Riding a dirt bike on city streets creates dreams of YouTube glory for 16-year-old Jacquan Brown. Joseph Wilkinson cruises for stress relief. And Terry Cain finds brotherhood when a pack of riders falls in line, suddenly free from the petty beefs of neighborhood rivalries.
All of them have a problem — the rides they love violate D.C. law.
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.
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.”
Sixteen year-old Jacquan Brown had big plans for himself and his 100 cc Suzuki. First would be trick-riding fame on YouTube and Instagram en route to becoming a professional rider.
“I’m trying to be on TV, basically, making some money riding these bikes,” the lean, dreadlocked teenager said.
First, he needs a new bike. During a ride in September, he said, a police cruiser turned into his back tire. Jacquan said he fell and bruised his leg, then ran home, never to see his bike again.
Many of his friends around Barnaby Terrace SE remain grounded, too. Don Whitaker has not ridden since June, when he said the back tire of his 110 cc SSR burst when he was hit by an unmarked cruiser. He said he couldn’t afford to get out of the city to find a legal trail.
D.C. law prohibits ATVs or dirt bike riding on any public land in the city — streets, sidewalks or trails. Most of the machines lack basic safety features such as headlights or turn signals.
Joseph Wilkinson first experienced street riding at 8, and since then, it has become therapy. Tension with the family? His girlfriend yells at him? He starts his engine.
“When I come back off my bike, I’m a new man,” he said.
Wilkinson said he risks weekly chases from police and knows it’s illegal to be on the streets, but he can’t understand why.
“It’s a lot of stuff that’s illegal — people selling drugs, big rims, tail pipes too loud, music too loud. When are we ever going to have fun?” Wilkinson said. “I don’t see nothing wrong with what we’re doing.”
Matthew Dursa, who has a 1-year-old daughter, said he’s called 911 about 10 times in the past few years to report riders, including Tuesday, when a pack of ATVs tore through the Taft Recreation Center park in Northeast. About 20 minutes went by and no officers had arrived, Dursa said, so he flagged down a cruiser.
Dursa said an officer told him that their hands are tied because of the no-chase policy.
“I don’t expect police to catch all these guys, but I would at least like to see them deter these guys from weaving through seesaws where kids are playing,” Dursa, 33, said. “It’s scary how close to kids and families they are.”
Police officials say their e-mail inboxes fill with similar complaints.
Mary Cuthbert, a longtime ANC commissioner and Southeast resident, said that during the past five years, the sound of revving engines increasingly pierces quiet streets.
“The police can’t chase them. So all you do is give a complaint, and there’s nothing they can do. It’s frustrating,” Cuthbert said.
D.C. police said a large percentage of the bikes they recover have been reported stolen. In 2013, police have charged 42 people with “operating an all-terrain vehicle or dirt bike,” compared with 55 such charges last year.
In Baltimore, where the problem is rampant, police created an e-mail address to receive tips. Last fall, Philadelphia officials passed a law cracking down on ATV riders.
Sgt. Alfred Moss of the Prince George’s County police sums up the complaints he’s heard around the Oxon Hill area he supervises: “They are loud, and they are driving them recklessly and too fast.” Moss witnessed a fatal ATV crash last year in the Temple Hills area, when a helmetless rider popped a wheelie and slammed into a Ford Expedition.
This year, one rider was killed in the District.
On May 5, police said, Michael Allen Brown, 23, died on a 2005 Yamaha Raptor 700R four-wheeler that struck a Pepco pole in Oxon Run Park.
Jacquan Brown and Terry Cain are among a group of riders who filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit alleging that police routinely violate the no-chase policy and go too far to get dirt bikes and ATVs off the streets.
The suit, filed last month in federal court in the District, alleges that D.C. police have routinely targeted young black riders, intentionally hitting rear tires to stop them.
“I’m not saying the police shouldn’t enforce the law,” said David Shurtz, an attorney for the riders. “There’s a difference between harassment and targeting with deadly force.”
Police officials said officers do not intentionally bump riders and reiterated that the department prohibits chasing dirt bike or ATV riders.
Another man who joined the suit is Aarion Johnson, 26, who said that last August a police officer bumped the tire of his 250 cc Yamaha and caused him to crash in an alley. He said that the accident left him with three scars on his leg and that he hasn’t been riding since.
“I like my bikes. I don’t love them that much to lose my life over joy riding,” Johnson said in a recent interview at his Barry Farm home.
On the afternoon of July 29, Robin McKinney got the news that her 22-year-old son crashed on his dirt bike after what he described as a pursuit by police. A surgeon had inserted pins and rods in his right wrist; his face bore skid marks.
He also was jailed briefly on misdemeanor destruction of property and traffic charges.
The 39-year-old mother of seven, a rider since 15, wonders: If the city can build skate parks and traffic lanes for bicyclists, why can’t it find a solution for these riders?
“He’s not out here killing anybody, robbing anybody. The bike is not stolen. This is a hobby,” McKinney said. “We have nowhere to ride our bikes in D.C. I just think it’s unfair.”