Deaths Force City's Dirt Bikers to Seek Safe Place to Ride
HARLEM — Shaken by the death of Eddie Fernandez, whose dirt bike was struck in the rear by police in Hunts Points, a group of Harlem riders gathered together last year desperate to stop it from happening again.
"We've been running from the cops forever," said Al Capone, a dirt bike rider considered a legend in his Harlem neighborhood. He asked to be referred to by his nickname.
"Our common sense tells us we need a solution."
That solution, according to dirt bike riders, is a park that would allow them to pop wheelies and perform tricks without endangering themselves or the public.
"We need a park ASAP," said Benjamin "Benmore" Charles, 32, known throughout the city for his Spiderman-themed bike that was recently confiscated by the NYPD.
"We don't want to see more people dying on these bikes."
Charles and Al Capone have formed a group called Bikelife to help with the effort. It's supported by anti-violence activist Iesha Sekou of Street Corner Resources.
"The young kids riding around on these pedal bikes will soon want to become dirt bike riders," said Sekou. "The dirt bike can be used to engage kids because not everyone plays basketball or raps."
Riding dirt bikes on the street is illegal because they lack proper safety equipment such as headlights and mirrors, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Drivers are subject to arrest if caught with the bikes on the street.
But that hasn't stopped legions of riders from speeding through neighborhoods such as Harlem and Hunts Point, causing safety concerns for residents.
Many of the riders don't wear helmets. Groups, often made up of more than 40, sometimes run red lights and pop wheelies that last for the length of a city block or longer.
Residents say they regularly see dirt bikes and ATV's on the sidewalk.
NYPD commanders have said they have a no-chase policy because pursuing riders causes them to drive more recklessly and endanger the public.
Despite the illegality of the activity, Al Capone compared dirt bike riding to hip-hop because street riding has developed its own culture. Urban riders are all about the wheelie and associated tricks.
"That's why the solution has to be where to ride, not whether to ride," Al Capone said.
The bikers believe there are areas near John F. Kennedy International Airport, Randall's Island, Flatlands in Brooklyn and Port Morris in the Bronx that could be paved with concrete. They see it as no different than providing a skate park.
Charles said he sees more experienced bikers giving the younger bikers lessons on how to ride safely while teaching them to do tricks. Sekou sees a location where the young riders can be targeted for educational and job services.
And the love of dirt bike riding seems to cut through the gang problems facing Harlem. Al Capone said he regularly rides with people from rival crews and has never had an issue.
Peter Ronai, an attorney for Adalberto Gonzalez, the passenger on the bike Fernandez was riding Aug. 11, said city officials need to develop a solution to the dirt bike issue because too many people are being hurt. Gonzalez is suing the city and Fernandez's mother has also filed a wrongful death suit.
"There's an old saying, 'If you can't beat them join them,' " said Ronai.
"Giving these children a place to ride may be the way to go."
Ronai said police are becoming frustrated with trying to keep the dirt bike riders off the street and that run-ins such as the one his client had with police have increased.
Charles has filed a complaint against police who he said beat and kicked him last year after pulling him off his dirt bike. He says the cops then took the bike for a ride.
Charles is also currently facing charges from the incident where police say he was riding recklessly and made threats against them.
In March, a 77-year-old man was hit by a dirt bike on Boston Road in the Bronx after a police cruiser allegedly hit the back of the vehicle, which was in a pack of 30 or 40 dirt bikes and ATVs.
"There is a pattern here. Police are frustrated because they don't know how to stop them," Ronai said.
Harlem residents concerned about the riding are skeptical about the bike park proposal.
Cator Sparks, a member of the 122nd Street Block Association, said he's not sure the city should fund the plan because of the behavior of the dirt bike riders he has witnessed.
"The way they treat the public is disrespectful," said Sparks, who said he has been cursed at and threatened by dirt bike riders when he challenged them about bringing bikes on sidewalks.
"It's mind-boggling and one reason I don't want to live in Harlem full-time anymore," Sparks said.
Sparks is also doubtful that dirt bike riders would stay off the streets, even with the addition of a park.
"They are riding on the street to show off," he said.
Al Capone, Charles and Sekou disagree.
"There are a lot more people interested in feeding their soul with what the bike does than running from the cops," Al Capone said.
Charles said many riders he has spoken to are in favor of a park.
"The old thrill of being chased by the cops is over," Charles said. "There are too many dead people."