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Riding dirty -- Dirt bike culture: Menace to society or art form?

BY STEPHEN JANIS

Images from "Raise It Up"

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Stopped at a traffic light at Martin Luther King Boulevard in the summer of 2009, Towson resident Jim Gregory watched in disbelief as a teen riding a dirt bike careened across the intersection and slammed into the front of his car.

"I was just sitting there and all of a sudden this guy comes flying," recalls the 55-year-old marketing manager for Safeway. "The bike didn't even stall."

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The errant rider picked up his bike and rode away, leaving Gregory to foot the $700 bill to fix the bumper of his 2004 Chevy Impala.

The experience didn't leave Gregory with much appreciation for the packs of dirt bike riders who speed across Baltimore's residential streets unfettered by traffic lights, speed limits, protective gear — or the law.

"These guys are suicidal, one wrong move and they're dead," he says. "It's dangerous."

But now a newly formed organization of city dirt-bike riders is seeking not only to change the perception that riding dirt bikes is the reckless purview of out-of-control youths, but to turn the activity into a legitimate sport.

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"It's an art, really," argues Munir Bahar, 29, head of a loose association of riders who call themselves Raise it Up.

"We have the best wheelies riders in the world, hands down," he says. "You got guys who can wheelie with one hand, no hands."

Armed with a raw expository DVD titled "Raise it Up," featuring footage of dozens of riders showing off their homegrown penchant for gravity-defying wheelies, the group is getting the word out about Baltimore's street-bike culture, Bahar says.

"The love of the bike is a worldwide phenomenon and Baltimore is the dirt-bike capital of the world," he proclaims. "I'm getting messages from New York, Miami and even France, who have seen how we do it."

In fact, Bahar argues that in a city where spending on recreation centers has been slashed and a new $100 million jail is in the offing, dirt-bike riding could serve as a productive outlet for the city's youth and as a way to curb violence.

"I say, put the gun down and pick up the bike," he argues. "At least from the bike we can do things constructive. We can teach how to build a bike; it's teaching them a skill or trade. We can teach them how to ride; they can become a professional athlete."

To be sure, when Bahar speaks about the need for constructive alternatives for city youth he knows of what he speaks, having several of his own brushes with the law.

"I know how to reach the youth because I've been there," he says. "This not just about bikes; it's about human development."

But in a city where dirt bikes have been linked with out-of-control teens, flouting of the law and, worse yet, drug-dealing, can Bahar's plan work?

"It ain't to cause no trouble, it's a way of life, having fun with your peers; no trouble, no drama," says Antoine Oliver, a city resident and former rider himself who is more than familiar with the sense of daring and camaraderie that "Raise it Up" espouses.

"It's like playing basketball; it's a release."

And Oliver is not a casual adherent to the cause. The four-wheel ATV he was riding at 60 mph down Monroe Street this past September hit a patch of gravel, then descended into a pothole and flipped.

"I just lost control," he says, sitting in the living room of his North Baltimore home, a huge snake-like scar over his left eye last week.

When the four-wheeler stopped, Oliver was catapulted like a cannon headfirst onto the street. The bike flipped over, coming to rest on his chest.

"[It] fell on me and then I was snoring for a while, like I was asleep," says the 22-year-old, who spent a week in the intensive care unit at University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center with a fractured skull, broken eye socket and collapsed lung.

Still, while the accident has given him pause about riding on the street again, it hasn't diminished his support for the young men who do.

"It's more positive than people think," he says.

But not everyone agrees, to say the least.

Eastern District Police Commander Melvin Russell says he is constantly fielding complaints from residents in his district about the bikers. To him, bike riders are a vexing nuisance, not athletes participating in a sport.

"The community believes they are a menace," says the veteran cop.

In a district that spans from the city's East Oliver neighborhood west to Federal Street, Russell says he has been forced to use increasingly creative tactics to confiscate bikes that are illegal to ride, but dangerous to catch while on the road.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game: They hide them inside houses," Russell says. "But you can't store gasoline-powered bikes inside a home."

Thus police accompanied by housing inspectors knock on the doors of homes where authorities have been tipped off that illegal dirt bikes are stored, Russell says. The bikes are then confiscated.

But simply removing the bikes from the community is missing the point, says J. Wyndal Gordon Brown, an attorney who represents a dirt-bike rider suing the police.

"It doesn't really solve the problem," he says.

Brown filed a civil lawsuit last year on behalf of 17-year-old Deon Johnson alleging three plainclothes police officers hit the up-and-coming junior boxer, who was training for the 2012 Olympics, with their car as he sat on his dirt bike on Pennsylvania Avenue in August 2009.

The lawsuit seeks $3 million in damages for pain and suffering, but Brown says conflicts like these could be avoided if the city set aside a legal area for the bikers to operate.

"They really need to create a dirt-bike park," he says. "Give them a legal place to ride. That would begin to solve the problem."

The idea to build a city dirt-bike park was floated in 2007 by then-Councilman and now City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young.

Young introduced a City Council resolution to explore constructing a park on the city's East Side. The measure died, however.

But a new resolution introduced in 2010 seeking to revive the idea has garnered the support of seven council members, including 7th District Councilwoman Belinda Conaway.

"I think it would be a good idea for dirt-bike riders to have a safe and legal place to ride," Conaway says.

The lack of a legal place to ride frustrates Bahar, who says his group would stay off city streets if they had a place to go.

"We've been chased out of every legitimate place," he says.

Thus running red lights and disobeying traffic laws becomes a way to prove a point, Bahar says.

"In any type of revolution or civil disobedience there are going to be some elements of man-made law that are going to be broken," he says. "Look: They handed us this mess to fix ourselves. This how we can fix it." SPECIAL TO B

AUCTION NO MORE

Walk up an overpass that dissects the city's Pulaski Highway impound lot and you'll get a bird's-eye view of some of the spoils of the police department's war against Eastern District dirt-bike riding.

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In a dusty lot surrounded by chain-link fence and shrouded with barbed wire sit dozens of confiscated bikes. The city used to sell them at auction, pocketing the proceeds to offset the costs of enforcement, towing and storage.

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But not anymore.

"They just crush them now," says Fred Maduro, private tow truck driver and impound-lot regular.

"There are $2,000 bikes down there and they just throw them away. It's a real waste; the city is losing money," he says.

In 2007 the city made the switch from auctioning off seized bikes to crushing them and selling the scrap metal. Since then, the city has destroyed 2,160 dirt bikes.

"We wanted to send a message," explains Jamie Kendrick, deputy director of the city's Department of Transportation, the agency that runs the impound lot and supervises the auctioning of unclaimed and seized vehicles. "We don't want them on the streets of the city. We learned that too often the bikes were ending right back on city streets. Now we know that won't happen."

Still, before the switch, auctioning dirt bikes was big business.

Between 2005 and 2007 the city netted $155,000 auctioning off 1,673 bikes, money that went into the police auto-forfeiture fund.

Now the scrapping process yields much less, acknowledges Kendrick, except the certainty a confiscated bike won't end up on the streets again.

The DOT's scrapping policy doesn't faze Munir Bahar, 29, leader of a loose association of city dirt-bike riders named Raise it Up.

"We don't care," he says, "bikes are always going to come through." STEPHEN JANIS, SPECIAL TO B

BIKING BY THE BOOKS

Baltimore is not lacking laws regulating dirt bikes. Four different sections of city code are devoted to the subject.

• • • • Owing a dirt bike, by itself, is not illegal, but riding any "unregistered motorcycle or similar vehicle" is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.

• • • • City residents are not allowed to be in possession of such a bike, unless it is properly secured, making a bike not locked down subject to seizure.

• • • • Baltimore gas stations are banned from providing fuel to a dirt bike, under threat of a $1,000 fine.

• • • • Parents could be thrown in jail for three months for allowing a son or a daughter to ride such a bike, city law states.

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