No Room For Vroom, Vroom?

No Room For Vroom, Vroom?

Debate stirs over motorcycle rally merchandise


Members of the Fayetteville community and Bikes, Blues & BBQ officials say they will work together to promote the stated values of the festival and discourage vendors from selling items many people would find offensive.

Photographs of merchandise, including Nazi or white supremacy patches, Confederate flag memorabilia and some items with profanity or vulgar language toward women, circulated on social media during and after the rally, which ran Sept. 25-28.

The merchandise led people to question the rally’s policy against racism, white supremacy, bigotry, fascism, intolerance or hate speech in any form at the event.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan hosted a meeting Oct. 4 at City Hall to hash out issues and work toward a solution. About 15 people attended, including residents, city officials, police and rally organizers.

Tommy Sisemore, executive director of the rally, apologized to the group for what they had seen at the rally.

“As far as Nazi propaganda or any of that sexist crap — that is not in our belief system. That is not what we do and that is not what we are,” he said. “We will not tolerate it.”

Sisemore addressed what the rally organization can and can’t regulate.

Rally organizers supervise only the Walton Arts Center parking lot and the Depot lot across Dickson Street. The city owns the Walton Arts Center lot and Greg House owns the Depot lot. Both lease the spaces to the rally organization each year.

Vendors sign a contract to operate on those two lots, enabling the rally staff to regulate what gets sold there. Cave Springs Police Chief Rick Crisman was hired to inspect the booths. He may ask a vendor to take an item down, move it or shut down the operation altogether.

Crisman also inspects booths on private lots. However, each private property owner has his own agreement with each vendor. If Crisman or someone else with the rally finds something people may find offensive at a booth on private property, he tells the property owner. Any action is up to the owner.

Gwynne Gertz said she was not aware of the arrangement.

“I would conjecture that 99 out of 100 people who go to Bikes, Blues & BBQ have no clue that it’s not one whole fluid environment,” she said. “I think anybody who was curious about it and went to the website and looked at the board of directors and the executive director would think they’re in charge of everything.”

The meeting ended with an exchange of phone numbers and invitations for further meetings. D’Andre Jones, chairman of the city’s African American Advisory Council, invited Sisemore and the rally board to the council’s next meeting. Sisemore invited the concerned residents to rally board meetings.

Jones suggested possibly forming a group to help the rally oversee materials and make people from different backgrounds feel more welcome, which would help the event better follow its stated policy.

“It sounds like the intentions are great, but I think the challenge is how do we make it more inclusive?” Jones said.

Sisemore said he agreed with many of the points the group made. He said the rally organization wants to do everything in its power to curb materials many would find offensive.

“I think we’re all going the same direction,” he said. “Let’s just figure out how to use all of our voices to go the same direction together.”

Living up to standards

Autumn Tolbert, a Fayetteville lawyer, said she found Nazi patches, patches saying “white power” and items displaying vulgar language toward women at a booth at the FayetteChill lot on Sept. 26. She posted the photographs to social media and wrote a piece for the Arkansas Times.

Those messages run counter to the rally’s family-friendly policy, she said.

“You cannot take your children if they know how to read,” Tolbert said.

Olivia Trimble accompanied Tolbert and said she saw merchandise with messages such as, “Women are like floor tiles, if you lay them right you can walk all over them,” and “Sexual harassment will not be reported, it will be graded for originality.”

Frank Sharp owns the lot, but leases it to FayetteChill and the Garden Room. Those businesses handle the contracts with the vendors. Sharp said he got a phone call after the photographs posted Saturday and called people at the property to take a look.

Julie Worlow with the Garden Room said she inspected the FayetteChill vendors and didn’t find any Nazi propaganda. Vendors there said they hadn’t been selling the items.

“I’m not going to say it wasn’t there, because, obviously, I’ve been told these photos were out there,” she said.

Worlow said she made it clear to the vendors on the property they could not sell those items.

“We just don’t stand for this,” she said. “It is a festival that takes place in our town, and we are right in the middle of it. We’re very active in trying to make sure that people aren’t feeling threatened or selling these items.”

Some members of the No Hate NWA 2019 Facebook group, which has about 150 members, went to the rally and posted pictures of materials they found offensive. The stated purpose of the group was to provide a common location for posting photographs documenting any racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise prejudiced items.

Matthew Henriksen, an administrator of the group, said he found the amount of offensive material being sold this year higher than last year. Henriksen and others in the group took photos and videos of the materials and posted them. They also contacted festival organizers and property owners.

Henriksen said he felt there was a breakdown in communication. Items he was told had been taken down were up when he revisited, he said.

The tapestry of private landowners and independent vendors makes knowing who to report to difficult, Henriksen said. Rally organizers could do more to discourage offensive materials from being displayed and distributed, he said.

“It’s not a legal thing,” Henriksen said. “It’s like, can we have this festival live up to its own mission statement?”

Sisemore said it’s frustrating as the rally’s director to promote family friendliness while vendors sell items beyond his control. Anyone who sees something they find offensive can contact the rally organization through the official website, which has an office phone number and email contact form. Rally organizers will talk to property owners and vendors on private lots upon receiving complaints, he said.

Eye of the beholder

Mel Collier of Collier Drug on Dickson Street said what’s considered offensive most often is in the eye of the beholder. Being offended doesn’t make someone correct, he said.

The rally is bad for his business, Collier said. Customers often will opt for delivery of their prescriptions, which adds to his costs, he said. However, the rally brings in significant sales tax revenue, and vendors are part of that equation, he said.

“The financial gains by our community and Northwest Arkansas are immense,” he said. “That is why I support the rally. It’s for the greater good of those around me, my friends and my family.”

Billy Waite, owner of Dickson Street Liquor and a member of the rally board and the Dickson Street Merchants Association, said the contract he has with vendors is similar to the one the rally organizers use. His goes a step further to include language banning Confederate flag imagery. He also asks vendors to show proof of insurance and list Dickson Street Liquor as a secondary insured.

The rally doesn’t have a ban in place on the Confederate flag or images of it outright, Sisemore said. In 2017, the flag’s presence at the rally became a topic of discussion on social media. Organizers at the time said they were aware some people were offended by the flag and would handle the issue with discretion.

Waite said he allows rally staff to monitor his lot. It takes the responsibility out of his hands, and has proven effective, he said. Encouraging property owners to mimic the rally’s vendor contract and allow rally staff to check vendors could serve as a way to better handle potentially offensive material in the future, Waite said.

“I think all the parties are taking a real good look at this and seeing if it’s a tool that could be used by all property owners who lease to vendors,” he said.

Freedom of speech

City Attorney Kit Williams said Fayetteville could conceivably deny the rally a special events permit, but not because of any free-speech issues. Noise, traffic congestion, damage to businesses or inconvenience to residents could be considered, he said.

Not living up to a family-friendly policy could possibly qualify, but the term “family friendly” could not refer to anything dealing with free speech, nor specific materials being sold at the rally, Williams said.

A booth selling firearms at the Walton Arts Center lot also gained attention on social media this year. The vendor, Black Rain Ordnance, has operated for four years at the rally. Guns on display use decoy parts. Customers can order guns from the booth and have them shipped, but can’t leave the premises with a firearm or ammunition.

Guns are legal to sell, so the city can’t target them for prohibition, Williams said. At most, the city could tell the Bikes, Blues & BBQ organization that only food and drinks can be sold, which would rule out everything from T-shirts to merchandise of any kind, he said.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits any government, including the city, from restricting free speech, said Holly Dickson with the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. That means the city can’t tell vendors what they can or can’t sell, nor could they have the rally organizers act as agents on their behalf to restrict materials, she said.

However, the rally organization as a nonprofit group and private property owners can put whatever restrictions they want in their agreements with vendors. So even though the city owns the Walton Arts Center parking lot, they lease it to the rally organization. From there, Bikes, Blues & BBQ is free to regulate the vendors, Dickson said.

Governments should maintain a neutral position when it comes to free speech issues, she said.

“It’s probably better for the city not to be involved in the event and the policing of speech at all,” she said. “If you’re talking about a content-based discrimination on protected speech, the city loses almost every time.”


Mission statement

The Bikes, Blues & BBQ website states:

“Bikes, Blues and BBQ is the world’s largest charity motorcycle rally that benefits women, children, and the underserved members of the Northwest Arkansas community. Over the course of our 20 years, we have realized over $2 million to local charities. We appreciate your support of our event and the difference that you make for our non-profit organizations. We pride ourselves in being a family friendly event, inclusive of all members of the community and in no way condone or accept racism, white supremacy, bigotry, fascism, intolerance or hate speech.”

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