It was approaching midnight when Smack and his friends rounded the corner onto 56th Street NE, their engines crackling and churning in the humid, summery air.
They had been riding for hours and had already escaped the police once, Smack said.
Now they were winding down — taking their time, moving up and down a narrow cul-de-sac on their motorized bikes, popping wheelies and pulling a few last stunts for the two girls clinging to their waists and a small crowd of friends.
“We’re not hurting anybody,” Smack said after racing up and down the street a few times.
Riding dirt bikes and allterrain vehicles on District streets is illegal. The fact that Smack, his friends and a seemingly growing number of others do it and get away with it is making a lot of people angry.
Long regarded by residents as a seasonal nuisance that the city has done too little to address, the District’s problem with dirt bikes and ATVs was brought into harsher focus this month with a killing that police say was carried out from a dirt bike. The incident has amplified calls for a crackdown on one of the District’s most controversial summer pastimes.
Here’s the rub: Dirt-biking is difficult to stop, authorities say. The danger of chasing offenders makes it virtually impossible to arrest them.
As Smack and his friends popped wheelies one day this month, police and a handful of D.C. Council members were meeting a few miles away with residents frustrated by the packs of motorized bikes and ATVs that they say tear through intersections and intimidate pedestrians and drivers.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier assured those gathered at a government office on Minnesota Avenue NE that police were finally cracking down, confiscating dozens of the illegal vehicles and offering a $250 reward to anyone with information leading to a seizure. A police helicopter has even been used in the cause. And authorities have released video of seven dirt bikes and ATVs as well as 14 people of interest in connection with the shooting of Charnice Milton, a local journalist who was killed while waiting for a bus last month.
“They’re a menace to society,” said Donovan Anderson, a lawyer and Ward 7 community leader who wants to see stronger police action.
The experiences rehashed at community meetings include encounters with intimidating and lawless behavior: Residents too afraid to cross the street or speak out; bikes pulling up alongside police cars and harassing officers helpless to chase them; ATVs climbing over stationary cars.
There is the deafening thunder of bike engines that drags Patricia Malloy from sleep at 2 in the morning. There are the packs of vehicles that surround police cars on Alabama Avenue while longtime community leader Benjamin Thomas watches. And there was the helmetless girl whose hair grazed the ground as the ATV rider she clung to popped a wheelie next to the car of council member David Grosso (I-At Large) one recent evening.
Last month, a man was seriously injured when his dirt bike collided with an ATV, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said. The previous year, a pedestrian was seriously hurt when a dirt bike struck her in Southeast Washington. A youth died last summer when his dirt bike crashed.
But the renewed attention to dirt-biking has also highlighted the existence of two very different narratives.
The young men who ride the dirt bikes and ATVs, many of whom are in their late teens or early 20s, say the illicit vehicles serve as a pressure valve for communities with few employment opportunities and whose members often turn to crime or gangs.
Riders also argue that there’s nothing menacing about what they do. It’s fun — and a practiced art form, they say. Riders sometimes remove a hand — or both — from the handlebars, or toss a leg over the front of the bike, twisting into dramatic and precariously balanced displays for their YouTube and Instagram audiences.
“The only time people crash is when police chase them,” said Michael, 24.
The pastime is so popular in Southeast Washington that neighbors cheer them on and kids reach out to riders for lessons, said Smack, who has more than 9,500 followers on Instagram.
“No shooting, no stabbing, no beefing,” said a 22-year-old Southeast resident when he paused mid-ride, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, earlier this month. “Everybody just coming together, having fun,” he said.
All the riders interviewed for this story did so on condition that their names be withheld or that only their first names or nicknames be used in order to avoid arrest for illegal dirt-bike use.
The young men chafe at the notion that they had anything to do with Milton’s shooting.
“We don’t hurt nobody,” said Lo, a thin 22-year-old.
Since April, the city’s attorney general has charged 40 riders with crimes including operating a prohibited vehicle and reckless driving. Penalties can range from fines of thousands of dollars to jail time.
At the community meeting, Lanier said police had seized 40 ATVs. Most were unregistered; half appear to be stolen, police said.
Several bikers and ATV riders said they have proof of ownership. And when the bikes get confiscated, the riders simply go downtown and get them back. The D.C. attorney general’s office confirmed that riders who present proof of ownership can get their bikes back.
“Don’t the police have better things to do?” Smack asked recently, claiming that police had tried to knock him off his bike.
“They try to Mace us,” he said. “They hit us while we’re riding.”
“How many murders were there this year?” chimed in Michael. “They solved, like, 11.” Chasing dirt bikes, he suggested, is easier.
The police insist that apprehending dirt-bikers isn’t easy at all — and that’s part of the problem.
“Safety is paramount,” Assistant Police Chief Lamar Greene told Northeast residents last week as he explained the rationale behind the department’s no-chase policy. Chasing helmetless young people through busy streets might just cause more fatalities, he said.
At the same time, some riders seem to revel in overt rebellion, posting videos online that romanticize police chases and racing down some of the city’s busiest avenues in open defiance.
“It’s just a traffic charge,” Michael said one recent night, arms crossed over his tattooed chest. Go ahead and arrest him — it’ll get him more Instagram followers, he said. Or come chase him and cause an accident — it’ll win him a hefty lawsuit and then he’ll go relax on a beach in Puerto Rico, he added, prompting laughter.
Community leaders in the mostly black neighborhoods where dirt bikes are popular say the fact that the bikes and ATVs are primarily an “east of the river” problem likely explains why District authorities have been slow to find a solution.
“I don’t know how best to say this, but there’s a race issue here,” said Gary Butler, a Ward 7 community leader. Then, echoing a comment he heard recently from a police officer, Butler posited how things might change if the dirt bikes started to roam past the White House.
“If one of them tourists gets killed?” he asked hypothetically. “Oh, it’ll be shut down real quick.”
So what is the solution?
Give them a park, council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) said, though she was unable to suggest a location. Improve community policing, Grosso offered. Make them apply for licenses, said Malloy, a Ward 7 community leader. Or maybe it’s time to revisit the no-chase policy, said Thomas, the 92-year-old community leader.
Smack would love to see the District legalize his pastime or perhaps turn RFK Stadium over to dirt bikes once a week for a “Sunday Fun Day.”
But would a form of legality keep riders off the roads?
“To be honest?” said Smack, leaning against the hood of a car. “No.”
His friends laughed. The night had gone quiet around the riders. A row of nearby houses stood silently with darkened windows, their residents presumably now asleep — or wanting to be.
Revealing a tattoo reading “bike life” looped across his arm, Smack said the sport is a passion and a lifestyle. “We’re not going to stop riding the streets.”