Don't stereotype dirt bike riders

Op-ed: When will Baltimore show all of its citizens, even dirt bike riders, that they are valued?

I regularly pass by a skatepark in the Hampden neighborhood's Roosevelt Park: basins of concrete lipped with steep curves and scores of skaters defying gravity. As I watch them whirl by, I've often wondered why such a space can't be carved out for dirt bike riders in Baltimore.

I need only look to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to understand why there will never be a dirt bike park in Baltimore — and why it is unlikely that our "two Baltimores" will ever become one.

Announcing the creation of a task force to address illegal dirt bike riding in the city, he recently called dirt bike riders "gun-toting criminals who travel throughout the city recklessly, lawlessly and with impunity."

Gun-toting criminals.

Some of our Baltimore City Public Schools students take part in this dirt bike culture. Are they gun-toting criminals? Is that how — on some level — our law enforcement views a subset of its city's students?

His words are telling because they potentially reveal the way police officers in Baltimore — whether white, black or brown — have been acculturated to view certain citizens, and how that view perpetuates the systemic racism playing out in our city.

The sweeping stereotype also speaks to the larger national crisis surrounding the disproportionate use of deadly force by police officers against black people. A Stanford University study found that black boys are more likely to be seen as older and perceived as guilty by police officers — and that the dehumanization of black boys largely due to stereotypes was a primary cause for escalation in police interactions.

Does the phrase "gun-toting criminals" count as a dehumanizing stereotype?

Many aspects of the dirt bike life are problematic, with the safety of bikers and pedestrians paramount. But watching the film "12 O'clock Boys," a documentary about Baltimore's dirt-bike community, I'm struck by an overwhelming culture of pride in this brotherhood in which young men seek out black male role models — even if they don't fit the dominant culture's definition of one. In a city where so many black citizens feel disenfranchised by those in power, dirt bike culture offers more than just a pastime; it is a powerful act of resistance. Police versus riders. Cat and mouse. David and Goliath.

Of course, not all dirt bike riders are innocents — by virtue of riding a bike in the city, they are breaking the law. But nor are they all gun toters; some are simply kids looking for an outlet in a city that doesn't prioritize youth opportunities. As an undeclared war between police officers and black Americans rages in this country, it feels not only counter-productive but also egregious, for the city's top officer to speak in such blanket terms.

The idea for a dirt bike park has been brought forward before, and I'm certain there are plenty of cons and workarounds. The point is this: While skateboarding has certainly taken the long road toward its status as an acceptable pastime by our dominant culture — finally receiving state and city funding for the creation of that park in Hampden — dirt biking is a nonstarter. Teachers are routinely told to find the students' passions and outside interests and draw on them to engage students. We have detailed knowledge of this passion, and even a passing observer can see that an opportunity exists here — that it is, in many ways, a sport that engenders pride and even a fan base. And god knows we have the land: blocks and blocks of crumbling vacant row homes. And yet.

What would it look like for city officials to finally be motivated to show all of its citizens — even dirt bike riders — that they are valued? To sit across a table with them and envision a plan to ride bikes safely, rather than chase them in helicopters and hurl demeaning language in press conferences?

Sadly, it likely requires that we find a few hundred white Baltimoreans to take up dirt bike riding — and then recognize the inherent bias that exists within that truth.

Maggie Master is a writer and teacher educator in Baltimore City; her email is maggiemaster@gmail.com.

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