by Jack Muse
For Pug and the members of the 12 O’Clock Boyz, a group of Baltimore dirt bike riders that he aspires to join, the wheelie is a means to an end. “They call them the 12 O’Clock Boyz,” Pug relates in this year’s documentary, 12 O’Clock Boys, “because you drop a bike straight back like the hands on a clock. If you get to twelve o’clock, you the shit. You know you’re in the pack. That’s when you can really shine.” The pursuit of that wheelie is an affirmation of self in a city that views Pug, in the words of a local radio host, as one of “these little scumbags on these dirt bikes in our downtown.” It is a temporary assertion of power amidst social and economic isolation. The host concludes his tirade by noting his indifference to the death of the aforementioned “scumbags.” He would rather them die than allow them in the pack.
For that radio host, giving voice, however impoliticly, to fellow outraged Baltimoreans, the wheelie is not a way to temporarily assert power – the wheelie, in its defiance is a threat. One former Baltimore police officer expresses this sentiment when he states that “the act of them riding around and doing wheelies is a violent act in itself.” Former Officer Albert Lemon proceeds to blame this violent act for fifteen to twenty deaths every summer.
Surveying the archives of the Baltimore Sun, which has relentlessly covered the city’s decade-long effort to eradicate dirt bike riders from the city’s streets, Officer Lemon’s claim appears to be utterly baseless. He is, however, familiar with at least one death involving a dirt bike rider, that of twenty-year old Marvin Watts.
Officer Lemon, a middle-aged black man with a soothing demeanor, relates the view from inside the police car. Superman, one of the founders of the 12 O’Clock Boyz, relates the view from a trailing dirt bike. Their accounts of the events leading up to the moment when Marvin Watts slammed into a parked car with Officer Lemon on his tail are not particularly divergent. They are in total agreement that the death was the result of police interaction with an inexperienced dirt bike rider. Where their stories become irreconcilable is in Officer Lemon’s serene faith in attributing his actions to just another day on the job. Superman sees a life pointlessly snuffed out just as a former drug-dealer was regaining control through the escape that riding a dirt bike provided. Officer Lemon see himself as a guardian of the law. The law prohibits dirt bikes. If this illegal activity provides, according to an older, retired rider, “one of the first things you see that’s positive [growing up in Baltimore],” so be it. The law must be enforced.
What is the point? Filmmaker Lofty Nathan does not shy away from pointing out that there is no shortage of valid reasons to have a prohibition on dirt bike riding in Baltimore or any other city. In addition to the hazards posed to other occupants of the road, there are complaints from members of the same stricken communities that produce the riders, complaints about the noise and the risk to the helmetless riders themselves. But is it necessary to deploy thermal imaging technology from helicopters clamoring above the city, like it was a warzone below? Are the task forces and warrantless seizures, not to mention the occasional beating captured by Nathan’s camera, doing all that much to promote the welfare of Baltimore’s citizenry?
If the wheelie is a foe to be vanquished rather than a phenomenon to be understood, then maybe the hysteria makes sense. One wonders, however, if the police and government are not simply making the problem worse; as if they have not learned the lesson of the forbidden fruit imparted to the very first authority figure. One wonders if they consider the irony of, perhaps, one or two members of the force joining other weekend warriors during last weekend’s Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally, which annually shuts down streets in and around the nation’s capital to accommodate grown men and their shiny Harleys. One wonders if they ever considered following the lead of a den-father to young riders who ferries children away from the streets to abandoned fields outside city limits, where the kids can temporarily be free to roar their bikes before returning home to the din of a police helicopter rattling overhead.
It is impossible for the police to ask these sorts of question in the posture that departments nationwide have adopted towards black teenagers. Kids are branded a menace. The normal acts of adolescent rebellion are criminalized. Entire swaths of the population are stigmatized. The police serve as an occupying force that refuses to consider the view from the backseat of the squad car. Resentment and distrust become entrenched. The police serve as curators of the message radioed from distant parts of the city: you are not part of the pack. 12 O’Clock Boys lets the viewer watch how this dynamic plays out. If you walk away feeling that police engagement with this “problem” has been a success, we must have been watching a different movie.