For What?: A recent crackdown on illegal dirt bikes leaves the community embattled, while talk of a legal track gains momentum
By EDWARD ERICSON JR. & BRANDON SODERBERG
Baltimore City Paper|
Oct 27, 2015 | 12:58 PM
A group of veteran dirt bikers gather in the parking lot of the Gulf station on Gwynns Falls Parkway near Mondawmin Mall, while Foxtrot, the Baltimore Police Department's helicopter, hovers nearby and police linger in the median.
"The bird . . . ," one dirt biker mutters. "Bitch ain't got enough gas to stay up there all day."
He is in his early 30s and he's been riding since he was a teen. His four sons, all middle school aged, also ride. All his bikes are legal.
He is shot out of a cannon today. He had plans to ride. Moments earlier, the police stopped a cluster of youths on bicycles who had gathered to watch a group of dirt bikers traverse a large hill next to Gwynns Falls Elementary School.
"What's the problem with us riding our bikes? We ain't hitting no cars. For what? What's the reason? They passed the law that they weren't supposed to chase us. Three of my homeboys been in the hospital with comas and all that from the fuckin' police chasing them. Why y'all fuckin' with us though? Like, for what?"
Like the other dirt bikers gathered here today, he will not give City Paper his name because for the past two months the Baltimore Police have been cracking down on dirt bikes, leaving the dirt-bike community paranoid and embattled.
He goes on: "We ain't out here shooting each other, everybody rides bikes and gets along. We ain't out here beefing."
A big guy in a buttoned up polo shirt with a deep voice, who also won't give his name, hesitantly chimes in: "East, West, South . . ."
Veteran Biker interrupts him.
"It's people from out of town too. Y'all see them motherfuckin' bike girls out here last week? We even have white girls come from out of town—with braids. Hitting wheelies."
"In Baltimore," the Big Guy adds, "we started the dirt bikes, now all the cities all coming together."
"They need to come down on everybody motherfuckin' selling drugs and shit. Why you ain't solve these murder cases? How many murders we have the past couple months? But they don't solve any of them," Veteran Dirt Biker says. "But they get us on dirt bikes and take dirt bikes. For what? We're still gonna ride."
As far as Baltimore's dirt bikers are concerned, Sunday is their day. The dirt-bike community, which consists largely of young black men and boys (most famously, the 12 O'Clock Boys, who got the documentary treatment back in 2013), mixed with a smattering of county kids, black and white, and a few thrill seekers from Pennsylvania, all ride dirt bikes illegally on city streets. The bikes are very loud and often the riders treat the dirt bikes as if they were bicycles—weaving between cars, running red lights, and generally obeying traffic laws when they feel like it.
Dirt bikes, which are off-road motorcycles equipped with extended front forks to absorb the shocks of jumping on rough terrain, knobby tires for traction, and rugged—usually small—engines, have been illegal to ride in the city since 2000, after a number of fatal accidents involving dirt bikes moved legislation. Though it is legal to own dirt bikes, it isn't legal to ride them in the city or fill them with gasoline in the city. For the most part, they've been tolerated.
The recent focus on dirt bikes began on Aug. 9, when a fight broke out among spectators gathering to watch the bikers on Reisterstown Road in front of the Hip-Hop Fish and Chicken. Police claim bottles and rocks were thrown at them. They put on riot gear and at one point, a police officer pulled his gun on the crowd (he has since been put on administrative leave). For a moment, it seemed like it could get ugly. News reports suggested the situation would evolve as it did on April 27: people throwing rocks at police near Mondawmin Mall. No one was injured and there were no arrests, but the following Sunday, Reisterstown Road was reduced to one lane each way that evening—a strategy for reducing dirt-bike activity that has continued every Sunday since.
It hasn't prevented the dirt bikers from coming out on Sundays, but it has splintered them into mostly small groups revving and stunting all over the city. And last week, in semi-organized protest, the dirt bikers declared Oct. 21 "Wheel Deal Wednesday" and treated a weekday like a Sunday and rode around.
The city howls with their engines and the dirt bikers, deprived of their gathering spot or "rest stop" as one young biker called it, have become more ballsy, traversing The Block downtown, gathering in massive groups in Cherry Hill, posting up two dozen strong in front of the new TGI Friday's at Mondawmin, and in general not going away so much as spreading throughout the city.
Foxtrot surveils them from the air, officers in cars pay close attention to groups gathering, and police monitor them using iPads, video cameras, and social media. The police scanner over the past two months or so reveals a concentrated, though chaotic, initiative: An officer observes some dirt bikers shoving their bike in a shed and asks if anybody else on the scanner can Google fire-code violations to see if there is something to hit them with to seize the bike; a girl from Essex that cops are interested in is out—they recognize her because of her tattoos—"she is big into this," one officer says; with the help of Foxtrot, police tail a small group of dirt bikers with plans to "pick them off one by one" once they split up; an officer frantically asks where the VIN number might be on what he thinks is a dirt bike he has seized, as it doesn't seem to be in any of the normal places; cops report that they are passing a group of bikes though they can't stop them because they are headed to a homicide; police follow cars that trail behind the dirt bikes because these cars help the bikes gas up when needed.
Although the Aug. 9 spectator fight was the impetus for the crackdown, it comes on the heels of a year in which a number of dirt-bike-related accidents raised concerns about danger. In May, a rider near Mondawmin Mall struck a passerby. Her name was Allison Blanding. She was 24 and she died the next day later of massive brain injuries. The biker sped away and has not yet been identified to police. In June, a 5-year-old boy was critically injured by a dirt bike in Cherry Hill. In July, a 21-year-old biker was struck by a car and killed and in September, a 27-year-old biker collided with a minivan and died.
Nevertheless, dirt bikers complain that they are being wrongly profiled by cops. The bikers pass around a T-shirt that reads, "Murder every day but the spotlight on bike life." It features a swirly drawing of a bike with a helicopter shining a light on it. The dirt bikers take a libertarian view of the injuries—"Somebody might get hurt, but that's their fault," Veteran Biker says, shrugging—and ignore or discount Blanding's death as a rare incident, an exception.
For the dirt bikers, riding and meeting creates a sense of community and right now that close-knit, though geographically sprawling, community is being fractured.
"I done fell off bikes with niggas. Niggas, they're the ones that help me out. [They] took my bike while I'm going in the ambulance," Veteran Biker explains. "People from over east [did that]—I'm from West Baltimore. They took my bike, people that I didn't even know and got my bike back when I got out the hospital because they knew."
He is no stranger to injuries himself. "I done had 72 stitches. My ass—you see right here?" he asks, pointing to his thigh. "Skin they took off my ass went right here. My big toe don't move or nothing." At 15, he fell of his bike and when he hit the pavement, his head dragged, pulling his braids out of his head.
"Scalped me," he says. "But guess what? I still let all my kids ride dirt bikes. All my kids got dirt bikes. Every last one of them. And I still ride. Why y'all fucking with us? Why we can't ride bikes?"
Injuries are a part of bike life. Falling off a bike because a wheelie goes wrong is inevitable. Losing control of the bike, ripping across the pavement, and going home to pull glass and rocks and other Baltimore street junk out of your leg with tweezers—that's just going to happen.
Tracking how dangerous dirt bikes are on city streets is difficult. Motor-vehicle accident records generally track only the type of vehicle, so dirt bikes would be lumped in with other motorcycles—but not with mini-bikes or ATVs, because they're often not legal for use on the road. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has estimates, though. It says more than 53,000 people were injured on or by dirt bikes in the U.S. in 2014. That includes all injuries, everywhere—not just on the street as in Baltimore City. The commission's number of estimated injuries of people riding mini bikes or dirt bikes on the highway (as opposed to off-road) in 2009 was 7,225 and fell to 5,085 in 2014. The number of dirt-bike-related hospitalizations appears to be decreasing as well, from 5,133 in 2009 to 4,411 in 2014.
But the numbers are soft, in part because the location of the crash is often not reported in the data, making it impossible to sort on-road injuries from off-road. In 2014, for example, the CPSC data reports more than 21,000 people injured in location "unknown."
ATVs, also part of Baltimore's dirt-bike community, have long been considered extremely dangerous when ridden on the road—and those data have been more carefully analyzed. "It's very much about vehicle design—they have a narrow wheel base and high clearance, which makes for a high center of gravity—that makes it more likely to roll over if it has too sharp an angle or too high a force," says Gerene M. Denning, director of emergency medicine research at the University of Iowa, who has studied the issue extensively. "They also have low pressure, deep tread tires, which are great on dirt, but on paved surfaces tend to grab unexpectedly . . . That causes this jerk and this potential instability . . . which leads to this tendency to roll over."
Denning, one of the pre-eminent researchers on off-road vehicle safety, has authored a passel of research papers with such titles as "All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) on the Road: A Serious Traffic Safety and Public Health Concern" and "Age-Based Risk Factors for Pediatric ATV-Related Fatalities." Most of the research has been conducted in rural areas. Urban riding is such a new and different phenomenon that it's not yet been widely studied. But Denning's survey of 4,600 children and teens in Iowa found that young people ride recklessly whether in urban or rural settings.
"Most riders engaged in risky behaviors," her study of young riders found, "including riding with passengers (92%), on public roads (81%), or without a helmet (64%). Almost 60% reported engaging in all 3 behaviors; only 2% engaged in none." Nearly 60 percent had already been in at least one crash.
Denning had not heard of the Baltimore phenomenon of packs of riders on city streets. "It would be interesting to see if part of the culture has been allowed to develop because enforcement has not been a high priority," she says. "One law we pushed was that ATVs would have very visible license plates . . . so you can see the plate and give them a ticket. We try to think of not so much crime, but the public health effects of this reckless behavior."
Among dirt bikers, it's the alleged pursuit of bikers by the police that concerns them the most. They allege that police often chase dirt bikes and claim that cop cars giving them a bump is not uncommon.
On Aug. 30 around 7:30 p.m., a Baltimore Police officer struck a teen's dirt bike with his police car on Avon Avenue near 33rd Street. City Paper was there about 10 minutes after that accident, as the teen was put in an ambulance.
A frustrated crowd had gathered by this point.
"It was Pep Boy over there," a bystander yelled, pointing to a police officer with a large mustache among a group of officers who stared at a dirt bike under a police car.
Bystanders claimed the officer was pursuing two dirt-bike riders and was following one dirt bike very closely and bumped it with the front of his vehicle, knocking the boy off the dirt bike, as the other rider escaped by riding on the sidewalk.
The next day, the police released an official statement: "The uniformed officer was driving a marked patrol vehicle, he along with additional units responded to City College for the report of dirt bike riders in the vicinity. Upon their arrival the dirt bikes began to flee. The dirt bike driver who had been involved in the accident had changed directions several times, one of which his bike slid. The driver continued down an alley and attempted to make a turn in the 3200 block of Avon Avenue when he stopped and attempted to get off of the dirt bike. It was at this time the officer was unable to stop his vehicle prior to it striking the dirt bike, the patrol vehicle's lights and sirens were not activated." It also said that the boy's dirt bike was stolen in June 2007 in Texas.
That evening the police corrected their initial statement and said that the teen's bike was not stolen and that it was due to a data-entry error that this statement was released. Further, the charges regarding the stolen bike had been dropped, but the rider would still be charged with the traffic violations that come with driving a dirt bike in Baltimore.
Cellphone video obtained by City Paper right after the accident reveals a mustached officer alone, dealing with the boy who is on the ground. "My ankle broke! He hit me, my bike under the car . . . My ankle broke. I can't walk," the teen screams. The officer tells him a medic is on the way and to "relax." A crowd starts to gather. Another police car arrives and then "Pep Boy" gently approaches the teen. The teen yells, "You hit me bitch. Leave me alone. Get away. You hit me. Move." Then, he pauses and inexplicably apologizes. "I can't move. My ankle broke, man. I'm sorry. I don't mean to yell at you."
There was confusion at the scene. More than one resident claimed the boy hit was possibly as young as 9. According to two people who gave statements to the police about the incident and who also spoke to City Paper, the officer was aggressively pursuing the dirt bikes. They insist that the police statement, describing the teen as entering Avon Avenue and dropping the bike, is inaccurate. Others at the scene said police had aggressively pursued dirt bikes the day before as well.
The next weekend, at Greenmount and North Avenue, there was another collision between a dirt bike and a police officer. The police did not release an official statement but the sequence events, according to witnesses, sounds similar to the official police report from the Aug. 30 accident.
Around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 6, a police car encountered at least two dirt bikers going down Greenmount Avenue and struck one of the dirt bikes as it entered North Avenue. Two young men who also gave statements to police told City Paper that the dirt biker was not struck by the car but rather, he shut the bike off, jumped off, and ran up North Avenue to escape, and the cop car hit the bike because it couldn't stop in time. The man who shut the bike off and ran was hit with a stun gun. The police seized this dirt bike and another. The other biker jumped onto another bike and sped away. The police did not get back to City Paper's requests for more information about the accident.
Dirt bikers and residents sympathetic to them invoke Baltimore Police's supposed "no-chase policy" when these accidents occur. The policy, part of Baltimore City Police Department General Order No. 11-90, put into effect in 1999 after a death occurred during a police chase reads, "members of this department shall operate departmental vehicles with utmost care and caution, comply with all traffic laws and shall not become engaged in high-speed pursuit driving except under exigent circumstances." Exigent circumstances are: "Instances where the officer determines that immediate action is necessary; and insufficient time exists to resort to other alternatives; and failure to pursue may result in grave injury or death."
It goes on: "The department recognizes it is better to allow a criminal to temporarily escape apprehension than to jeopardize the safety of citizens and its officers in a high speed pursuit."
Police cars closely following dirt bikes may or may not violate 11-90, which is colloquially understood as the "no-chase policy." But dirt bikers insist they are being chased and, as a result, respond by driving more recklessly in order to escape. The scanner often reveals officers in conversation with Foxtrot, explaining that they are close up on a dirt biker or a cluster of bikes. And there is also the reality of Foxtrot monitoring the bikes from above and following them, shining its light on them, which too gives the dirt bikers a sense of urgency.
Earlier this month, City Paper observed a lone daring dirt bike speeding down West 29th Street with the Foxtrot spotlight on him. As he crossed Maryland Avenue, he sped toward Art Museum Drive, hopped the curb, and then shut off his bike and drifted into nearby Wyman Park, where he hid until Foxtrot moved on.
Back at Gwynns Falls Parkway, dirt bikers say they are also frustrated by their belief that the police presume guilt—that they are doing something worse than committing traffic violations with their dirt bikes.
And many Baltimoreans believe that the majority of the bikes are stolen.
"They say the bikes are stolen, all the bikes ain't stolen, I've got papers for all my bikes," Veteran Biker says.
A reedy white guy with the dirt bikers steps up and pulls out a massive knot of hundred-dollar bills and flashes it. "We walk around with bands on. We don't steal bikes," he boasts.
"We don't steal no bikes. You see what he just whipped out? Them bands. That's all hundreds right there. We not stealing no bikes. Fuck them police, man. They terrible, man."
Maj. Marc Partee, who is in charge of dirt bikes because so much of the action is in his district, the Northwest District, says a lot of Baltimore riders get the bikes off Craigslist. They either buy them or act like they're going to buy them, get a "test ride," and take the bike around the corner where a friend is waiting with a truck and ramps, he says.
City police could not provide an estimate of how many or what percentage of the bikes motoring around the city were stolen. A county police spokesperson couldn't either, saying that before last year, "those particular stats were not even tracked" by the Uniform Crime Reports that go to the FBI each year. City cops seize dirt bikes and ATVs but not if they are registered with the state. The first day of the Reisterstown Road "traffic calming" detail, officers stopped a truck with four bikes on it—all legitimately registered in Pennsylvania.
Adam Stelmack is one victim of dirt-bike thieves. In July, his brand-new Beta 250RR bike was stolen just hours after he bought it from the dealer.
"This is essentially the Ferrari of dirt bikes," he says. "It's Italian made. It's the cream of the cream."
Stelmack is a longtime rider who was looking to trade up. He bought the bike—a dual-sport with street-legal features like head- and taillights—at a clearance sale for $5,000 at Cycle Max in Gaithersburg, he says. The trip out to the dealer, the short test ride, and the paperwork all took some after-work time, so he "came home to Parkville at 12:30 at night when all was said and done."
Stelmack lives in the Skylark apartments, which he describes as "a pretty nice area." But he had no plans to keep the bike there. He has a garage in Harford County where he keeps his vehicles. He didn't want to drive out there and back after midnight, though. He figured it could wait until morning. Stelmack says he sat in the truck in his parking lot for about 10 minutes, making sure no one was taking an interest.
"I backed into a spot with like a hill behind it, a light on the spot and right under my bedroom window," he says. At 6 a.m. he woke up and looked out the window to see that the bike was gone. "I owned the thing for less than five hours," he says. "Five grand out the window."
He called the cops and of course they told him he was an idiot for leaving it out overnight. They took the report and Stelmack went to work, hitting message boards dirt bikers frequent. "I been really trying to infiltrate their society," Stelmack says.
He also hit the road, canvassing the 7-Elevens, looking for his rare bike. He's seen it, he says. "But he flew by me . . . he was riding with 30 of his buddies. I didn't want to get killed confronting him."
Stelmack says the thief had ripped the lights off his bike and spraypainted it. He put an ad on Craigslist offering a $1000 reward for the bike's return. He put the word out on social media, as well.
"I've had three to four people call me and say I seen your bike riding around," Stelmack says. "But it's sporadic . . . except on Sunday when they all gather up around noon and have fun."
One call came in about two white guys and one black guy taking turns on the bike in Overlea. That was a bust. Then a guy said he saw it in the city, but Stelmack couldn't find it. Then a breakthrough. "A guy posts a picture [of the bike] on my [Facebook] wall—sure enough that's it—but some side panels were rattle-canned black . . . the guy is trying to sell it online on this same group."
Stelmack contacted the seller and started trying to set up a sting. But the guy caught on fast, and told Stelmack he no longer had the bike.
"Then another guy says I know where that pic was taken," Stelmack says. That led him to the would-be seller's Facebook page, where a photo seemed to depict the same room as the bike had previously occupied. "And he has other bikes in it," Stelmack says.
So he went to the house. Stelmack's bike was not there, he says, "but we see him riding another bike around—one we saw in the other pic with my bike in it."
Stelmack called the police again. He says they told him they couldn't do anything about it. "So I'm frustrated," he says. "I get what I think is pretty good evidence . . . but they basically say that unless you're standing next to the bike with the VIN number—unless you already got it back, they won't do anything.
"So it puts me in a really bad spot, wasting my weekend going around looking for this thing . . ."
He tried to make an insurance claim but came up empty there. And he'd like to move on and write off the loss, he says, but "I can't get past it, because it keeps resurfacing. They just keep parading it around in front of me."
Stelmack says he does most of his riding in Harford County, off-road if not always strictly legally. He's different from the city riders, but not so different, he's found.
"Most of them seem like they're pretty good upstanding guys who just want to go out and have fun," he says. "I wouldn't make the jump to think they were all assholes, stealing bikes . . . I used to think that. But now, talking to some on the phone, I think most of them are just like me."
The problem is that the vehicles fall into a kind of legal gray area, with most of the older vehicles sold without a title—because it got lost. "Most people don't even check the VIN," he says, so stolen bikes and ATVs can circulate for years without anyone the wiser.
"The theft is getting worse and worse every year," Stelmack says. "I'm on all these boards. A buddy of mine got two stolen a week or two before mine."
Plenty of bikes are seized as well. On the Tuesday morning of Sept. 1, an employee whose job is to drive a van through the vast impound lot to help people spot their cars estimated that there were about 1,500 dirt bikes "in the cage" at the impound lot on Route 40. (He asked City Paper not to use his name as he worried about his job.) Many of the bikes had been taken since January, he says, when there were none—or nearly none. A spokesperson for the city Department of Transportation puts the official number, as of early September, at 223.
The bikes get sold strictly to out-of-state buyers, the employee says, indicating it's a major undertaking and not related to the normal surplus auction process that happens monthly. But you can get your dirt bike out of impound, even as a Baltimore resident, he says. You just need to have the right paperwork indicating it's correctly registered. "That gets sent downtown and if it checks out you come back here and get your bike back."
He did not know how often that happens.
On Sept. 9, the Baltimore Department of General Services auctioned off 17 off-road-worthy bikes previously used by Baltimore Police. The Suzuki DR 350s, all 1996 models, all had headlights and taillights. They were street-legal—not strictly dirt bikes, but easily convertible to that function.
"Part of our fleet-reduction strategy is to eliminate underutilized vehicles from the fleet," Ryan Trout, a DGS spokesperson, says.
Several bidders say the bikes were sold early on for between $500 and $1,200 each. "Some run, some don't," says one bidder, who did not buy anything this time.
The next day, an ad appeared on Craigslist, offering eight of the bikes for $1,300 to $2,300. "They will not last long! All prices quoted are firm and non negotiable. If I send a pic/-info/-price on a certain one please respect that I am not going to lower. If they do not sell at these prices I will relist individually at a lower cost. Thanks !"
The ad was gone a day later. The seller did not respond to City Paper's calls.
The bikes could all end up as road bikes, or as dirt bikes on county property. But it's a fair bet that, even now, former cop cycles resold are being ridden on city streets illegally, repainted, perhaps, with race number plates where their headlights were.
The possibility of a dirt-bike track as a solution for Baltimore's dirt-bike problem is gaining traction.
When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addressed dirt-bike issues at City Hall on Aug. 13, just a few days after the Reisterstown Road incident, she was skeptical of proposals to build a track. Just because a dirt-bike park is built, "there are no guarantees . . . [dirt bikers] will come," she said, pointing out that the thrills the dirt bikers get out of riding might be nullified at a legal, organized park.
On Aug. 17, the City Council agreed to hold hearings on Councilman William "Pete" Welch's proposal to build a "world-class" dirt-bike facility in Baltimore. Kim Smith, whose 21-year-old son died when his dirt bike was hit in July on North Avenue, was with Welch at the meeting and supports the idea. Welch's vision is of a proper dirt-bike stadium that could generate its own revenue and attract enthusiasts from around the state: "If I had a dirt bike park, I would put a Hip Hop Chicken, a McDonald's, and everything else outside, and it would work," Welch said at the meeting.
Dirt bikers over the past few months told City Paper that they all want a track. Few are concerned it will change the sport. The most popular dirt biker right now, Chino Braxton, is an idol precisely because he has taken his talents beyond Reisterstown Road. The community matters more than the stunts. It's a way to have fun and briefly transcend the chaos and violence of the city—"pick up a bike, put down a gun," as a popular biker slogan puts it—and a dirt-bike track would not change that community.
"I think [a dirt-bike track] is only a partial solution," says City Councilman Brandon M. Scott. "The truth is . . . anyone [who] thinks they're gonna build a regular park for Baltimore riders is out of their mind. The attraction is the tricks they can do. This isn't motocross."
Scott pivots quickly to one of his regular talking points—developing a range of monitored recreational amenities for the large segment of young people without them. "We'll get there," he says. "We have to have an honest cultural conversation in Baltimore, with citizens on both sides [of the dirt-bike divide]. Some people just hate dirt bikes . . . and some on the other side of the equation do not understand the harm they are doing."
PFK Boom, a local activist and community organizer, believes that even if a dirt-bike park doesn't solve the problem entirely, it would change the current situation and should be considered a long-term investment.
"First and foremost, the track would take care of public safety," Boom says, standing in front of a new dirt-bike mural on Mount Street and Westwood Avenue in Sandtown-Winchester. "Even if a track helps public safety by 20 to 30 percent that helps because we're in an outlaw situation right now. You want to contain the situation, so get a dirt-bike track."
He believes the track should be part of a larger plan to motivate young people and teach entrepreneurship. "You're not just going to get on this track because you got 20 dollars. The school kids might only be able to get on the track from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. with an 80 percent school grade average," he says. He imagines dirt-bike retailers donating bikes for prizes and setting aside particular days devoted to dirt bikers who "could do their stunting on the weekend and we could bring in people," and have them pay to see it.
A track and its benefits would tell the bikers "you can do it in the street, but look what you'll lose. Doesn't the long run look better than that quick trick in the night? That trick in the night is hurting your buddy," Boom says.
Boom will be organizing a forum on Nov. 14 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Guilford, in which a number of dirt bikers, among others, will speak. Boom has been circulating a petition in order to get City Hall to sit down with the dirt bikers.
The dirt bikers can be "defiant motherfuckers," he concedes, and says they would better understand the need to compromise if the city officials reached out to them in a meaningful way.
"I shouldn't be here at [age] 41 talking about this, it should've been set up 20 years ago," he says. "My words mean shit. I'm not on that bike. I'm only the community. I hear what [dirt bikers] say when they wanna get on that bike when the whole world says 'kiss my ass' to them. Ask a dirt-bike dude and a Harley-Davidson dude how they feel on the open road—and they say the same fuckin' thing. A person that never drove one doesn't know. I've never rode a bike in my life but I at least come to the table with a solution."
At an Oct. 19 City Council meeting, nearly two months after Welch's proposal for a dirt-bike track hearing was approved, he says there is plenty interest in a track. The American Motorcycle Association sent a representative, he says, and "volunteered to be a resource to help design what they call sanctioned events."
"I think the next step will be the task force on dirt bikes, to examine the building of a dirt-bike park and the legality of dirt bikes, how they will be transported to the park," Welch says. He also "talked over the phone to the 12 O'Clock Boys," he says. "And their vision for a dirt-bike park is similar to mine." When asked who he spoke to specifically, he scoffs, "don't ask me names."
"I was amazed by the enormity of interest in dirt bikes," Welch says. "It went from pastors to all kinds of extreme sports enthusiasts."
The dirt-bike crackdown seems in part fueled by optics, a regular concern in this image-focused, heavily segregated city still haunted by the legacy of "The Wire." When 30-plus mostly black men and boys on illegal dirt bikes speed down North Avenue and make cars stop for them, or they gather on a road that is supposed to be for cars and do a stunt show every Sunday, it reads as evidence of a city out of control—and arguably it is, especially to those courting county and out-of-town tourists.
In many ways, the approach to controlling dirt bikes echoes the approach used to quell protests under the new police commissioner, Kevin Davis. The tactics are similar: a heavy police presence, the use of riot gear in non-riot situations, and lots of surveillance. The perception that dirt bikes are all stolen, that they are used for criminal activity, makes closing Reisterstown Road a mostly symbolic gesture—good PR. That there have not been any major police and dirt-bike conflicts at Reisterstown is evidence that the dirt bikers are not interested in overt confrontation.
If they wanted to gather defiantly, they would have by now.
The few affronts to the Reisterstown Road closing have been by individuals. Occasionally, a dirt biker (or a motorcyclist in solidarity) will pop a wheelie in front of police as they traverse the single lane. And there is an outrageous video floating around Instagram which shows a dirt bike driving on Reisterstown Road purposefully knocking down as many cones as possible right in front of police officers.
And on Aug. 23, two men riding horses were seen on North Avenue drawing the attention of police and TV crews. It turned out the men took their horses out in solidarity with the dirt bikers who have been targeted. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake even labeled the horse ride "a protest."
But for the most part, the dirt bikes have just gone somewhere else and avoided the police. Even "Wheel Deal Wednesday," which was shut down by the police who pre-emptively reduced Reisterstown Road to one lane once they heard about it, did not result in any kind of standoff. The dirt bikers split into small groups and drove around the city into the evening.
"Police are making [dirt bikes] look gang-like and it's not like that," Boom says. "It's not different than [the argument that] every black man with a hoodie is a killer," he adds.
During the Baltimore Uprising, the dirt bikes became part of the protest, often visible over in West Baltimore. In a striking scene on April 21, just two days after Freddie Gray's death, as the protest hit national news, the dirt bikes rode along with a march to the Western District Police Station. At one point on Laurens Street, Pastor Westley West, an activist and community leader, parted the group of protesters and the dirt bikes whipped back and forth, popping wheelies, much to the joy of the residents who were protesting and activists from other parts of the city.
On Sunday, April 26, the day before Freddie Gray's funeral, many of the dirt bikers stayed inside out of respect for Gray's family. On that day at least, they seemed mindful of their potential for controversy. On April 28, the day after rioting happened, the dirt bikers tore down North Avenue not far from Pennsylvania Avenue, briefly showing off.
PFK Boom connects the recent crackdown on bikes to fear, following the uprising.
"It isn't just dirt bikes," he says. "It's that post-Freddie Gray syndrome. Everybody's trying to get a hold on something. It's a little rebellion after Freddie Gray." Boom speculates that the city is trying to regain control. For some, the aggressive police pursuit of bikers is just one more example of how black people are policed in East and West Baltimore and how minor infractions, such as traffic violations, among black residents are enforced more aggressively.
"They treating us real bad," Veteran Biker says back at the Gulf on Gwynns Falls. "That's why people don't respect the police because of how they treat us."
He watches the police taping dirt bikers who speed by. The kids across the street trying to handle Gwynns Falls Elementary School's hill have left.
But he still wants to ride.
City Paper tries to get his name one last time.
"Hell no. Hell no, I won't give you my name," he says. "Just write in your little article, 'I, City Paper, spoke to a person. He was white and blue, and I don't know his name but he told me the truth.' We ain't harming nobody, we ain't doing no nothing to nobody."
He hands a sno-ball to a teenage rider in a tie-dye shirt and socks with weed leaves on them and smiles.
"We ain't doing nothing out here but wasting gas," he says.
Then he twists his hands like he's revving up his dirt bike and smiles.