Dirt Bikers Terrorizing Harlem Say They Have Nowhere Else to Ride
HARLEM — When he's whipping down Frederick Douglass Boulevard while popping a wheelie on his Spider-Man-themed dirt bike, Benmore knows many people consider him a nuisance.
Residents, who fear accidents and say the noise from sometimes altered mufflers is unbearable, have complained to police about the problem for years.
But Benmore, 31, who asked to be called by his street name out of fear of the police, said it was dirt-bike riding that kept him from slipping into the grip of gangs and drugs as a teen.
"I was once one of those kids back before I got on the bike," he said. "We were into all kind of crime because we had nothing else to do."
Now, he said, he works construction while trying to finish his bachelor's degree at City College. He still rides and tries to use it to keep other people out of trouble.
"The gang members, the shooters and all these people they are trying to stop from shooting each other, these kids love the bikes," said Benmore.
"I'm talking about hardcore gang members, lead gang members. I'm talking about real hardcore brothers looking for a way out."
Whenever the weather gets warm, dozens of young people can be seen zooming around Harlem on illegal dirt bikes and ATV four wheelers. They speed, pop wheelies, zig in and out of traffic, ignore traffic laws — including red lights — and even drive on the sidewalk.
And every year area residents complain about the danger to police and elected officials.
They are worried that the riders will veer out of control and hit pedestrians or cause a motor vehicle accident as happened on April 14 when, according to a witness, a police car, with lights blaring, gave chase to two dirt bikers or ATV riders.
The police car smashed into another vehicle and that car hit a parked car.
In March, a dirt bike hit two girls at 115th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The girls were taken to the hospital but not seriously harmed. One of the dirt-bike riders was arrested.
And on April 4 at Columbus Avenue and 96th Street police issued an alert for a dirt bike that hit a police vehicle.
"Everyone is really concerned about safety," said Cator Sparks, president of the 122nd Street Block Association.
"Kids have been on the street playing ball and these guys fly by. It's a horrible situation. Are two children getting hurt what it is going to take to put a plan in motion?"
Despite numerous complaints to police, 311 and local politicians, residents complain that nothing changes.
Stacy Parker Le Melle has a routine all planned out anytime she's pushing her son down the street in his carriage and hears the sounds of dirt bikes in the distance.
"If I'm close to the street I pull back and figure out where they are coming from," she said.
"I'll freeze there until the bikes pass."
That's because Le Melle has seen the mostly young riders driving the wrong way down the street, popping wheelies for several blocks, weaving in and out of traffic and riding up onto the sidewalk.
"The sound always make me feel anxious and frustrated. If worse comes to worse, I'm ready to throw myself in front of a stroller," she said.
According to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, dirt bikes are certified for off-road use and are not legal for street use because they do not have the proper equipment such as headlights, brake lights or turn signals.
New York State's DMV web site warns riders they are "subject to arrest" if found on the street with a dirt bike.
Regardless, dozens of videos of the dirt bike riders speeding around Harlem are posted on YouTube. They are seen doing multi-block long wheelies and dodging police, some of which try to block the bikes from passing.
"The bikes are everywhere. They aren't going away," said Jasline, a clerk at Cycle Therapy, a bike shop in East Harlem.
She said dirt bikes are comprising more and more of the store's customers.
It's an issue the police are aware of.
"Every time the weather warms up in every precinct you see them riding," Capt. Ruel Stephenson told a member of the public when asked about them at a recent community event.
Capt. Kevin Williams of the 28th Precinct has told residents in community meetings that police don't chase the riders because they flee in a reckless manner, driving on sidewalks and further endangering the public.
Williams tells those gathered at community events that the department is working to find out where the bikes are stored because they are not street legal. He encouraged residents to let police know where the bikes are parked.
But residents said police are not moving swiftly enough. Many said they call police when they see groups of bikes sitting on the street.
"I call the police and they don't do anything," said Sparks. "It's like a free-for-all. We now see bikes coming over the bridge from the Bronx."
"Everyday you hold your breath because you are waiting for the day when you hear someone died. How many people are going to have to die before the NYPD does something proactive?" asked Le Melle.
Benmore, while acknowledging the bikes are illegal and that many riders don't wear helmets, said the police and residents who complain are stereotyping the riders.
"What activities do they have in place helping the young black male?" he asked.
"They want to point the finger because we are the easy target. We have no voice. No one speaks for us. Half of them say they can't even talk to us because they are afraid of being shot."
Although police espouse a policy of not chasing the riders, Benmore and a fellow dirt bike rider who gave his name as Ace, said they have been pursued by police numerous times.
Ace, 26, said some of the dangerous behavior of dirt-bike riders comes from police efforts to capture them.
"We tell younger kids to stay off the sidewalk," he said. "We have seen people die on these bikes. We know the risk involved. One mistake and that's your life."
"They are using the dirt bikes as a scapegoat," said Benmore. "We don't run red lights unless the police are chasing us down. We get on the sidewalk for safety."
Benmore has posed dozens of videos of himself riding dirt bikes around Harlem. One video shows a police officer blocking an intersection.
Benmore asks the officers to let him continue to ride. They don't move and he goes around the back of the NYPD patrol car. On other videos, he is doing wheelies for several blocks.
Benmore said a police officer recently swung a baton at his head as he was fleeing on Third Avenue in Harlem.
"I had a cop tell me I'd love to see you hit the wall," he said. "All we are going to do is pick up the pieces. Is that not disturbing? You think we are going to stop now when we see them? You bet your bottom dollar we're not."
The cat-and-mouse game with cops and the frustration of the public could be avoided if there were a place for dirt bike riders to ride, said Ace and Benmore.
Bikers created a makeshift riding area on Ward's Island before police ran them off a few years ago.
Occasionally, the older bikers will get trucks and pack the bikes up for a trip to a spot on Long Island where the dirt-bike riders can ride undisturbed. But that trip is costly. Most of the tracks and trails for dirt bike riding are in upstate New York.
"You have skating parks and basketball parks," said Benmore.
"They even have lacrosse and half the brothers in the neighborhood don't play lacrosse. They have dog parks. As far as it coming to the street, they are pushing the rider to the street."
"There's a lot worse things we could be doing than riding bikes. Give us a track and we'll go to the track."
Le Melle said she supports the idea of finding a place for the dirt-bike riders to ride legally but rejects the argument that residents should have to accept illegal riding "that endangers everyone on the street — including the riders — just to keep them from doing other self-destructive acts" as false.
The main concern of residents like her is safety — and not just their own.
"When I see the bikers I get even more upset because I'm concerned for not only my child's safety but their safety," she said. "I want them to live to see 21."