It's against the law. Everyone knows it. And that's a big part of the fun — challenging the police by breaking the law with a dirt bike. It's being done in cities like Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia — but especially Baltimore.

In Baltimore, already this season one person has been killed and another critically injured. Their lives don't seem to matter. The harm to innocent bystanders has become an acceptable cost for the joy of illegally doing wheelies and other stunts on city streets. Among young men in inner city neighborhoods, there is joy to be had in breaking the law, no matter how petty — and getting away with it.


Baltimore's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, well aware of the dangers, says she wants dirt bike riding on city streets stopped. She's considering the idea of having the city build a park where all the stunts and racing could take place without harm to bystanders or disruption of traffic. But the mayor fears that after the park is built and available it won't be used. Riding lawfully in the park won't be as much fun as riding unlawfully in the streets. Dirt bikers don't want to be hidden away. They want to be noticed being reckless.

The mayor appears stumped. In the present environment of antagonism between the police and African-Americans, having the police make direct attempts to enforce the law could bring on another riot.

For two Sundays, she's gone along with the police in making Reisterstown Road, the bikers' current favorite course, a one-lane road in each direction. That slowed the regular traffic to a crawl, and effectively blocked a dirt bike rally. The bikers, though, had their own brainstorm. They made another street into their course.

There's a way to satisfy both the police and bikers. For a few years Baltimore held Grand Prix auto racing on downtown streets. Such racing could be dangerous for both drivers and spectators, but with good planning and organization serious accidents were avoided. In Baltimore, city-sponsored Grand Prix dirt bike competitions would be a great improvement over the Sunday cat-and-mouse games played by the police and bikers.

The mayor could bring this about by declaring exemptions from the usual traffic laws. Baltimore could do what New York does in giving streets over to responsible groups. New York allows parades to take over city streets — the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Chinatown New Years Day Parade, the St. Patrick's Parade, the Greek Independence Parade, the MLK Day Parade, the Salute to Israel Parade, the Halloween Night Parade in Greenwich Village and numerous others.

The parades take over many blocks of major streets and avenues — Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue. The events are scheduled for a fixed period of time. Traffic is detoured in an orderly manner. Police do crowd control. Although sometimes the parades and spectators get rowdy, they are not the helter-skelter affairs that the Sunday dirt bike rallies in Baltimore are.

The police and other Baltimore officials could set the schedule — maybe the first Sunday of every warm-weather month, maybe twice a month. The route would be designated, and traffic officially detoured and directed. A grandstand would be set up. If the events were to become popular among city residents, more and more grandstand seating could be provided. There would be a beginning and ending time, a starting line and a finish line. Participants and their machines would be registered and minimal liability insurance required.

Allowing the present Sunday joy-riding to continue has effects elsewhere. It's hard to imagine that if such events occurred in a mostly white community with white dirt-bike riders the police would not stop them. Would it be wise to have such unequal law enforcement? Would it be wise to have inner city blacks get away with law-breaking while law-breaking among suburban whites leads to arrest? The police chief of Baltimore County has stated unequivocally that the county will enforce its laws against dirt biking.

With riding rules set and enforced, the greatest benefit of city-sponsored, organized dirt biking is that it would be lawful. Breaking the law might not become a pattern that sooner or later lands the dirt bike rider in prison for other lawlessness.

Paul Marx lives in Towson and is professor emeritus at the University of New Haven. His email is PPPMARX@comcast.net.