Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A group of artists is translating neighborhood complaints about dirt-bike riders into cross-stitch as a way of weighing in on the debate.
Everybody in Baltimore knows the 12 O’Clock Boys. Police have spent years, decades maybe, chasing young black men who ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers through Baltimore’s streets. They are members of an illegal lowkey drag-racing club that dates back to the 1990s. It’s part of the city’s culture.
While the 12 O’Clock Boys crew is unique to Baltimore, the phenomenon has migrated down the road in recent years. Young men, most of them black, can now be spotted popping wheelies on the streets of Washington, D.C., the same way they do in Baltimore. It may not be the same crew of riders; probably it’s not. But D.C.’s dirt-bike riders have been met with the same vigilance from law enforcement as their counterparts in Baltimore. And possibly even more hostility from D.C. residents.
A trio of Baltimore- and D.C.-based artists are turning that neighborhood agitas into social art. Margo Elsayd, Danyell Perkins, and Gabrielle Roffe—a collective going by the name Granny Fight Club—are skewering racially coded complaints about illegal dirt-bike riders in D.C. using an old-fashioned medium: cross-stitch.
Elsayd says that she got the idea for the project after reading a story by Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian about how police allegedly shot and killed a San Francisco resident named Alex Nieto. The story discuss how newer white residents sometimes see lifelong black or Latino residents as threatening even in their own neighborhoods. To find examples of the same phenomenon in D.C., Elsayd turned to—where else?—neighborhood email lists.
“[I]t is a circle of people who get together online, who think in an outdated manner,” Elsayd says. “They live in an urban environment, yet mostly were new to the neighborhood they thought they were entitled to.”
A community-oriented artist and activist, Elsayd often draws on racial and economic faults surrounding development for her work. For a previous project, she wheeled a mobile stoop through various D.C. neighborhoods to engage people in conversation. It wasn’t hard to find relevant subject matter on an email list for Edgewood, a neighborhood in Northeast D.C. where she used to live. This was the first post she says she found:
Yes, I’m complaining again and I don’t give a [expletive]. What the [expletive] are we to do about the stupid dirtbike ATV riders in our area? I for one am sick as [expletive] hearing and seeing their stupid (expletive) riding around with such defiance and arrogance. Who else feels as strongly as i do? If you do, what can we do? MPD has this ridiculous “no chase policy” which, IMO is a crock of [EXPLETIVE]. The MPD sit at the BP station watching them showboat up and down RI Ave. I strongly request this issue be addressed at the next and every ANC meeting until its resolved.
Those complaints sound tone deaf to the members of Granny Fight Club. (Elsayd spared the expletives in an email to me.) The artists wanted to find a way to highlight what they see as the problematic nature of the forum—not just the posts themselves, but the existence of exclusionary neighborhood email lists.
“I think it was Gaby who said, ‘Why don’t you just embroider them? The quotes sound like something my grandmother would say,’” Elsayd says.
If there is a difference between the way that Baltimore and District residents respond to illegal dirt-biker squads, it might reflect the underlying differences between the cities in terms of racial and wealth disparity. But it may also have something to do with the fact that Baltimore has lived with the 12 O’Clock Boys for years, while dirt bikes are a new thing in D.C.
Policing the 12 O’Clock Boys has proved controversial in both cities. While stunt-racing is dangerous for the riders as well as for other drivers and pedestrians, officers engaging boys and young men in vehicular chases is arguably far more dangerous for everyone involved. A 2013 documentary, 12 O’Clock Boys, looks at the death of a young rider that other riders say was the fault of a Baltimore Police Department officer who allegedly chased him. (In the movie, the former officer says that he merely observed the crash.) Whatever the case, the city now adheres to a “no-chase” policy, relying instead on high-tech surveillance equipment to try to catch the 12 O’Clock Boys before or after the act, but not during.
The Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. has adopted the same official policy, which might be baffling to D.C. residents who see dirt-bike riders as a nuisance at best and a dangerous element at worst. There isn’t the same extensive history in D.C. of crashes, injuries, and deaths from illegal dirt-bike riding, although a 20-year-old man was killed in a crash with an unmarked D.C. police car in 2009. And dirt bikes just aren’t a part of the official (or semi-official) culture of the District, the same way they are for Baltimore.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Roffe located (and cross-stitched) an email in Baltimore supporting the 12 O’Clock Boys—or at least arguing that they aren’t the dangerous criminal element that some residents make them out to be. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but sympathy may not come as readily in the District, where neighborhoods have transformed demographically very quickly.
The Granny Fight Club’s cross-stitch exhortations are on view at Open Studio D.C. as part of a show put on by Nomu Nomu. The timing is right for it: Just last week, the Metropolitan Police Department announced that officers would be cracking down on ATV riders in the District.
“All the responses on the thread were in agreement with and shared the same tone as the man who wrote it,” says Elsayd, referring to the original Edgewood email list posting. “The solutions were one-sided—‘Flood the precinct with calls every time they are spotted’—and centered around calling the powers that be, i.e. the mayor, local Fox News station, and urging for higher fines and arrests.”