Image by the author.

Twice this past weekend, a phalanx of young men on dirt bikes and ATVs rode through 16th and W Streets SE in Old Anacostia. This is a common occurrence in this neighborhood, and many fear it could lead to tragedy. But it seems police can’t do much about it right now.

Urban bike gangs have become more common in the region in recent years, particularly in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and parts of Prince George’s County. Riders have taken over local highways and major city thoroughfares. Last year, after they were involved with hitting and dragging a police officer as well as stopping an ambulance with a sick child in it, DC police put out a wanted list of 245 people connected with riding dirt bikes and ATVs. The most recent instance to make mainstream news: earlier this week a group of riders took over the area around MGM National Harbor.

This is what Anacostia experiences regularly

While neighbors enjoyed company, conversation, and a cookout at 16th & W Street SE on both Saturday and Sunday evenings, their fellowship was interrupted by a cavalcade of dirt bike riders and ATVs.

“Here they come!” shouted Tia “Tubman,” a well-known personality on W Street, for all elders and children to hear. “They do this once or twice a day, now.”

Here’s the scene from Saturday:

Bikes and ATVs ride through 16th and W Streets in Old Anacostia on Saturday, June 24

And here’s Sunday:

Bikes and ATVs ride through 16th and W Streets in Old Anacostia on Sunday, June 25

Meanwhile over on H Street NE a group of bikers was “barreling down H Street, weaving in and out of traffic,” according to WUSA 9.

Police officers can’t chase dirt bike riders

When the Saturday caravan rolled through, a number of police cars blared their sirens as they approached 16th Street from W Street. Within moments of the police SUV coming to a stop, the large group of young men rode through on dirt bikes and 4wheelers. For Sunday’s group, there was a fire truck from Engine Company No. 15 deployed to clear the way on W Street SE, forewarning residents of the pending invasion.

Why were police officers and fire engines involved here? It’s a process police refer to as “monitoring.”

“We are not allowed to chase,” says Regis Bryant, Commander of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7th District. “All we can do is monitor and we try to get intel and get information from the community to help identify them. We’re not allowed to pursue them. The only thing we’re allowed to do is monitor.”

Commander Bryant says the UUV (Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle) crews that wreaked havoc on communities and left burnt-out cars indiscriminately in their wake more than a decade ago cannot compare to the current struggle to contain illegal dirt bikes.

“ATVs are much more dangerous and intimidating overall than a stolen car because they ride in mass with total disregard for vehicles and pedestrians,” says Bryant. “Most people won't know a car is stolen until after it crashes or is brought to their attention through erratic behavior of the driver.”

In early 2016, following the shooting death of District journalist Charnice Milton and an assault committed in concert with illegal dirt bikes, Mayor Muriel Bowser told local radio personality Kojo Nnamdi she was looking into the creation of a designated space for dirt bikes and four-wheelers. No follow-up announcement has been made.

Most Ward 8 residents want to see this stop

There is no crime in simply owning and riding a dirt bike, but riding in the streets is illegal in DC, and riding in company with dozens of others to shut down traffic and draw attention is another matter entirely.

I posed a number of questions to the Great Ward Eight Facebook Group about this summertime phenomenon and received a variety of perspectives and insights.

“Was at a PSA 606 meeting last year and people told of seeing these guys taunting police sitting in their cruisers by doing wheelies, driving at and cursing police, and just acting a fool knowing they wouldn't chase or come after them,” wrote Christopher Jerry. “Sorry but I have NO sympathy for these motorcycle riders acting this way whatsoever.”

Some in the community feel users should encounter harsher legal consequences for using their bikes in commission of a crime, “When people are hurt or die due to criminal activity and a person is on ATV, mandate that ATV be considered a deadly weapon, and the crime is premeditated [because] of riders knowledge of law against riding in unauthorized places,” wrote Patrice “Resource Queen” Lancaster, a local activist.

However, Lancaster does want to see alternatives such as “creating zones for riders and mandating [the] zoning commission to identify space where bike parks can be built.”

Consensus around a designated space was echoed by residents and locally elected officials.

“I think it is time the city invests in a dirt bike or ATV park for all riders throughout the city. We have the land (Stadium Armory site); so why not build something that these bikers can enjoy so that they can stop riding in the manner that they do on our roads, streets, and highways?,” asked ANC 8E Commissioner Christopher Hawthorne.

“Next time they come through, they might be catching a bottle of water or some eggs,” said a man in his late 30s who wanted to remain anonymous, but who spoke with significant authority on the corner of 16th and W streets. “They better respect this community and take that shit somewhere else.”