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Story By John Murray

Across America groups of ATV riders have created an urban subculture that has unleashed chaos on city streets including Baltimore, Waterbury, New York, Philadelphia, New Haven, Hartford and Washington D.C.. ATV and dirt bike riders roam in packs, flipping off police officers, swerving in and out of traffic, pulling wheelies, and cruising through parks and onto sidewalks. Much of the public perceives the groups as a menace to public safety, but police officers in most states have a no-chase policy to avoid placing residents, and riders, in danger.

“It is a difficult situation,” Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo said. “We are only allowed by state law to pursue in crimes of violence. The law is pretty restricting.”

And the bikers know that, which emboldens them to taunt police officers and cruise around in lawless packs.

An urban subculture that began 50 years ago in Harlem. Image from WheelzUp

Waterbury PD has followed groups waiting for them to pull into gas stations, have tried undercover operations, and created a dedicated tip-line for the public to call in tips where the ATVs and bikes are being housed.

“We have had some success in confiscating ATVs,” Spagnolo said, “but if the ATV is legally registered, it goes back to the owner, and is quickly back out on the streets. It’s a revolving door.”

Elected officials and police departments up and down the East Coast are grappling with the problem and seeking solutions. Baltimore is considering building a park to try and lure riders off public streets, Hartford and New York City have staged public events where dozens of confiscated bikes and ATVs are crushed by massive construction equipment, and New Haven is now fining riders $1000 (if they can catch them).

“Creating a park has some merit,” Chief Spagnolo said, “and it should be considered. But the sport is very dangerous and there is a lot of liability to consider. The park could become deadly.”

Which is probably why a proposed park in Baltimore has yet to materialize. There is also the sticky problem of transportation; how do the ATVs and bikes get to the park? Most likely by riding illegally on city streets (which defeats the purpose of the park).

A reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer asked an ATV rider why he rode. “Why do guys do anything that guys do?,” the rider said. “Young and reckless. Why do we go to war, why do we fly planes and race jet skis? … You know a man never wrestled an alligator without an audience.”

The riders are mostly Black and Brown young men who have created an urban bike subculture that is wildly popular with their peers. Filmmaker Jeremy Meek made a short documentary about dirt bikers in Washington D.C. called, “WheelzUp”. Meek interviewed the riders, mostly young Black kids in D.C., and they said they weren’t trying to hurt anyone, they were just out expressing themselves, creating vehicular graffiti, and looking cool for Instagram photographs. (WheelzUp https://youtu.be/uNosflZtOTs)

One young rider told Meeks that his parents supported his riding because it was much safer than most other options for inner city black youth, and kept him away from gangs and drugs. He said street riding gets him “in a little bit of trouble, but it keeps me out of bigger trouble.”

Chief Spagnolo said despite the eruption of gang violence in Waterbury the past three years, the ATV and dirt bike riders were seldom part of that scene. “Gangs are not normally what we see with these groups,” Spagnolo said. “It’s more people taking advantage of the situation.”

Rebels on city streets creating what they call, vehicular graffiti. Image from WheelzUp.

It’s an unsustainable policy to let the packs roam free with little to no consequence, but what is the answer? Waterbury police have confiscated dozens of ATVs, and the City of New Haven just held a public event where dozens of ATVs were crushed. Anyone operating an ATV or dirt bike on New Haven streets – without permission – faces $1,000 – $2,000 fines. (The previous fine was $99.)

During a press conference about the illegal riders on city streets, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker was asked why New Haven doesn’t give these operators of illegal vehicles a safe, legal, off-road place to ride? There were several factors cited, including the issue of how do the riders get to the park? And most significantly, it appears the riders aren’t interested in a legal place to ride. Part of the thrill of riding illegal bikes through city streets was breaking the law, and having little chance of getting caught.

New Haven has also targeted gas station owners who aren’t allowed to let quads and bike riders fill up. Station owners face $100 fines (after an initial warning) for violations. Gas stations are required to post signs about the new law, and so are ATV dealers.

Although it’s difficult to clearly pinpoint where the riding began, indications are that it began in Harlem in the 1970s as part of African-American parades. And as the years went by, the riding became the equivalent to skateboarding in white culture.

In an article entitled It’s Bigger Than Bikes – The Culture Crush, it states that when “white kids would go to the mall and jump on things. They were the rebels.”

Similarly, in Black culture, riding on the streets became a form of rebellion. There are no woods and trails, so they rode on city streets.

Across the country, dirt bike and ATV aficionados, who are mostly teens, portray their riding as a robust subculture, saying that it saves lives by keeping at-risk youth out of trouble.

Bikes and ATVs are relatively inexpensive, you don’t need a motorcycle license to buy one, and the vehicles don’t need to be registered or insured. They are not street legal, but that’s not the point. The point is to acquire a really fun toy, zip around and evade the police when they try to snuff the fun.

Pulling tricks in Washington D.C. for Instagram. Image from WheelzUp

“This is a frustrating situation for us, and it’s a frustrating situation for the public,” Spagnolo said. “And it might be even more frustrating to us, because it’s our job to keep the public safe.”

Does Spagnolo see a solution?

“Accountability,” Spagnolo said. “The courts have to take violations seriously and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”

Spagnolo said he believes in second chances, but the system is now allowing individuals to break the law repeatedly with a limited amount of accountability.

“When we continue to allow that to happen,” Spagnolo said, “we begin to develop the culture we see unfolding before our eyes.” •

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