A growing number of thrill-seeking young people are taking to the streets in off-road bikes and ATVs, usually out of the sight of federal Washington. They perform risky stunts that typically are reserved for open fields or trails in outlying counties. The stunts, often inspired by video and pictures on social media sites, are playing out in urban neighborhoods across the nation.
D.C. police say the high speeds, tricks and jumps are a dangerous, even deadly, neighborhood nuisance, especially when packs of 20 or more roar through communities.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. These guys on ATVs would ride on two wheels. They are doing all kinds of insane stuff,” said Cmdr. Robin Hoey of the 7th Police District, which has deployed new tactics this year to stop it.
Police policy doesn’t allow officers to give chase. Instead, Hoey said, they snap pictures of riders, identify them and apply for warrants, then appear at riders’ homes to make arrests and seize bikes or all-terrain vehicles that had been reported stolen.
Riders complain that police unfairly harass them for activity they see as a harmless alternative to the drugs and violence often present in their neighborhoods.
In many ways, the conflict with police has been playing out for generations, fought by greasers in the ’50s and beyond and celebrated in iconic roles played by James Dean and a young Marlon Brando. Riders say they simply are seeking speed and attention, a flashy way to meet the ladies and have fun.
Lotfy Nathan, who spent three years filming hundreds of riders in Baltimore for a new documentary, said riding was “more wholesome” than other paths. “But I think the clash with police becomes a game in and of itself,” he said. “It’s a defiant thing for youth, similar to skateboarding or graffiti.”
In the District this summer, the tension reached a new dimension as a group of riders filed a lawsuit against D.C. police, alleging the illegal use of excessive force in attempts to shut down the joy rides and confiscate machines.
‘Everybody gets along’
On a recent Thursday evening, Terry Cain, 29, twisted his right hand to jolt the throttle of his Suzuki dirt bike as he jerked the handlebars to pop a wheelie along the asphalt pathway of Southeast Washington’s Watts Branch Park. The Alabama Avenue SE resident repeated the trick again and again, practicing in search of perfection.
Rev and ride high, rev and ride high. All the while, he anxiously eyed a D.C. police cruiser a block away.
Riders say they find camaraderie in biking, which eases tension between neighborhood groups when they roll the streets in packs.
“It’s a get-out-of-trouble device,” Cain said. “Man, I’ll be out riding with guys that if you were at a party something might pop off. But when we’re riding, everybody gets along.”