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At the Florida State Fair, a distinction between gangs, bikers

It's a lesson taught in grade school: Don't judge a book by its cover.

Sometimes applying that maxim gets more difficult in a world that seemingly grows more dangerous by the day.

Just ask the Florida State Fair Authority or the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Eager to curb outbreaks of fighting and gang-related skirmishes at the fair, the authority banned any display of "colors" or "gang symbols" in 2010. Enforcement fell to the Sheriff's Office.

If anyone arrived at the gates wearing colors, such as a bandanna or the same style or type of clothing, they would be given the option to remove the objectionable clothing or be turned away.

It seems fair, pun intended.

But the blanket rule covered motorcycle clubs. They tried to attend wearing jackets bearing their club patches and emblems, and were turned away. Attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos cried foul, saying the bikers shouldn't be lumped in with gangs.

Yes, some of the bikers in the group belonged to the once notorious Outlaws. But the other riders hailed from clubs such as the Spirit Riders Motorcycle Ministry and New Attitude, a group of clean and sober riders.

"Every organization, no matter who you are, is going to have someone in it who committed a crime," Theophilopoulos said. "But that doesn't mean the crime was sanctioned by the club."

Also among the approximately 100 riders turned away in 2010: the Military Veterans Motorcycle Club.

"These are people who fought so anyone in America could wear what they wanted to wear on their jackets or on their sleeves," Theophilopoulos said. "It was inexcusable to do that to those people."

The fair turned the bikers away again in 2011 and 2012, according to Theophilopoulos. After that, Theophilopoulos sued on behalf of five people in the group. It appears the action influenced the outlook. According to the Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon, the authority changed the policy this year.

In years past, a sign at the entrances stated in bright red letters: "No club colors."

This year, that designation was gone, replaced with a lengthier qualifier:

The Florida State Fair reserves the right to refuse admittance or remove any person who is disruptive, or displays behavior that is associated with criminal gang membership.

So last Sunday, a group of male and female bikers from various clubs — including the Outlaws and the Spirit Riders — met up at Ker's Wing House across from the fairgrounds. They gathered at the fair entrance and said a prayer. Then they thanked the men and women who fought for our country.

"It was really touching," Theophilopoulos, who noted that some in the group left for another commitment but others stayed and enjoyed the fair.

"All the ladies and gentlemen enjoyed themselves," Theophilopoulos said. "We just wanted to get in. It was time to let us in."

Theophilopoulos said he would continue to pursue legal action so it would never happen again. From a legal perspective, he said it was a must. I'm not so sure. I think the Sheriff's Office and the fair authority deserve credit for crafting a compromise.

All involved appear to have developed a heightened perspective of bikers and motorcycle clubs. Perhaps, we all can learn, again, not to judge a book by its cover.

Hopefully, the authority and the Sheriff's Office can continue to keep the peace at the fair.

Hopefully, the bikers can continue to be the peace at the fair.

That's all I'm saying.

At the Florida State Fair, a distinction between gangs, bikers

02/21/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 3:59pm]
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