots, asked Eddie Davenport, a member of a now defunct club called the Tulare Riders, to pose precariously atop a Harley-Davidson motorcycle surrounded with broken beer bottles, holding a beer in each hand.
Peterson’s reporting was also somewhat sensational. He described bikers racing their bikes up and down the streets, through restaurants and bars; he used words such as “terrorism” and “pandemonium” almost gleefully, and described the women accompanying the bikers as less than wholesome. Although the Chronicle did not run the above photo (it ran another Peterson photo, which was unstaged), the staged photo appeared in the July 21, 1947 edition of Life magazine under the title “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and Friends Terrorize Town.” (The Life article was also the source of much debated number of attendees: four thousand). To an America already rattled by the Cold War and the Communism, these were not reassuring news at all. Soon, the Congress would be devoting hearings and major magazines their frontpages to young hoodlums and their anticipated (but never actually materialized) rampages.
American history being what it is, these irrational fears were soon forgotten and replaced by a new set of irrational fears. Yet, the fake news story and photos had a long reaching cultural influence. Brando’s outstanding performance in The Wild One lent an aura of “rebel outlaw” identity to bikers. The Wild One would become a model for newly formed clubs, like the Hells Angels, bring them tons of new members and popularize various bike brands.