Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Filmmaker Jeremy Meek showcases the human side of D.C.’s controversial dirt-bike scene.
Urban street biking—that is, the kind done on dirt bikes and ATVs, but on city streets—is as visually spectacular as it is controversial. The wheelie-popping stunt-riding culture can make for great cinema (see the memorable scene from Creed), but it’s also illegal to operate these (usually unregistered) machines on the street. The practice is widely considered a threat to public safety in many cities, so menacing that Baltimore city police wants to use secret, possibly unlawful surveillance methods to arrest unlicensed bikers. The War on Street Bikers currently playing out in cities like New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. adds yet another pretext for criminalizing urban black youth.
The photographer Jeremy Meek spent a year-and-a-half chronicling the lives of a community of black dirt bikers in D.C. for his short film “WheelzUp.” Meek was concerned that D.C. dirt bikers are too often regarded as “thugs” or gang members, reinforcing negative racial stereotypes about African Americans. His black-and-chrome five-minute film focuses at the human toll of the police-on-biker wars, revealing the perspective of bikers who want people to know that they aren’t criminals.
“WheelzUp” is narrated by an unnamed high school student who works two jobs to maintain his biker hobby. He is never identified in the film, possibly to help him evade any YouTube-cruising law enforcement. There are many scenes of D.C. police pursuing the riders as they wheelie and sckurtt along city streets. Former D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier appears in one scene, captured from a newscast stating that dirt bikers will be “aggressively prosecuted” and their bikes “seized and destroyed.”
Dirt bikers apparently aren’t targeted everywhere in the city, though. The narrator describes how there’s an unofficial Hamsterdam-ing off of the dirt bike culture. Police don’t sweat them in the southeastern DC neighborhoods where the black population is densest. But as soon as riders venture into other parts of the city—especially “wherever there’s a bunch of rich, white people”—they’re targeted for police enforcement. Those areas may have infrastructure to encourage one kind of bike riding, but not the kind embraced by these black youth. “It’s like you not even supposed to be there in the first place,” says the narrator.
And yet their street performances are true objects of wonder, which is undeniable both in films and when seen in real life. They ride in tight formations, but individually break out into un-synchronized stunts, gliding and weaving through moving and parked traffic. The result is a kind of vehicular graffiti, a Bike-Life that mystifies the polite city bike-path lobby.
Not all urbanists or bicycle advocates are necessarily hostile to the culture—Baltimore city council members have proposed building dirt bike parks in the city, to give riders a legal venue for their machines, but have yet to approve one. There’s otherwise no agreed-upon set of rules to govern street biking, and so, like most black youth culture, it looks and feels threatening to those outside of it. Which means that, like most black youth culture, it is criminalized.
But there’s not a lot of security or safety for many city black youth, who regularly face danger just by walking down the street. In “WheelzUp,” the narrator explains that street biking “puts me in a little bit of trouble, but it keeps me out of bigger trouble.” He talks about how his income is reinvested into his bike, instead of into other temptations like guns or drugs. The price-point for dirt bikes and ATVs are typically within reach, ranging from as little as $300 to $600 a bike. In places where few own cars, it grants black youth the freedom and mobility they might otherwise go without.
One beautiful touch that Meek adds to the film: He uses Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune” as a soundtrack, which lends a Kehinde Wiley-esque touch to the dirt bike performances. Debussy, the late 19th century French composer, also rebelled against social norms; he once said of his art: “I am sure the Institute would not approve, for, naturally it regards the path which it ordains as the only right one. But there is no help for it! I am too enamored of my freedom, too fond of my own ideas!”
Sounds like an ethos for street bikers to ride with.