Rising documentary filmmaker Barbara Bustillo-Cogswell rides high on the hog

She was also an on-camera hostess for a community affairs talk show and producer and writer for a KCNC show called Mosaic.

She completed a piece titled History of the Mariachi which screened at Hollywood's Greek Theater. She did a public service announcement on hate crimes for the City of Los Angeles' Commission on Human Rights that had a successful 10-month run, airing on all L.A. television networks and two Spanish-language stations.

Bustillo-Cogswell's initiation to the world of motorcycles came when she was 16, after her older brother built her a bike from scratch. She took to the road, and liked the air hitting her face and the sense of freedom.

Rear view: Independent biker Chester in downtown Phoenix.
Paolo Vescia
Rear view: Independent biker Chester in downtown Phoenix.
Shooting the shooter: Split Screen's Amy Elliot, left, and Bustillo-Cogswell eye each other.
Paolo Vescia
Shooting the shooter: Split Screen's Amy Elliot, left, and Bustillo-Cogswell eye each other.

An incident that occurred in Colorado sensitized her to society's view of bikers.

". . . I was riding with my brothers and some friends, and there was like 10 of us, but I was the only woman. We stopped somewhere and I went in to buy coffee and the woman working wouldn't wait on me. She says she doesn't wait on 'biker bitches.' And here I was, working at a community college. Most of the bikers were my brothers, my cousins and my nephews. And this is what got the documentary started about five years ago. Part of me wanted to deck her right there, but the other part was like, 'Wow, to be labeled so quickly just by the dress and the company I was with.' I had just been in there a few days earlier to buy coffee on my way to college and there was never a problem with this lady. And to me it was so odd not to be recognized. The idea that clothing could change someone's perception. I had been there in a suit I don't know how many times. But this time I was wearing leathers."

Her first real exposure to the biker gang culture came in 1996, when she was invited to Texas for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre run. The event gave Bustillo-Cogswell a quick primer on biker protocol and nomenclature.

"It was a big education for me -- the organization, people that were riding for motorcycle rights," she recalls. "The Banditos group here, the Survivors group there, the Gypsies, I mean, they all had their club organization and protocol and rules. I learned from that experience that there were all different types of bikers."

There are motorcycle clubs with their own safety and political coordinators, lobbyists to state governments and elected bodies. The faith in the political process and belief in the one-person, one-vote ideal is zealous. Many riders are patriotic war veterans.

Bobbi Hartmann is a state lobbyist for biker rights and spokeswoman for ABATE (American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education), one of two nonprofit state motorcyclist-rights organizations. The group preaches political awareness and preservation of personal freedoms. It urges bikers to participate in the democratic process.

An anti-discrimination bill proposed by state Senator Keith Bee would make it illegal for any restaurant, tavern or "public accommodation" to deny access to motorcyclists. The bill applies to members of a motorcycle club or organization who wear colors, patches or any clothing that displays any name of any organization or association.

Hartmann has been riding hogs for eight years and is well-known in biker circles. In May, she retired from Motorola after 29 years of employment. Many biker organizations became aware of Bustillo-Cogswell and her project through Hartmann's introduction. The riders seem grateful.

"She's [Bustillo-Cogswell] been in a lot of our runs, like Mountain Madness last year," says Hartmann. "She is perceived well, she's taken well. Some were a bit worried about filming club colors and shit like that around the meetings. But that was not a problem. . . ."

Bikers see strict helmet laws as a big infringement on personal freedom. In Arizona, the helmet laws are lax. A person is only required to wear a helmet on a motorcycle if he is under the age of 18.

Health-care companies claim that motorcyclists not wearing helmets involved in accidents cost $375 million annually, and that 63 percent of that cost is paid by the public. They say that states without helmet laws have nearly double the death rates of those that require helmet use.

Nic Oliver, ABATE's Arizona safety coordinator, says that "driver's education is what saves lives. You can throw around all the numbers you want, but if people aren't learning to drive safely, then it doesn't matter."

Tom Bockstahler, a teacher at Dobson High and member of the Lost Dutchman Motorcycle Club who has been riding for 27 years, is also vice chairman of the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs.

"I'm not against the use of helmets," he says. "I just want to have the choice."

Bikers appreciate Bustillo-Cogswell's work. They like the idea of a documentary, something to give them a voice, and hope the film is a step toward changing public perceptions of them.

Yet critics may hoot that she's churning out a romanticized view of bikers, a thinly veiled PR piece for motorcycle culture.

A Phoenix police investigator who's worked the motorcycle gang beat for 20 years says the outlaw biker still exists. That the good-guy image of the One Percenters is deceptively legitimized with membership in groups like AZCMC. But he is quick to point out that many lifelong bikers who embrace the lifestyle are law-abiding citizens.

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