The History: ABATE of Indiana, Inc.
Respectfully submitted by Michael "Digger" Phelps
(Joined ABATE of Indiana, 1981; Co-regional Director of Region 4, 1982; Regional Director, 1983- 1989; Motorcycle Safety Site-Coordinator, 1986-1992; Motorcycle Safety Instructor, 1986- 2000)
The following is meant for historical purposes. Every attempt has been made to be as historically accurate as possible, through interviews with individuals who were directly involved with the creation and operation of ABATE. We hope that this will provide a better understanding of why the organization was created, and how various aspects of ABATE have evolved over the years.
I’ve been asked to share with you some of the history of ABATE of Indiana, to hopefully better ground you in the roots of the organization and help you understand some of the methods and mechanics of ABATE.
To fully understand how and why ABATE works we need to understand the reasons that ABATE was formed. Some of you have been around long enough to remember the “bad old days” of motorcycling so you can vouch for some of this. The newer members may not know how biking was viewed in the years leading up to the formation of ABATE.
For the purposes of this discussion, allow me to divide motorcyclists into two groups.
Off-road riders, commuters on small to mid displacement foreign bikes and touring riders. This group was represented by the American Motorcycle Association. The AMA was a national organization which had distanced itself from “bikers” because of their lifestyle.
“Bikers” who rode large displacement motorcycles, usually Harleys, BSAs, Triumphs and Nortons.
This second group was characterized by people who truly “Lived to ride and rode to live”. Riding was and still is an important part of their lifestyle. They were “Hardcore Bikers” who tore down their bikes on the living room floor over the winter and reassembled them customized to the owner’s taste. These folks were usually rebellious and independent whose appearance and behavior gave the public a very negative opinion of them. In the late 60’s a number of B rate movies were made which drew on this image for the shock value and further enhanced the outlaw image.
In the early 70’s the director of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, one Joan Claybrook, decided that motorcycles should be banned from the highways because of the inherent danger of their use. Accordingly, she developed a “10 year” plan to remove them from the road. To give you an idea of her feelings let me share with you an excerpt from a letter she sent to the AMA concerning Rider Education in 1979.
“We believe that the training can and should be presented in such a way that it does not entice people to ride motorcycles who would not ride if the courses were not available. Motorcycle driver training will have little or no effect on total accidents, injuries, and deaths, if such courses substantially increase the number of novice riders. For these reasons we do not believe that motorcycle rider education courses should be required or part of the curriculum in high schools.” Easyrider 1979.
NHTSA, with the help of the American Medical Association and the Insurance Institute, began a very well planned lobbying effort to pass extremely restrictive regulations concerning motorcycles. Ms. Claybrook and her minions knew that banning motorcycles outright would not be very popular, but that increased regulations and the enforcement of them would cause potential riders to give up motorcycles as too much hassle. Soon the use of motorcycles would dwindle till they could be banned completely.
In 1973, a nationwide mandatory helmet law was proposed in Washington and defeated because it was viewed as a States right issue. The AMA was instrumental in that fight.
NHTSA then convinced the feds to withhold federal highway funds from states that didn’t pass mandatory helmet laws. 47 states passed these laws and the war was on.
Unlike today, where we can enjoy our sport or lifestyle without major interference from law enforcement, then, it was a different matter. If you were a “biker”, almost every ride carried the real potential of being stopped and having your license and registration checked.
Seat height, mufflers, handlebar heighth, motor numbers checked and recorded, rearview mirrors, license tag mounting, headlight on, number of foot pegs, and the MANDATORY helmet were regulations which were used to interrupt and delay an otherwise peaceful ride.
Of the two groups of riders, the Bikers were most often affected. Being independent and stubborn we rebelled against this type of oppression and stood up to change it.
Lou Kimzey and Keith Ball of Easyrider Magazine, a biker lifestyle monthly out of California began to publish lists of these laws and the news related to them in their magazine. At first they tried to form a nationwide ABATE to combat these laws.
A BROTHERHOOD AGAINST TOTALITARIAN ENACTMENTS was the original anachronism and it stood for just what it says.
BROTHERHOOD was used because we were not just an organization or club or civic group but very diverse people who loved the sport and were united by universal oppression. The vast majority of the early members were also club members and Brotherhood was a word that they took seriously. Ironically, these “outlaws” were the roots for the movement which saved our sport/lifestyle.
TOTALITARIAN ENACTMENTS fit the anachronism and merely described the communist-like laws which we were fighting.
After a couple of years, the folks at EASYRIDER realized that a national organization was next to impossible to form while publishing a new magazine and they gave the rights to the name to anyone in individual states who wanted to carry on at a state level. Click here for the original ABATE introduction letter.
Historical Note: In October 1971, Easyriders helped begin the "Chopper Manufacturers Association", which was in fact, the precursor to ABATE.
Let me ask you; are any of you mad as hell today?
If I had asked that question 30 years ago of a group like this, the answer would be a resounding “YES!” We were warriors fighting for the sport and lifestyle that we loved and as “Badass Bikers”, we were not going take it any more. Unfortunately the weapons and tools required to fight such a fight were not ones that we were familiar with. Fists and wrenches were ineffective in a war on the legislative bodies of state government. We had to learn how to use voter strength, facts and statistics and public opinion to sway the legislators.
The first challenge was to convince bikers that we could win the fight to change the laws. Most believed, as so many others do today, that laws are inevitable and unavoidable. No matter how oppressive or intrusive, laws were passed by politicians regardless of the will of the people. Seatbelt laws today are a good example of a large segment of society giving up their right of choice because of this apathy and a good advertising/ lobbying campaign.
Wanda Hummel - Shultz
I would be remiss if I don’t recognize the lady who brought this fight to Indiana. WANDA HUMMEL- SCHULTZ, against all odds as a woman in a world where women riders were not accepted much less followed, almost single handedly pulled together a group of bikers to protest the helmet law in Indiana. Working constantly to gather facts, meet with law makers, sign up members, produce a one or two page newsletter, organize protests and find funding to keep ABATE in the black, she was the catalyst which made possible the organization that we have today. As a woman, she faced bikers who didn’t respect women, and who argued among themselves and settled things outside. She had death threats from the very people who she was trying to help. With a gift for gab, an indomitable spirit and the conviction that we were right she faced ridicule and cynicism. She became like a big sister to all of us and could mediate problems between opposing members without bloodshed, as well as meet with legislators and present a more persuasive, less threatening voice. Still, our membership didn’t grow because bikers refused to join an organization led by a woman. With just over 350 members in the entire state she engineered the repeal of the mandatory helmet law in 1976.
Many other states tried to organize and they constantly fought among themselves. Wanda made ABATE of Indiana different. She taught us that brotherhood against a common cause was more important than personal issues. The structure of the organization that you are here to learn about is a result of the tried and true methods that she used to pull us, sometimes kicking and screaming, together.
ABATE was structured as a collection of regional groups instead of being strongly ruled by a state leader, it was recognized that people in South Bend don’t do things like people in Evansville. Stronger regional leaders were needed who understood their particular area and had the freedom to lead effectively, with only basic guidelines from the state.
Fund raising was essential to help the organization grow. In order to have a newsletter and the postage to send it out, and a toll free phone number for members with questions, events had to be organized to raise money. Officers, like yourselves, VOLUNTEERED thousands of hours to pull together these events. NO ONE, from Wanda right on down drew a salary. We paid our own phone bills and travel expenses. We sometimes paid for supplies out of our own pockets. In Region 4 we produced, folded, stapled, labeled and mailed out a regional calendar each month to remind members of events. We sold business card size ads on it to cover the postage. Events were planned and executed with a minimum of outlay upfront. We found that Kinko’s would print flyers and calendars for free if they could put their logo on the bottom. Local merchants would donate hot dogs and buns, drinks and even door prizes if they were recognized and supported for it. This took a number of people who were willing to search out these freebies without thought of compensation.
Part of the challenge to the leaders was to FIND these freebies because we couldn’t count on the state office to send us seed money. We refused to be satisfied with pulling money out of the profits to pay expenses. To make $600 dollars at a cost of $132 was unacceptable. We created ways to send the whole $600 to the state office to help with the bills. I’d like to point out that, those methods still work today. For those of you, who think that Jay is tight with money, please understand that he was a county rep then and one of the best at this kind of economics.
The awards banquet was started for the purpose of recognizing the individuals, counties and regions that were successful at raising the most money and membership. When the cost of plaques and certificates of appreciation grew, several of us on the board of directors wanted to discontinue them as a waste of money. We knew that a simple “Thanks” was enough. The people, who worked hard to save money, didn’t want to spend money on dust collectors.
Michael "Balls" Farabaugh
Around 1980, Mike Farabaugh was brought on board as the state director. “Balls”, as most of you know him, was a very charismatic and insightful leader. Balls made us look and plan far ahead. He was a very effective communicator with the membership as well as legislators.
With Balls’ experience and help from the AMA, we learned how to approach politicians effectively. How to get the news media involved to raise awareness. We learned to think like the enemies of motorcycling so we could defeat their efforts to put us off the road. The very first Officers Seminars were more about lobbying and communications than learning the rules of the organization.
With a man in the lead, our membership grew at a phenomenal rate. The famous “Bean Blossom Boogie” was first organized as a membership growing tool. It worked. Soon we could afford to pay two office “slaves” minimum wage for their 40 to 60 hour work weeks. The work at the Boogie was done by people who paid admission, brought their own food and drink, didn’t get a free t shirt and spent 6 hours on Sunday picking up trash in the 103 degree heat. The only free t shirts in those days went to the drag strip crew. The only justification for them was that the visibility afforded by 20-25 orange t- shirts would help with the problem of security and crowd control. This idea was a stolen from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To earn that t shirt you had to stay sober enough to be ready to go at 7 am on Saturday and Sunday morning and deal with bikers who wanted to race all day long and argue about everything. Anyone who gets paid to work the gate or deliver ice or set up the stage at the Boogie today should know that we used to pay for that privilege.
In the early 80’s, there were several career politicians who still wanted to pursue the effort to drive us off the road. Lobbying effectively to stop that was THE MAIN GOAL of ABATE. Every legislative session we faced mandatory helmet bills, mandatory insurance bills and even a “three rider” bill that said motorcyclists could only ride three in a group and the groups had to be 100 yards apart. We defeated each of these with the greatest strength ABATE has, Voter strength. We knew that we couldn’t match the funding that the anti- motorcycling lobbying groups had. But, we had what the politicians wanted most. VOTES. We campaigned to get every member possible registered and some of us even became voter registrars for that purpose.
I can tell you from personal experience, that there was/is no better way to influence a State Representative’s mind than to point out that he was elected by a 312 vote margin and that we had 750 voters in his district who were registered and who would be aware of his decision.
Some of us were accused of selling out and becoming “politicians” because we learned that to be effective we had to deal with people on their level. Violent protests and parking lot assaults were the first or only tactics which some members could see. But we knew that, that behavior would only hurt our cause.
AMERICAN BIKERS AIMED TOWARD EDUCATION
By the early 80’s we realized that our organization had a negative goal built into its name. We also knew that a defensive battle is a losing battle. We wanted to take the fight to them by offering positive alternatives to oppressive and ineffective safety laws. Also we wanted to change the image of bikers in the public eye. Accordingly, we changed our name to American Bikers Aimed Toward Education. It was not only easier to say, but gave the impression of a positive force moving toward a universally acceptable goal. No one could argue against education. We found lawmakers who would sponsor and support funding bills that would help our fledgling training program. All the talk about education took the emphasis off the controversial helmet laws and gave the legislators a direction that they could be at ease to support. This change, though bemoaned and maligned by many of our members was the move that allowed ABATE of Indiana to grow to what it is today. There are motorcycle rights organizations in other states today, who still try to fight a defensive battle and can’t understand why ABATE OF INDIANA is so successful.
Suddenly ABATE of INDIANA became the leader among state biker rights orginizations in America. As such, we became the target for every charitable organization that you can imagine. We had to fund ourselves and still deal with a constant assault by other groups who wanted our support for money. The board of directors met and decided that we would pick one charity to support with ONE state wide event per year. This effort was only aimed at further improving the biker image and getting other charities off our backs so that the energy spent by our members would go toward the goals of our organization. After a month long investigation by three board members who volunteered to do the research, the Muscular Dystrophy Association was chosen based on the amount of each dollar which went to research and patients with the least administrative cost. Our intent was to review this annually and change our pet charity if MDA didn’t continue to meet the criteria.
For several years after that, only toy-runs were sanctioned and all other charity events were not allowed. Today, ABATE of Indiana is the only charitable organization that I know of which gives money to other charities.
The Meeting of the Minds
As our strength and effectiveness grew we began to hear from other state rights groups. At one board meeting, Balls informed us that he spent an average of 6 hours each day on the phone answering questions from other states. In fact, the day before, he had explained to five different state leaders how a bill becomes a law. He proposed and we decided to put on a national conference to get this knowledge out to others.
We called it the Meeting of the Minds. On the appointed weekend a dozen or so of us traveled to St. Louis to put on workshops and seminars covering things like: Lobbying, fund raising, dealing with the media, governing rules and a host of other questions which were raised. We had Roger Hull, the founder of ROADRIDER magazine as a guest speaker. Willy G. Davidson and Rob Rasor with the AMA also were there and helped with their thoughts and presence to make it a truly national conference. As I recall, there were around 40 rights organizations represented. We spent the weekend explaining how to get a parade permit, how to set up and run a poker run, how to make an effective argument with a lawmaker, how to get supplies donated from merchants, and all the other things that we did to grow an organization like ABATE. The results were a success and other states began grow and make changes in their laws.
And as a gentle footnote I will point out that we paid our own travel expenses, hotel bills, bought our own food and drinks and even BOUGHT our own t shirts. It was, after all, for the cause.
ABATE LEGAL SERVICES
At the second Meeting of the Minds in Hot Springs Ark. a very persuasive lawyer from California approached the board members of ABATE of Indiana and others for an endorsement of a nationwide legal service to represent bikers. We declined. But we saw the service as a good thing for Hoosier motorcyclists. A few months later we met with Rod Taylor and listened to his proposal for a legal service for ABATE of Indiana members. I can tell you that that meeting on a cold February night was tough for Rod. We started off with a universal hatred and distrust of all lawyers and attacked him as a fast talking ambulance chaser who wanted to make a quick buck. In his presentation he convinced us that he was different and could be trusted. He committed to a discounted rate for members and to channel some of the funds back to ABATE. It made a difference that he rode a motorcycle. (Unlike the California lawyer who only carried a picture of a three wheeler.) Years later I asked Rod how he had managed to sway us so well. His response was, “I knew I had to be totally honest or learn to fly from that sixth story window!” Well, he was right, and today ABATE Legal Services is still representing members better than anyone else, with integrity and honesty, as well as, contributing to our Rider Ed program and many charities including the RIDE FOR RILEY HOSPITAL.
In conclusion I want to say that I have avoided drawing contrasts between the organization then with ABATE today. You all know what we do today and how big the organization has grown. My goal has been to clear up some misconceptions and relate to you the heart and reason for ABATE and also the dedication and sacrifice of the members. Hopefully, as you carry on the work, you will be moved to be as dedicated.
Because we were so successful in lobbying, a helmet law is almost a mote point. With the leadership of today, ABATE has evolved into a leader in motorcycling in the country. Our involvement in licensing is another milestone in our growth. It has moved us further ahead of other states rights groups in being totally involved with the sport. This allows us to be recognized as the go-to source on any issue involving Hoosier motorcyclists. In the early days we never dreamed that the Governor would someday be a member. Hell, we couldn’t even get a chance to meet with our Governor then.
Today, most of you see ABATEs goals as education and charitable work. And just as we were effective then you are outstanding today. By doing what you do today in those areas you insure ABATEs continued roll as leader.
We must remain vigilante, though, for negative legislation and always be ready to make a phone call, write a letter or even take off from work and travel to the statehouse to let our voices be heard.
I’ll wrap this up now, and try to answer any questions that you might have. But first I’d like to say that, whenever I travel this state and meet someone with a membership patch I find the same kind of BROTHERHOOD that was there from the beginning. The organization has evolved and changed but the heart is still there. For that I want to thank you and tell you that with your dedication and work Hoosier Motorcyclists everywhere, will always have the loudest voice and the best representation of any group in the world.